Nigerian football: From Lagos to Tottenham

Nigeria may be where the origins of many current NFL players lie, but the country itself is still a long way from any reputable avenues into the NFL, or any league at all for that matter. 

However, there are those like former New York Giants star Osi Umenyiora and former NBA and Nigerian national team basketball star Ejike Ugboaja who are changing this through grassroots program in Nigeria. October’s NFL International Pathway Program Combine invitees Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi, Kehinde Oginni Hassan and Chigbo Roy Mbaeteka are proof of this.

Umenyiora was born in London to Nigerian parents and moved to Anambra, Nigeria, when he was seven. He spent another seven years there before migrating over to Alabama, United States, where he began his football career at Auburn High School. Ugboaja was born and raised in Lagos, the financial center and most populous part of Nigeria. This is where Ugboaja started his basketball career and made a name for himself before getting drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006 – making him the first ever African to be drafted straight into the NBA from the continent.

Up Rise Academy’s offensive linemen Haggai Chison Noubuis, left, and Mbaeteka Chigbo Roy

In the same year that Ugboaja got drafted he set up the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation (EUF), an NGO, that aims to get young Nigerians into college and professional sports. It was during a camp set up by EUF in 2014 that a 15-year-old Kehinde Oginni Hassan first came into contact with American football. The young Hassan thought he was too lanky to play but was convinced otherwise by two football coaches from the US who were in attendance. This first step was however stained by a horrific incident as three of his teammates died in a car crash on the return trip from the camp. Hassan says this is what inspired him to keep going.

Over the coming years, Hassan continued to train, attend camps and post videos online which attracted attention from US colleges asking him to come stateside, but due to the irregularity of the sport in Nigeria and the money involved in getting a visa, his application was denied on numerous occasions. But then, in March of 2021, Hassan got a call from none other than Osi Umenyiora who wanted him to attend Up Rise Academy in the capital city, Abuja – after hanging up twice thinking it was a prank call.

Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi’s introduction to football followed a similar path. In 2017, the 6’9″ Ndubuisi, and his brother, were doing the basketball camp rounds in Lagos when he was approached by some coaches from the US asking him to attend an all-star game. It was at this all-star game that someone told him he should try football due to his aggressive rebounding. He was put in contact with the Lagos Marines (who are unable to play in a league due to a lack of equipment and teams to play against), where he practiced until 2018.

Kehinde Oginni Hassan Photo NFL UK

He continued to play and train but began to withdraw from the sport in 2019 as he felt there was a lack of opportunity in the country. But then, in March of 2021, he decided to give it another shot and attend the 72-man Up Rise Academy camp that was being held in Abuja. So, he hitched a ride from Lagos to Abuja (yes, hitch-hiked over 700 km) and it was here where he met Kehinde Oginni Hassan and Chigbo Roy Mbaeteka. Ndubuisi, Hassan and Mbaeteka were the three chosen by Up Rise and Umenyiora to attend the NFL International Pathway Program Combine in Tottenham and after a grueling six months of training – and a two week quarantine in the Marriott Hotel in London – they got on a plane to London to make this not only their first time out of the country but the first Nigerian-born athletes to represent the green and white in the NFL IPP program.

Although the stories of the Ndubuisi, Hassan and Mbaeteka are all remarkable, they are by no means an indication that ‘if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything’, they are instead remarkable stories that combine hard work, commitment and, most importantly, opportunity. Opportunity is rarely given to those Nigerians wishing to pursue aspirations of American football in the United States, but there are those like Up Rise Academy and EUF who are starting to realize the overwhelming amount of potential in the West African nation of Nigeria.

Hopefully, it won’t be long before the rest of the world does too.

 

Daniel Mackenzie is a Press Association graduate who has worked in B2B journalism and comms in the third sector; with experience in both education and human rights. He has played football for the London Warriors for the last 15 years as well as the