NFL 2023: 'Discipline' key to success as Africans eye standout campaigns

David Ojabo
David Ojabo, who was born in Nigeria, plays for the Baltimore Ravens

As American football's new NFL season begins, one of the league's rising Nigerian stars says "discipline" is the secret behind Africa's growing influence in the sport.

The new campaign started on Thursday, with the Detroit Lions shocking defending Super Bowl champions the Kansas City Chiefs 21-20.

The league's 30 other teams play on Sunday and Monday, with 125 players of African descent set to perform at the highest level.

But what sets athletes from the continent apart from their peers?

"Honestly, just discipline," David Ojabo, a Nigerian-born defensive linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, told BBC Sport Africa.

"My parents raised me to have discipline in everything I do as well as integrity, and that's big because trust and discipline are really big in professional sports."

'The sky's the limit'

Ojabo's is a special case. Born in the southern Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, he moved to Aberdeen in Scotland at seven years old before finding his way to New Jersey 10 years later.

"I didn't really know about [American] football until I came to America," the 23-year-old freely admitted.

"I moved from Nigeria to Scotland because of my dad's job, and then Scotland to New Jersey to actually play basketball and soccer. That's how I got introduced to [American] football."

David Ojabo tackles Joe Burrow
Ojabo tackles Cincinatti Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who is now the highest paid player in the NFL

That introduction - to what was then an alien sport to Ojabo - changed his life.

Standing at 6ft 4in and boasting uncanny speed and agility, he thrived at Michigan State University for three years, with many expecting him to be snapped up in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

However, a torn Achilles during a scouting day meant he dropped to the second round, where he caught the eye of the Ravens with pick 45.

Ahead of his first full season on the field, there is one game on his schedule that he cannot wait for.

"The first one that popped out was London. Playing the [Tennessee] Titans over there, being able to be back home and around my family and friends - that's something that will be memorable."

Ojabo is convinced that American football will become "global" in the future but for now, he is excited about the increased African presence in the sport.

"With the amount of faces we have here representing Africa and pushing the sport, it's going to open a lot of doors. We have a lot of great athletes coming from Africa - the sky's the limit."

NFL star Adedayo Odeleye
Adedayo Odeleye of the Houston Texans in a pre-season game against the Miami Dolphins

For Adedayo Odeleye, a defensive lineman on the practice squad of the Houston Texans, representing Africa is at the heart of his efforts to succeed.

"I was born and raised in Nigeria but my family moved to Saudi Arabia for a little bit when I was around three or four," he told BBC Sport Africa.

"But on the field, the Nigerian physical attributes - powerful, strong men - is a good quality to have."

Super Bowl inspiration

Like many, Odeleye discovered the sport by following its biggest yearly event.

"I started watching the Super Bowl around 2016. They didn't really show games on TV but they always showed the Super Bowl and it was something I always knew would be on the first Sunday in February at 1am or 2am.

"Even though I had school the next morning, it was always something I'd try to watch but I couldn't really get through the whole thing!

"The first Super Bowl I watched was the Patriots/Falcons, the comeback game (when Patriots beat Falcons in 2017 after being down 28-3). I fell asleep at half-time and then woke up and saw the result!

"When I went to university, I tried out a bunch of different sports and decided to stick with American football - it turned out to be a good decision."

It was at Loughborough University in England that Odeleye found his feet, before entering the NFL's International Player Pathway Program, an initiative aimed at increasing the number of international players in the league.

After being assigned to the Texans in 2022, he had a fruitful second pre-season, recording one sack and four tackles in three games.

He will start the year on Houston's practice squad, a reserve team consisting of players that can step into the first team if and when needed.

NFL in Africa

The NFL's efforts to expand in Africa are well-documented but continue with their focus.

As well as a talent identification camp and NFL flag football showcase in Kenya in April, there will also be a fan experience event in Cape Town in South Africa later this month.

Odeleye is hoping to be involved in such events in the future.

"Oh yeah, definitely! I have to get my clout up before I get an invite but you don't play the game just to play the game. There's a lot of things you can do outside of the pitch to introduce the sport to new players.

"In West Africa there's an immense amount of raw talent and I like the fact that the league is taking the initiative to go out and find them.

"I know I'm just a small cog in the bigger picture but I'm going to do whatever I can to keep the wheel turning. It's exciting for me to show America what's out there."