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UTEP’s Praise Amaewhule ready to bring international hype to NFL

What is an NFL team getting in UTEP defensive end Praise Amaewhule?

He ponders for a brief moment at the question, looking for the right word to sum up his journey from a late bloomer to the Miners’ all-time leader in sacks. 

One word could describe the attributes that could land Amaewhule on an active roster this fall.

“Competitor,” said a grinning Amaewhule. “I love to compete. It drives me. I don’t care if you’re a DB, I want to run your time. I was training with guys like [Florida State’s] Jarrian Jones. He ran a 4.38 at the combine, and I’m talking smack to him.

“Put me against the first-round tackles or the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line. I want to run with the best of them.”

It’s not a cocky demeanor but rather a confident tone that lingers with every word. Amaewhule is decisive but also direct, looking to get to the point as he gets past the line of scrimmage and into the backfield. 

Amaewhule’s path isn’t like most prospects who hope to hear their name called next week during the 2024 NFL draft. A native of Nigeria, he grew up playing fútbol as a striker, showing up to his first practice in high school wearing soccer cleats because he thought it natural. 

He didn’t receive a Division I scholarship until the final seconds leading up to National Signing Day. And despite setting records out in West Texas, he was not invited to the NFL combine, the biggest event of the offseason. 

It doesn’t faze Amaewhule, a projected late Day 3 pick among scouts. It’s all a part of the plan, one he knows will end in triumph rather than tragedy. 

“Young Praise would never imagine me being here,” said Amaewhule. “I’m just continuing to grow, having the right resources, it’s elevated my game. I’ve done a lot with so little. 

“I just have that hunger, that drive. Whatever I put my mind to, I’m going to get accomplished. 

Table Tennis Talk

College football and the NFL have gained traction in Nigeria since Amaewhule moved to the United States. As a child, it was foreign, mostly mentioned on the national news once or twice a year in conversations about national championships or Super Bowl titles. 

Amaewhule grew up on soccer, using his speed to launch calculated shots to the back of makeshift goals with whatever he could find. He had heard of rugby, though the sport was still growing as he and his family left for a life across the seas. 

But table tennis was his first love. After school, Amaewhule and his classmates would build makeshift nets and play “King of the Hill”-style. The winner would advance, while the loser headed to the back of the line.

Sometimes they used a rope and lay it across cups. Other times, they’d take their shoes to build a barrier. Nets were hard to come by, so creativity served as a backbone. 

It also created a fire in Amaewhule. He hated waiting. He despised losing, watching as the next game was being set up with each step to the back of the pecking order. 

“You wanted to be that guy who stays on, not just to say you won, but also you have more time to play,” said Amaewhule. “It drove that competitive spirit out of me.” 

Soccer was more of the same. Amaewhule always wanted to head back to the hostels as the last man standing or the reason for celebration among teammates before picking things back up a day later. 

More often than not, Amaewhule got his wish.

“Someone had to beat you,” said Amaewhule. “That’s what was so cold about it, and it made it fun. You wanted to stay on. You wanted to be the guy who dethrones the dude that’s been playing.” 

Football or Fútbol? 

Amaewhule remembers taking the field for his first football practice after several friends in the US convinced him to try out as a freshman. There he stood, strapping up his shin guards while sporting a new pair of orange CR7s and preparing to run drills. 

He had heard of American football, though only by name. It was the talk among classmates out in Katy, Texas. Amaewhule knew the sport was a lifestyle in the Southeast, but he figured it was more so like rugby. 

Then, his coach handed him a pair of shoulder pads and told him to line up at tight end.

What’s a tight end? 

Where’s the “C gap”? 

What does downhill blocking mean? 

“It was a sink-or-swim moment,” said Amaewhule. “My first practice, I was lined up next to the tackle and I didn’t give him much space. It was confusing.” 

Peer pressure didn’t serve as a catalyst for Amaewhule to stick it out, but it did keep him on the field past Day 1. His friends played, so he figured he’d come back the next day. 

And the day after that. And the week following his first game. 

A visual learner, Amaewhule credits soccer for his footwork. While the alignments differed, the muscle memory in his ankles kept him upright. Everything became mental. 

As a freshman, he started at tight end for Katy Taylor High. A year later while running drills on the scout team, Amaewhule clobbered the team’s starting running back, leading to his switch over to defensive end. 

A new position meant new assignments. Words were challenging to comprehend at first. The same goes for positioning. 

“In soccer, you’re just going to pass the ball and you’re going to shoot and score a goal,” said Amaewhule. “Here, you have to tackle the guy. There’s a lot more pieces to it. It’s a bit more complicated than it looks.” 

Ten years after his first practice, Amaewhule is still learning how to play. He’s mastered the basics. Now it’s about enhancing the craft. It’s the small details that carry the most significant weight. 

“Now, I can tell what the offense is going to do before is even able to call it,” he said. “I’m able to call out 11 personnel, 12 personnel, is the tackle over, is the tackle on the field. 

“From where I started to where I am now, I never would have imagined it.” 

Recording Records

Earning a college degree was on Amaewhule’s mind. Playing at the FBS level was an afterthought at first. But by his junior season, he viewed playing past high school as a chance to earn a free education, so it became a livelihood and a part of his daily checklist. 

Several Division II schools offered following his senior season. Stephen F. Austin, an FCS program, earned his initial commitment before UTEP’s Dana Dimmel showed up at the school just before Amaewhule was set to sign his letter of intent. 

“I had no idea what a UTEP was,” Amaewhule laughed. “He had his whole staff at the field house saying they liked my film. I was shocked but I wanted to do my research, so I went and looked it up. El Paso? 

“I had to ask some of my friends, ‘What’s El Paso?’ I heard, ‘Oh, honey, you don’t want to go there.’ “

Faith brought Dimmel to Katy. It brought Amaewhule to El Paso, where he earned a spot on the Conference USA All-Freshman Team after leading the Miners in tackles for loss and sacks. 

A year later, Amaewhule earned conference honors after posting seven sacks in a shortened COVID-19 season. Two years after that, he had become the face of the Miners following a season in which he totaled a conference-leading 12 tackles for loss.

Someone had mentioned to Amaewhule during offseason workouts in 2022 that he was pushing to break the school’s all-time sack record, but that was an afterthought. 

“It’s nice to have records, but the wins mean way more,” Amaewhule said. 

Of course, competitors view opportunities more so as challenges. 

“I always want to be the best,” he said. “I started Googling the record. What more can I do here? How do I stand out? Then, I had that goal in mind.” 

In Week 1, Amaewhule took down Jacksonville State’s Zion Webb for a loss of 5 yards on the opening drive. 

Two away. 

Three weeks later, he sacked Lousiana Tech’s Justin Turner in the second quarter. 

One more. 

A week later during the third quarter against Florida International, Amaewhule won with a dip move upfield but started to feel himself fall. The tackle pushed him from behind, right into the torso of Keyone Jenkins. 

“It felt like in the moment this had to be the sack,” Amaewhule said. “It was surreal. I got up and blew a kiss to my mom [Joy Amaewhule] 

“She’s no longer here, but in everything I do, I do for her.” 

UTEP would pick up its second win of the season, 27-14.

Home Heritage

Amaewhule considers himself a team player and cares more about celebrating as one than an individual accolade. 

He’s also a proud Nigerian and hopes to become the next international player drafted, joining names like Kwity Paye, Moro Ojomo, David Ojabo and Prince Tega Wanogho

Amaewhule hasn’t worked this hard just for “little Praise,” but also for his homeland. He wants to continue to see football grow in Nigeria and serve as an ambassador between the two continents. 

“I think big,” Amaewhule said. “If a kid like me can do it, there’s plenty more like me out in Africa who have that same mindset. They just need a chance.” 

The NFL’s International program continues to expand. The NFL Academy offers opportunities for young players to learn the game and compete for spots on college rosters. NFL Africa’s Instagram account currently has over 71,000 followers. Its X account has 47,000 followers. 

“Africans love to support,” said Amaewhule. “They love to stay together. When we stick together, we can accomplish a lot more.” 

Amaewhule wants more. Perhaps one day, NFL games will be played in Nigeria, Ghana or other African countries, where fans will finally see their favorite players take the field. 

“It’s going to happen at one point,” Amaewhule said. 

Players like Amaewhule don’t wish. They accomplish.

Amaewhule is a competitor when he straps on the helmet, but he challenges others to embrace new experiences. 

“I want to give back,” Amaewhule said. “I want to spread love and positivity. The game of football gives us that stage. Kids look up to us, and I want to give those kids back in Africa a sense of hope.”

Story originally appeared on Texans Wire