From Nigeria to the NFL in two years

Nigerian OT Roy Mbaeteka grew up playing basketball, and when he was scouted for his athletic ability by former New York Giants star Osi Umenyiora, the only thing he knew about American football was the name Tom Brady.

Mbaeteka, who lives in Benin City when he is at home in Nigeria, only started playing football as an adult after he was discovered at a basketball camp and pointed in the direction of Umenyiora , given that he is 6ft 7in tall, strong and fast.

The tackle, who was part of the Giants’ pre-season and practice squad until the end of September, told ESPN of his minimal early football knowledge: “I once saw the end of a game on TV was the Patriots.

“And I kept hearing the name Tom Brady. I didn’t know who he was or how tall he was, I just thought he was a ball throwing guy.

“I didn’t know the formations or what the players were doing, all I saw was a bunch of guys running around. Few people I knew were in the NFL, we only saw the end of the games sometimes while waiting for the basketball to start on ESPN.”

Mbaeteka, currently a free agent, got his first taste of the NFL during preseason with the Giants, against the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, and defied the expectations of his mentors.

After turning a hoop into a ballerina in less than two years, after developing Mbaeteka at one of the Uprise camps he runs in Nigeria, Umenyiora told ESPN he was shocked at how quickly the outside tackle learned the game.

Although Umenyiora admitted to ESPN that aside from learning what a quarterback like Brady really does, Mbaeteka is still a long way from the finished product: “He has a lot to work on. The technical side of American football is something very underrated thing.

“You can have all the physical skills in the world, but the moves that people have spent most of their lives training have become second nature to them.

“[But] I watched Roy play the last game against Cincinnati. He played the entire second half of the game. Quite frankly, I was amazed by what I saw. I didn’t expect to see him play the way he played. I expected him to get his ass kicked.

“It was his second organized football game. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen. That New York Giants offensive line coach Bobby Johnson must be some kind of wizard .

“I played all those years of college and high school football and when I came to the NFL, in my freshman year, I was dominated. Imagine someone who has never played the game before, and all of a sudden his first game is against all these people who have played their whole lives. For him to behave the way he has…much credit goes to him and the staff at coaches.”

Now just 22, Mbaeteka was discovered by Umenyiora after former basketball star Ejike Ugboaja suggested he swap his beloved hoops for the football pitch. He was signed in April by the Giants, Umenyiora’s former team, as a free agent.

Ugboaja, who was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006, has an established partnership with Umenyiora and is always on the lookout for basketball players who would be better suited for football.

But according to Ugboaja, Mbaeteka was a reluctant convert, as he initially did not want to give up basketball.

Ugboaja told ESPN: “Roy was one of the basketball campers. [Due to] his aggressiveness and strength, I called him aside and asked him to join my football team at the time.

“Roy didn’t like it at first, so I persuaded him to join them. I said to him: ‘You will travel if you can play football very well. That’s how he changed his mind and became who he is today.”

Umenyiora echoed Ugboaja’s praise of Mbaeteka’s physique: “When I made them (the Uprise campers) do individual drills with defensive linemen, I started looking for physical traits.

“When you put them in one-on-one competitive situations, that’s when you start to see the athleticism come out. I wanted to see that – I wanted to see how they performed in situations under pressure or in situations where they have to go [one-on-one] with someone to see if they have that physical ability, motor skills and all those things. It showed up for him for sure.”

The OT is the first to acknowledge that there is a lot of room for improvement, but is confident of appearing on another list soon: “I really think I need to refine my technique a bit more, because there has some things popping up that I know I could do better if I could just master the technique.

“I try my best not to think too much about myself, so what I do is: I try to think about what I can improve today. I look at what I did yesterday which was not good and I am trying to improve it today.

“The goal is to get so good fundamentally that I understand the game enough to get out of any situation and play in any situation. That’s my ultimate goal for now.”

He concluded: “I just know that for me it’s like a dream. It’s always been my dream to play any sport at the highest level.

“I thought it was going to be basketball, but somehow it became football, and now that I’m here, I think if I made it here, there’s nothing wrong with it. another one that should make me really nervous.”

Watch the Giants’ three-part docuseries on Mbaeteka at 3 p.m. CAT on October 9 on ESPN in Africa, and the Green Bay Packers vs. New York Giants live after that.

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