Akbar Gbajabiamila, an analyst on "NFL Fantasy Live," played defensive end for three NFL teams from 2003 to 2007. In his "Inside Out" column, he offers a player's perspective on topical events around the league.
Last May, Kurt Warner took heat from former players when he said he had reservations about his sons playing football. More recently, Barack Obama expressed similar sentiments, which were echoed by Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed, who said, "I am not forcing football on my son."
I partly agree; I wouldn't want my son to play football until he is at least 15 years old. As a parent and former player, the pressure to produce the next talent is intense. I get it. In an age when 5-year-olds have personal trainers, I understand the sense of urgency that prompts parents to start children early, for fear they will fall behind. But the lack of physical development in a child poses a huge risk, so for me, the game can wait.
I've felt that way for some time, though I feel even stronger about it after meeting two young men at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month.
Defensive ends Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and Margus Hunt will show up at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with a combined seven years of football playing experience. They'll leave knowing they will be two of the more sought-after hybrid defensive players in the draft (Mike Mayock lists both among his top five defensive ends).
Ansah and Hunt won't be the first players to find their way to the NFL with ultra-limited exposure to America's game, but they'll be the latest, and they just might help redefine the starting age for playing youth football. At the very least, their stories should give parents pause when considering the question of when to play ball.
Ansah is a defensive end from BYU whose stock has been on the rise since a standout performance in Mobile. I was very intrigued by his story because of our similarities. Both of us have origins in West Africa (I was born in the United States to Nigerian immigrant parents; he is originally from Ghana), we both played the same defensive end position, and we both started playing football fairly late.
"When I came to this country in 2008, I had never heard of American football," Ansah, who left Ghana to attend BYU at that time, told me. But he knew "futbol." The gifted athlete (he ran track and played soccer in Ghana) was more interested in basketball. However, after two years of failing to make BYU's hoops team, he was convinced by a coach to try football.
Now, though he has just three years of experience under his belt, Ansah is a likely first-day pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Hunt's path to the NFL is just as unlikely. Born and raised in Estonia, a Baltic country in Northern Europe, he took up athletics out of boredom and gravitated toward track and field, where he competed in the shot put, hammer throw and discus. Hunt would go on to win gold in the 2006 Junior World Championships in Beijing.
The decorated young thrower was looking to improve his game, so he came to the United States in 2007 to train with SMU track coach Dave Wollman. At 6-foot-8 and 275 pounds, Hunt had a combination of size and explosive power fit for the gridiron. In 2009, at Wollman's recommendation, Hunt went out for football, becoming a three-year starter and a consensus first-team All-Conference USA player.
At the Senior Bowl practices, one could see the rawness in Hunt's and Ansah's games. But there is no denying they have ability and upside. The question now is this: How do you draft a player who hasn't yet converted all of his football and physical ability?
When scouts see such undeveloped talent, they trust that coaches can "train up" the athlete and turn him into an impact player. Ask any scout or coach and they'll say you can teach technique, but you can't teach athleticism. A player who gets a later start to the game lacks bad habits and has a beginner's mind, making him very coachable.
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Both players' journeys to the NFL remind me of my own. Growing up in Los Angeles, I had hoop dreams of playing in the NBA next to Magic Johnson. As a kid, all I ever played and watched was basketball. At Crenshaw High, I played on back-to-back state championship teams.
I didn't take up football until my senior year in high school. I showed enough promise to earn a scholarship to San Diego State, where I was a two-year starter. Eventually, I made it to the NFL with a total of five years of football experience.
Participating in other sports reduces future football players' exposure to violent collisions and provides them with transferable skill sets. One can see Ansah's track experience in his get-off, while his soccer experience is evident in the footwork and stamina that help him make relentless hustle plays. All of that world-class throwing, meanwhile, made Hunt very explosive with his hips; he's able drive through the offensive line and let his athletic talents take over.
Both players are projected as early-round picks in the 2013 NFL Draft. Given the success of these international players with limited experience, maybe it's time to begin talking about placing age restrictions on youth football.