He traveled from France to Finland to America on an NFL dream. Panthers give him a shot

Swing through any city or town or countryside in America, and you’ll find tons of kids armed with lofty pro football dreams.

That’s not necessarily the case in Nice, France.

Just ask Junior Aho.

Before he turned 15, the newly signed Carolina Panther defensive end didn’t know the rules of American football. He didn’t look into the game or its history. His rationale was understandable: He wanted to be a professional athlete and there wasn’t a professional league in France at the time of his upbringing, so that was that. But soon, at the urging of some friends and family who saw his size and athletic potential — and after looking into the American football French National Team — he gave it a shot.

“And once I tried it, I just loved it,” he said. “Once I tried it, I quit everything else and just focused on football.”

It’s paying off.

Aho is coming up on his second season in the NFL. The 25-year-old defensive lineman signed to the Carolina Panthers last week as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway (IPP) program.

The program, which started in 2017, aims to provide elite international athletes the opportunity to compete in the NFL — and incentivizes teams to do so by allowing them to add these players without taking up roster spots during the preseason. (After training camp, teams can choose to either place the IPP player on the 53-man roster or waive them, just like everyone else. If the IPP player then clears waivers, the club could add them to the practice squad without taking up one of the 16 practice player slots.)

Aho played on the practice squad for the Minnesota Vikings a season ago. But this season he’s hoping to be the next and 38th player to make an NFL roster from the program. It’s pretty steep odds — only three IPP players have recorded over 1,000 career snaps in the league — but Aho doesn’t seem fazed by such trivialities.

He approaches it all with an easy, soft-spoken charm: “It would be a dream come true, you know?”

After his fifth organized team activity on Wednesday, Aho sat down with The Charlotte Observer’s Alex Zietlow for an interview about his unconventional path to America, the NFL and the Carolina Panthers. Here’s the interview, which has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Junior Aho before he was introduced to football

Alex Zietlow: OK, so I read that you were into martial arts before football. When did you start that? And what kind of martial arts?

Junior Aho: So I grew up doing judo. Karate. I did boxing. Before I was 15, actually, some friends and some friends of family were talking about playing football, and there wasn’t much opportunity to to make it far (in France). But when I tried it, I just loved it too much. So I just started playing football.

AZ: At what age did you start martial arts? 8?

JA: No, younger than that. 5. Something like that. 6, maybe?

AZ: Why did your parents put you into that?

JA: I grew up with my mom (Valerie Bangoura) and my sister, and for my mom to keep me busy, she just put me in as many sports as she could. I was doing martial arts, breakdance, soccer — everything. I did a lot of sports. You know it’s all clubs in France. You don’t have sports at school. So every day after school, I was put in everything. She just wanted me to keep busy.

AZ: Did you always live in Nice?

JA: Yeah. I mean, I moved a lot. Once I started football, I tried to go to the best places to get into the United States. So I think at 15 was when I started. At 16, I went to another city to have something close to “high school football.” I did a year over there, and then I came back to Nice. Then I went to another city named Marcé to play better football. Then I went to Finland. I just moved a lot in order to make it to the U.S., you know?

AZ: What was it like moving from city to city?

JA: It was crazy.

AZ: Did your family move with you?

JA: No, that was the hard part about it, being young, and at a young age living by yourself and trying to figure it out. Mom tried to help me out and stuff. To a lot of people, it was crazy for my mom to support that, but it paid off.

Football and France and a late-blooming relationship

AZ: When you’re 15, is that when you first learned of football? Or were you always conscious of it?

JA: No no. So before that, family and friends of family were talking to my mom about football. But I wasn’t understanding the rules. I never looked into it. There’s no professional league in France, so I’m not going to do that. I wanted to be a professional (athlete), so I wanted to choose a sport that would allow me to do that and go as far as I can. I was probably 12, 13, I was already big, and I was still doing martial arts.

So then at 15 years old, one of my teachers talked to me about it again. And then another friend talked to me about it. So at this point it was many people talking about football. (Laughs.) So I said, “OK well there’s the French national team, so I’ll try it.” And once I tried it, I just loved it from the jump. And once I tried it, I quit everything else and just focused on football.

AZ: So that was going to be one of my questions: What is the perception of football in France? It sounds like many people were encouraging you to pursue it.

JA: Well now it’s gotten bigger. We got a professional league now (in France) even if it’s not like here. But no, my goal was to be successful, and I didn’t see a way to make it to the U.S. But then, another French guy, who’s one of my friends now (Anthony Mahoungou) made it to D1, and another one made a camp in the NFL (Anthony Dablé). So now I had motivation. At first I wanted to make French National Team, and then higher and higher and higher.

Finding a way to the United States, and an intense culture shock

AZ: So you eventually make it to America via the junior college New Mexico Military Institute. How’d you get there?

JA: After I moved a lot, I played with the French National Team at 18. I was the youngest player (on the roster). And we did the European championship, and I sent my tape all over to different JUCOs, everywhere. And then I got the chance to get a scholarship. I met an ex-NFL player, German, his name is Bjorn Werner, who saw my tape. ... I sent my tape all the way around. I think a few JUCOs were interested. I wasn’t qualified to go straight to D1; I had some schools interested, but New Mexico gave me a scholarship and I didn’t think twice, I just went. (NMMI has had its share of NFL players, including Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach.)

AZ: Had you heard of NMMI at this point?

JA: I mean, I wasn’t speaking English! (Laughs.) I wasn’t ready for no military lifestyle. None of that. I was like, “I can play football in the U.S.? Cool. I’m gonna go and figure it out later.”

AZ: That must’ve been a strange culture shock. You were probably thinking, “Wait, is this what college is?”

JA: It was crazy. I was doing push-ups all day. (Laughs.) All day! You know, we had so many rules. You got a blue book, a thick one, and I was understanding nothing. The only thing I understood was when someone says, “Drop.” That means you gotta do some push-ups. So I just did push-ups all day.

AZ: And to be clear, when you’re trying to get these JUCO coaches’ attention, you’re sending Twitter DMs? Or what are you doing?

JA: It’s going to sound crazy, but I created a Twitter [account] for football. Because I wasn’t ever big on social media and Twitter and all that. But once I was in JUCO, a lot of teammates tell me: You play good, you need to get on Twitter. In my mind, “Why would I get on Twitter?”

AZ: That’s where that all goes down, I guess.

JA: Most definitely.

From New Mexico to SMU and beyond

AZ: So you go from New Mexico to Southern Methodist University. At what point do you feel comfortable with your English and just overall comfortable in American life?

JA: I would say my first year in New Mexico was the hardest. Because I was not speaking English. I had my friend who was translating for me. I also went to many camps, and some big schools were like, “Are you sure you’re going to graduate from JUCO, you don’t even speak English.” And I was like, ‘Yeah yeah, I’m going to graduate next semester, don’t worry.’ I was talking to my friend, and he was translating. So a lot of schools were scared. I ended up having 14 offers still. ... I went to SMU. That was the best fit for me.

AZ: So afterward you get a practice squad with the Vikings. What was that first year in the NFL like?

JA: I would say, I feel like it’s a good thing that I had the chance to play college for three years, so I learned all about the “business,” even if it’s different in the NFL, you know? Different cultures. Different mindset. So with the Vikings, I learned a lot. It was a good first year in the NFL. I met great people. Great vets, who helped me get better as a player and as a person. ... I’m happy about my experience there. I’m definitely excited to be here now, too.

Defensive tackle Junior Aho, then with the Minnesota Vikings, enters the field before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium in August 2023.
Defensive tackle Junior Aho, then with the Minnesota Vikings, enters the field before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium in August 2023.

AZ: What makes you excited about Carolina?

JA: Already, from the jump, first day getting reps. Coach seeing my qualities and seeing where I can get better and get coached every day. I think it’s a blessing. With the Vikings, I was playing nose guard, so I never really got a chance to get reps with the team period and stuff like that, which I understand. I still learned a lot because I feel like I’m comfortable playing all over the line and getting better and understanding everything going on with the D-Line and defense. But here, I love the scheme, I love the room that I’m in. And I feel like I have a real chance. So I love it.

AZ: Since the program’s inception, 37 players have signed with NFL teams and 18 are currently on NFL rosters. It’s an elite group. What would it mean to you to make the final cut?

JA: It would be a dream come true, you know? I’ve been in the U.S. for now five-plus years. And I’m (familiar) with football. It’s not like I’m new to football anymore, you know? ... To me, that’s my goal. Even when I’m practice squad, I want to bring some value. I don’t want to be just there, you know? So that would mean the world to me. That’s why I’m working hard every day, studying the playbook, putting in the work.