New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora is one of a growing list of NFL players from Nigeria or born elsewhere to Nigerian parents. One of the best players in the NFL this decade, he grew up in London, moved to Nigeria at age seven, then to the U.S. at age 14. Umenyiora thinks the NFL should keep a closer eye on American college players with Nigerian roots. He played college football at Troy University in Alabama.
"The list is ridiculous. I could name at least 12 to 13 people who I know of personally of Nigerian descent in the NFL right now," he noted.
Defensive end Brian Orakpo of the Washington Redskins is in his rookie season. The budding NFL star was born to Nigerian parents in Houston, Texas and grew up there. He later excelled on the football field at the University of Texas.
Orakpo takes enormous pride in belonging to a Nigerian fraternity in the NFL.
"There's some type of kinship or brotherhood that you have between each other because we come from the same background, the same family, tradition and everything that goes around that," said Orakpo. "So that's how everybody reached out to each other and sort of like creates that brotherhood, that we have to stick together and just have a little fun with it while we're in the NFL."
Umenyiora and Orakpo say Nigerians are physically well-suited for the NFL, particularly on defense, where speed, agility, power and size are needed at multiple positions.
Impact players on defense include linemen Amobi Okoye of the Houston Texans, Victor Abiamiri of the Philadelphia Eagles, and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and linebacker Isaiah Ekejiuba of the Oakland Raiders.
Umenyiora says the best athletes in the world are from Nigeria, where soccer is the national sport and basketball and sprinting are very popular, but where American football hasn't caught on. Orakpo says the athletic talent of Nigerians - as he put it - is likely in the "genes."
"We have a lot of explosiveness about us, so you see us at defensive end and some other positions where you really have to use your athleticism and your explosiveness all the time to really be a great football player. We always have the same physique to get bigger and faster and stuff and really help our game to be a great player," he added.
Former Redskins coach Jim Zorn agrees.
"I think those families are bringing up strong men, and strong men play football," he noted.
In recent years, a foundation run by Nigerian-born Amobi Okoye of the Texans has organized trips to Nigeria for fellow NFL players. This year's trip, videotaped by the NFL Network, included Okoye and defensive linemen Israel Idonije, Adewale Ogunleye and Tommie Harris of the Chicago Bears. While there, players embraced the African culture, taught American football to kids who know little about the game, and distributed college scholarships and medical supplies.
Umenyiora is a partner in Okoye's foundation, and says such visits send a message of hope to Nigerians.
"A lot of Africans, in general, once they're born into poverty, or they're born into desolate situations, they don't really have an opportunity to pull themselves out of it," Umenyiora explained. "So the more people who have pulled themselves out of it, can come back and give back and try to help those people, the better off the country's going to be."
The first Nigerian star in the NFL, running back Christian Okoye, played for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1985 to 1990. He laid the groundwork for a long line of NFL talent from a country an ocean apart from where the game is played.