The International Player Pathway Programme is on the hunt for its next cohort of talented athletes for the 2021 NFL season.
Instituted in 2017, the program aims to provide elite international athletes the opportunity to compete at NFL level, improve their skills, and ultimately earn a spot on an NFL roster. In early January 11 athletes were selected to take part in this year's programme with the hope of landing one of the four international practice roster spots on NFL teams.
Among those travelling out to Florida for the programme are two athletes from the UK looking to gain one of those coveted places.
Meet the players….
Adedayo Odeleye (23) is a defensive end and standing at six-foot-five and 265-pounds he is a huge presence wherever he goes. Born in Nigeria, Adedayo moved to the UK when he was nine years old and has always been interested in sports. It was during his university years at Loughborough University where he first got a taste of American football:
"I'm still enrolled at Loughborough University. That's where I started playing American football just over about three and a half years ago. Before that, I was a very active child. I played soccer, basketball, athletics, rowing and then I also started going to the gym at about 17. That really helped me my develop in this game because my position is very physical. So in terms of level, I haven't really played at a professional level. At Loughborough University I was introduced to the sport but at a beginner's level, so it was a good introduction to the sport."
Adedayo admits it wasn't just Loughborough University that inspired him to try the sport:
"Before I start playing, I used to watch the Super Bowl most years, but I didn't really have a full understanding of the game. I watched because I knew the Super Bowl was such a big deal and it was a global event. I remember it was an issue because it was played on Sunday nights and I'd have school in the morning and obviously in UK time it would finish at like 3:00 a.m. So I'd sneak downstairs to watch it. I really picked up an interest during the 2019 Green Bay Packers' playoff run. That's when I started to watch a bit more than just the actual Super Bowl. I watched the whole postseason. I was drawn to them and Aaron Rodgers, just because obviously he's an immense talent and he just makes the game looks like fun, he makes it look so easy."
Adedayo has been working hard on his game and says the programme has improved him both physically and mentally:
"It's been great. It's been very eye opening. Obviously, we've got a lot of great coaches here, some former Super Bowl champions. Some coaches have been coaching for even longer than I've been born. For example, our defensive line coach has been in business for 40 years and he's coached multiple teams in the league. So just having that insight before you get to the league can help you prepare for what's coming. I've been trying to gain some wisdom from them, trying to pick up exactly what can help you become a better player. Like my dad always says, 'preparation is key'."
Ayo Oyelola (22) is a linebacker and a talented athlete. Before taking up American Football he had a promising career lined up in English football. At an early age Ayo was dissuaded from taking up sports as his academic studies were his families main focus and he didn't start playing English football until he was 11 years old. However due to Ayo's ambitious nature he decided to tryout for the local academy programmes where he was very successful in the sport.
At the age of 17 Ayo decided to give up that dream and once again focus on his academics and his ambition to become a lawyer, concentrating on his studies at University of Nottingham. It was here that he happened to stumble across a highlights video of New York Giants' Saquon Barkley. He decided he would have a go at American Football and joined his University team:
"I played soccer for most of my life and I was in and out of various academies. I also did track for my county and also played rugby for my county for one year. Soccer was my main sport. I didn't start American football until I got to the University of Nottingham. And the story about how I even came to have the desire to do that is quite funny. I was in my law lectures and on YouTube, the algorithm gave me Saquon Barkley's highlights. I watched and I thought that's pretty cool, I want to try and do that. That very day I went along to training and I fell in love with the sport. The rest is history."
Ayo admits he's been on a steep journey since joining the IPP programme:
"I've been through a lot of different phases on this programme. When I first came, it was a culture shock. Physically, it was a shock and it took some getting used to. I got comfortable around week three and I was able to play my best football. So now it's just kind of just pushing on and trying to develop people more. It's been a very steep learning curve but I've enjoyed it."
Although he is competing against 10 other athletes, Ayo says he has built strong relationships with the other hopefuls:
"It is competitive but it's a brotherhood at the same time. We've all heard each other's stories and we've all been through a lot to get here. We want to make our family proud. When we're on the field, it is competitive, but it's never spilled over to outside the field with any of us. We understand that the best players are going to be picked and it's nothing personal. The programme is difficult enough as it is without us getting on each other's back. It's really intensive. We're all competitors, that's why we're here but it hasn't spilled over to outside the field and I'm really appreciative of that."
Both players have now done everything they can to earn their sport, having spent 10 weeks out in Florida taking part in the programme. They'll now wait to hear who has been selected at the end of April.
Once the four players have been selected, one of the NFL's eight divisions, to be chosen at random, will receive the international players selected for the 2021 program.
They will then take part in a preseason training camp where each player will be eligible for an international player practice squad exemption with his assigned team. This provides the assigned team an additional practice squad member for the season.