Nigerian linebacker Kenneth Odumegwu grateful for his opportunity in Green Bay

By Wes Hodkiewicz, senior writer

Odumegwu is first international player to be allocated to the Packers under IPP program

However, the gravity of the moment hit the Nigerian linebacker as soon as he put on his green-and-gold jersey, the culmination of a year-long journey from his home in Anambra State in southeast Nigeria to the National Football League.

“I was like literally shaking,” said Odumegwu following Green Bay’s two-day rookie minicamp. “But I had people around. I was just trying to play it cool. But in my mind, I was like … I’m very grateful for this opportunity.”

Over the span of a year, the 6-foot-6, 259-pound linebacker went from not knowing what the line of scrimmage is to one of the prized pupils of the NFL International Pathway Program.

Established in 2017, the IPP provides elite international athletes with the opportunity to compete at the NFL through skill development and training in hope of earning a spot on a roster. This year, eight teams from the NFC North and AFC West were chosen to be allocated a player from the program.

Odumegwu (Oh-Do-MAY-Goo) grew up playing soccer but switched to basketball after a significant growth spurt. His conversion to football came through Educational Basketball, a program founded in 2015 in Lagos, Nigeria, that’s touted as Africa’s first premier select player development program.

Odumegwu is one of three Educational Basketball alums to be allocated this year to NFL rosters through the International Player Pathway, along with David Agoha (Las Vegas) and Jason Godrick (Kansas City).

“I got this call from scouts. They were like, ‘OK, we’ve seen you. We’ve seen your size. We’ve seen your physique. We want you to come try out and work out with us,'” Odumegwu recalled. “They called me. I went to the tryout and they were like, OK, we feel you can do this, so I told my dad, I told my mom about it and they were like, ‘Well, it’s up to you to do what you want to do.’ Something in my heart just felt like this is very possible.”

Given his prototypical size and athleticism, Odumegwu received an invite to former NFL player Osi Umenyiora’s NFL Africa Touchdown Camp in Accra, Ghana, where he was assigned to defensive end and captured defensive Most Valuable Player honors.

That opportunity earned Odumegwu one of 38 spots at the NFL International Combine in London last October, just days before Green Bay played the New York Giants at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Prior to being allocated to the Packers, Odumegwu spent three months training in Florida while watching as much football-related content as possible on YouTube.

Along the way, Odumegwu said he kept a diary chronicling his adventure.

“After Africa, I was shocked, like this is really happening and I’m going to London? That was my first time leaving Africa,” Odumegwu said. “I was excited, so I started to write things down because – I’m a Christian, so I write like little prayers. I remind myself that I have to work every time. I have to make sure like I give my best because to whom much is given, much is required.”

Odumegwu is the first international player to be allocated to Green Bay through the IPP. He doesn’t count towards the Packers’ 90-man offseason roster and will be eligible for an international player practice squad exemption at the end of training camp.

Under certain parameters, players can also be elevated to the active roster during the regular season. While Odumegwu worked as a defensive end in Umenyiora’s camp, he’s training with the outside linebackers in Green Bay’s 3-4 defense.

Odumegwu already has met top edge rusher Rashan Gary, who’s rehabbing from the anterior cruciate ligament he tore last November in Detroit.

“He’s a ball of clay. I mean, we’ve got to mold him,” said Head Coach Matt LaFleur. “He’s an impressive looking guy. He definitely has the size just in limited interaction with him he seems pretty intelligent, pretty eager, but there’s going to be a lot of work on front of him.”

Odumegwu knew a little about Green Bay before arriving for rookie minicamp, namely former Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and second-year linebacker Kingsley Enagbare, a player of Nigerian descent who wore the country’s flag on his helmet during the NFL’s international flag decal initiative last season.

The 22-year-old Odumegwu is thankful to the NFL for creating an avenue for international players to learn from the sport’s brightest minds. As he begins his NFL career, Odumegwu hopes to one day be considered a pioneer for American football in Nigeria.

“I’m gonna do everything I can to make them proud that they got me,” Odumegwu said. “It’s a very good initiative for them to make way for international players. Normally you have to go to college here, so it’s competitive for international players. Well, I really appreciate the platform they gave us and back home everybody’s like, ‘Oh, American football.’

“The awareness of American football in Nigeria has grown a little bit because of me and the other Nigerians in the IPP.”

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