NFL hopes to attract top athletes, grow game abroad
Baltimore Ravens fullback Chris Ezeala picked up the sport of football as a teenager and now plays for the team he rooted for growing up, fulfilling the dream of many American kids.
The difference is, Ezeala isn’t American. He’s from Germany.
The NFL has wrapped up its four-game London series, but it isn’t the only way the league is trying to expand the game overseas. Now in its third year, the International Pathway Program continues to bring athletes such as Ezeala from around the world to the U.S. to give them a shot at NFL glory.
“There’s no sport, in my opinion, that is like football, especially with the brotherhood,” said Ezeala, a member of the Ravens practice squad. “When I really saw how the game of football is and how the people treat each other, I was like, ‘Dang, that’s the game. I want to do that.’”
The program hit a milestone this year when Jakob Johnson became the first player to enter the league through the Pathway and play in a regular season game. The New England Patriots fullback debuted in Week 3, and he caught a pass for 5 yards in Week 5 against the Redskins before hurting his shoulder in the next game.
“I’ll be honest. I was already on the practice squad, so my mentality was already, ‘I’ve got to get ready like I’m going to be in the game,’” Johnson said after playing the Redskins. “So from that standpoint, it didn’t really change much. Ever since then, there’s really no days off in the NFL, so you just study.”
The league invites a group of about seven participants to work out for three months at the IMG Academy in Florida before assigning the best four to teams.
“They made sure our schedule was filled every day,” Johnson said. “From the time you woke up until you went to sleep, you had to go somewhere, you had something to do, you had to study, you had to meet with coaches or whatnot. But everything they do, they do to simulate what it’s going to be like when you’re actually with a team.”
To decide where Pathway players go, the league selects one division at random: the NFC South in 2017, the AFC North in 2018 and the AFC East this year. Each team in that division is allocated one international player, and for two seasons teams are allowed to stash them as extra members of their practice squads. The Patriots declined to use that exemption for Johnson so they could activate him from the practice squad when the time was right.
Damani Leech started working on the program before he was promoted to chief operating officer of the league’s international division this year. He said the NFL-centric model, in which the league identifies talented players, trains them and allocates them to teams, has worked to the league’s liking so far.
“We went into this strategically saying, what we don’t want to do is have all 32 clubs hiring scouts and sending them out around the world looking for players,” Mr. Leech said. “We wanted to do this as resource-efficiently as possible, so we’ve been doing this through this central model. And that has worked pretty well for us. We have to spend money, but we don’t spend a tremendous amount of money on it.”
The program has attracted participants from a variety of backgrounds. Nigerian-born defensive end Efe Obada of the Carolina Panthers played in a British league for a few years and bounced around the NFL before he was invited to the first Pathway class. Johnson was the first to use the Pathway to break into the league, but he first came to the U.S. from Germany to play college ball at Tennessee.
Then there are those like the Eagles’ Jordan Mailata, the Jets’ Valentine Holmes and the Bills’ Christian Wade, who were rugby stars in Australia or England and picked up football for the first time in their lives.
Wade, a running back, brought attention to the international movement when he took his first carry in a preseason game and sprinted 65 yards, untouched, for a touchdown.
Rugby and soccer may be more popular globally, but Ezeala said interest in football is on the uptick in Germany.
“You know we have the time difference. Every time we play here, it’s like 8 a.m. [in Germany], but people are still up and watching the game,” Ezeala said. “It’s crazy, it’s growing.”
Many players who went through the program together have remained in touch, creating a tight-knit collection of players with a unique shared experience. Ezeala and Johnson participated in different years, but they have known each other since they tried out for the German national team.
“These guys, I trained with them, they all ended up on a team, and we’re all going through the same stuff,” Ezeala said. “So we always can remind [each other] what we’ve been through because it’s not easy all the time, especially being foreign, but we’re trying to do the best and we’re trying to make a team.”
Beyond the International Pathway Program and the regular season games each year in London and Mexico City, the league is toying with another way to grow the game by founding football “academies” for youth players, not unlike the academies where European children train in soccer and other sports.
The first NFL Academy opened in London in September. The league landed a high-profile ambassador for the academy in Harry Kane, the captain of the English national soccer team. Kane, 26, has described himself as a “huge fan” of the NFL and said that once he retires from soccer, he wants to try to make an NFL team as a placekicker.
Johnson hopes to see the NFL build upon the academy model.
“I think they should probably look into maybe expanding that into an academy in countries like Germany or Sweden that have a lot of football going on, or even Austria, because that’s really the next step,” Johnson said. “Because those academies are going to give guys that are young the chance to get quality coaching, quality training, which is sometimes hard to find in Europe. You might have amazing athletes, but they are not around the right coaches.”
In the meantime, the International Pathway Program is expected to continue, and four more athletes from other parts of the world will earn an opportunity to make their mark in America’s favorite sport.
“We aren’t going to measure success by, ‘Every single player is a starter,’” Mr. Leech said. “We just want to make sure, one, they come in, they’re good, hard workers who get along well with their clubs, and then have a chance to be successful with the right amount of development and hard work. And I think the feedback we get from clubs by and large is that that’s what’s happening.”