By Jelani Scott |NFL.com
Osi Umenyiora’s feats on and off the football field provided him with an opportunity to become a hero in more ways than one.For 20 years, the former New York Giants defensive end has quietly donated resources to his homeland of Nigeria, but over time, those efforts began to feel to Umenyiora like “pouring a cup of water into the ocean.” So he regrouped and soon realized he could use his influence to give his people something invaluable: “The opportunity to help themselves.”
As Umenyiora explained: “Education is the most important thing, and I think that you’ll realize that most people who come from Africa, it’s like a mindset, it’s something that is instilled in them.”
In a recent interview with NFL.com, the NFL star-turned-businessman discussed his latest humanitarian effort, known as The Uprise, a football program established in Nigeria earlier this year by Umenyiora and former Nigerian pro basketball player Ejike Ugboaja, whom Umenyiora has known for nearly a decade.
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The program was recently spotlighted in an episode of NFL Network’s NFL 360, which chronicled a group of talented prospects as they competed for a chance to train at the NFL Academy in London or for a spot in the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program.
“They want to go to school, they just want a chance to do something better with their lives, and American football is pretty much a sport that gives them that opportunity.”— Osi Umenyiora
But the work that was covered there is now behind them — and Umenyiora’s hoping the work that lies ahead will go beyond football. He said while he’s proud of the overall level of talent he’s seen thus far, the organization still has “a long way to go.”
“We had some of the guys come over to the UK combine, and the people who saw them were wowed,” Umenyiora said. “They were amazed by the level of size, strength and athleticism these guys have, and I was just telling them there’s so many more of them there who just need that opportunity, right? And the mentality and the work ethic that they all have, it’s not just, ‘Oh, I need to make it the NFL.’ They want to go to school, they just want a chance to do something better with their lives, and American football is pretty much a sport that gives them that opportunity.”
Umenyiora was born in London and made his name as a 21-year-old standout at Troy University. But from the ages of 7 to 14, he lived with his family in Nigeria. And that upbringing appears to have played a sizable role in determining both who he was as a player and who he is as a man.
So when Umenyiora speaks of a “mentality,” it’s clear he’s not talking about a team mantra or writings on a chalkboard, but a state of mind shared by those who grew up in a similar environment.
“My parents didn’t want me to play football, and that story is very common amongst a lot of African households,” he explained. “The parents aren’t really interested in sport; they’re very interested in education. So, for me, I got my degree in business administration; whether or not I made it to the NFL, I might not have been super successful but at least I would’ve been OK. Like, I would’ve been better than I was when I was over there.
“I think that the main principle of this whole program is the kids who are coming, the people who are coming, they need to understand that yes, football is great, yes, football can do incredible things for you, but the percentage of people that make it is so low that you have to be focused on your education, so we’re going to make sure that they do that.”
The three young men who had the chance to travel to the International Combine in London in October — Kehinde Oginni Hassan, Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi and Chigbo Roy Mbaeteka — were representing not just The Uprise, but the power of having an opportunity to overcome your surroundings.
What cannot be overlooked about The Uprise is its function as a potential beacon of hope in a society where those that are fortunate enough to go to college struggle mightily to find employment after graduation. Those under Umenyiora and Ugboaja’s tutelage could have additional doors opened to them by their participation in the program.
Umenyiora, a former mid-major star, hopes their efforts steer an abundance of prospects to HBCUs, a previously underserved sector of talent that the NFL has made a recent attempt to show more support toward.
“Why does Texas and Oklahoma and Alabama,” Umenyiora expressed, “why do they have to have all the five-star athletes? Why can’t Troy and FAMU [Florida A&M University] and … the HBCUs, why can’t they have five-star talent also? We can provide that. So, as long as there’s demand and we have the athleticism to provide, we’re gonna be fine.”
Could The Uprise one day cultivate a high school phenom whose signing sends Jackson State-level shockwaves across the country? It’s certainly possible, based on what the program has accomplished already.
It was abundantly evident in speaking with Umenyiora that he is as focused on getting players into classrooms as he is getting them into the end zone. When asked to look ahead, he made it clear that the future of the program will be centered around accomplishing that goal.
“If we’re able to get hundreds of players into schools in America, a bunch of players into the academy in the UK, prep schools, high schools, colleges, if we’re able to get that, that’s pretty much the only thing that I’m going to consider a success, and I believe it’s very possible, because the level of talent is there,” he said.
As for what’s up next for The Uprise in 2022, Umenyiora said there are plans to host high-level camps in Kenya, Senegal, Cameroon, Uganda and, of course, Nigeria. He said they are looking at a “bunch of companies to host these camps,” but those talks are ongoing.
From there, the top 50 prospects from those sessions will be sent to an NFL-operated camp in Ghana in June, where NFL players and coaches, and potentially a few colleges, are scheduled to be on-site. Only the top 20 will move on to one of the NFL’s programs.
Umenyiora said the main camp in Ghana is meant to be a showcase of “what we’re all about.” So far, the chances of that being a good impression are trending upward.