Global domination: How the NFL is seeking its next stars beyond U.S. borders

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi never even considered becoming a football player. He played soccer and basketball like the rest of his classmates … right up until he came across the NFL via YouTube.

“I never knew anything about football. I grew up playing soccer and basketball,” Ndubuisi said this week. “My first-ever video about the NFL was the greatest hits. I was amazed by it.”

He spent the next few years teaching himself the game via YouTube, drew the interest of local scouts, joined a football academy in Ghana, and won an invitation to an international combine in London. Now — after thousands of miles, several years, and so many doubts and questions — the 6-foot-6, 298-pound Ndubuisi is a member of the Washington Commanders, the latest beneficiary of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.

The NFL has spent much of the last decade making inroads across the planet, playing games and creating fan alliances with nations all over the world. The league is also actively seeking to bring the world to the NFL, too, scouting athletes all over the globe for potential players. Since 2017, the NFL’s International Player Pathway has served as the most effective route for international athletes — some of whom, like Ndubuisi, may have only heard of the NFL in recent years — to reach the league.

Since the program’s inception, 37 international players have signed contracts with NFL teams. Roughly 20 players are now under contract, and five have seen action on NFL rosters. The odds are long, but with a new international roster spot for 2024, the chances of the NFL one day welcoming its version of Shohei Ohtani or Nikola Jokic just got a little better.

Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata is a product of the NFL's International Player Pathway program. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Patrick Murtagh is a veteran of Australian Rules Football, a chaotic cousin to the NFL game. He played three years for the Gold Coast Suns. When he was released, he turned his attention to the IPP, despite the fact that the NFL has virtually no cultural footprint yet in Australia.

“I thought, why not?” Murtagh says. “One door’s closed? Let’s open another one.”

For Murtagh, who grew up trying to explain the Peyton Manning Broncos to his father, the NFL is a dream opportunity. His background in Aussie Rules Football — where the game is constantly in motion, and every catch is contested — makes him an ideal tight end candidate.

“None of this is easy, obviously,” he said of the switch between football versions. “But you're going from running, running, you know, 18 kilometers a game to running just a few and having pads on.”

Murtagh was a known commodity thanks to his AFL background. Many other potential players remain virtually anonymous because of the sheer scope of international recruiting. Within the borders of America, football recruiting follows a standard path — recruiters work their network of high school coaches and middlemen to target future stars and uncover diamonds. But when your recruiting territory is “the entire planet,” you’ve got to get a bit more creative to find talent.

Take, for instance, the case of Bayron Matos of the Dominican Republic. “I knew about him when he was playing college basketball at [the University of South Florida],” says James Cook, a former British quarterback who now leads the IPP. “And one day he walked into a gym. And the gym owner used to train NFL athletes.” The trainer contacted one of his former clients, the client reached out to Cook — “Hey, my old trainer just met this huge Dominican guy, you should probably know about it” — and now Matos is in the mix for a draft slot as an offensive lineman.

“I got an opportunity to play college basketball in the United States,” Matos says, “but a lot of people told me, ‘Do you play football? You should play football.’ But that was something I was not familiar with.” His speed, agility and footwork impressed scouts, and now he’s on his way.

“There’s a lot of rocks to turn over,” Cook says. “It’s a real blend of traditional scouting work, relationship-building. And then occasionally you get kind of a strange intro.”

Like, for instance, the time they found a future NFL prospect when they weren’t even looking. “Our team was watching film of another player,” Cook says. “We saw him standing on the sideline and thought, ‘Who the hell is this guy? Let’s try and find out who he is.’” That player turned out to be Germany’s David Bada, a defensive lineman later signed by the Commanders.

“Often times we do find athletes — Jordan Mailata in Philly is the perfect example of this — they were just playing the wrong sport in the first place,” Cook says of the Eagles offensive tackle who Thursday reportedly signed a three-year, $66 million extension with the Eagles. “Jordan wouldn’t have been a rugby star had he stayed in that sport, but he’s obviously becoming a star in this sport. He was too big for rugby, but he was born to play offensive tackle in the NFL.”

That’s the key to the IPP — identifying the players who have natural athletic abilities that would mesh well with the NFL, but without the United States’ well-established high school-to-college pathway to the league. An athlete who’s 6-foot-6, 250 pounds might not have a future in professional basketball, but a tight end slot could be in his future. Sometimes they’ll find that player through referrals from other coaches or American football associations overseas, and sometimes they’ll watch grainy cell-phone videos of NFL hopefuls pulling cars. Anything to get an edge.

A year after an injury, Patrick Murtagh is back, trying land an international practice roster spot in the NFL. (Courtesy of NFL UK)
A year after an injury, Patrick Murtagh is back, trying land an international practice roster spot in the NFL. (Courtesy of NFL UK)

Certain physical traits carry over from sport to sport. Cook points to Louis Rees-Zammit, a Welsh rugby player who recently signed with the Chiefs, as a strong example of cross-sport adjustment. “I don’t need to teach Louis how to hold the ball and make people miss,” Cook says. “I might need to teach him how to run a route. But you want to lean into those instincts, you don’t want to fight them.” Rees-Zammit could be used as a receiver, running back or punt returner, given the team’s needs (and Andy Reid’s inclination toward trickeration).

On the other hand, some aspects don’t translate quite so well. “Rugby,” Cook says, “you don’t play it as low to the ground. Whereas American football is gaining leverage, having a low center of gravity … Quite often, we’ll work with rugby players, and the challenge is getting them to play lower.”

Fundamentally, though, there’s the challenge all players face: How to act, and react, when you’re seconds away from getting pummeled on the field. “The biggest obstacle is always just the learning and understanding of the game, and the speed at which you need to process information,” Cook says. “There’s a lot of really great athletes around the world and in the U.S. already that can’t play this game because they can’t process information quickly enough.”

Players who join the IPP go through a full training camp, ending with a Pro Day — just like they’d get at a university — to exhibit their skills for NFL teams. Depending on how long ago they left high school, they’ll either be eligible to be taken in the NFL draft, or they’ll be immediate free agents. Either way, it’s a waiting game.

There’s an incentive now for teams to keep an eye on international talent. Starting in the 2024 season, teams get an extra, 17th practice squad slot exclusively reserved for international players. It’s not a mandatory requirement that teams sign a player, but the slot is only available to players from outside the United States and Canada.

The appeal to the players themselves is obvious, but the IPP also helps spread the NFL’s gospel; when a hometown hero goes to play for a foreign league, the entire home town is going to be on board with it. And that’s how seeds get planted for the NFL to grow on international soil.

“It’s such a big, growing sport,” says Travis Clayton, an English former rugby player now angling for a job on an NFL line. “To represent England in America — because obviously there [aren’t] many English people playing American football in the NFL — that plays a big part of me trying to get involved in the sport. I feel I can inspire many kids, many people to get involved in American football back home.”

While it will take multiple generations of players before NFL football has the international star power of baseball or the NBA, it’s clear that America’s Game will soon have more of an international flavor.