NFL hopes to at­tract top ath­letes, grow game abroad

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY ADAM ZIELONKA

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.”

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