‘From nowhere to somewhere’ – Boston Herald

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Ejike Ugboaja, a Nigerian basketball player and former Cleveland Cavaliers draft pick, cried tears of joy when the Giants signed offensive tackle Chigbo Roy Mbaeteka on April 8.

“Just imagine: from nowhere to somewhere,” Ugboaja, 36, told the Daily News on Monday.

One year ago, Mbaeteka was one of 17 young Nigerian athletes living with Ugboaja in the city of Abuja. He was training for the inaugural May 2021 football camp of The Uprise program co-founded by Ugboaja and Giants legend Osi Umenyiora, whom Ugboaja calls “a messiah” to these boys.

Even when “Roy” and two teammates were flying to the United States in January as standouts of the NFL’s International Pathway Program, they still couldn’t believe this opportunity was real.

“Roy was telling me that up until the point his feet touched the ground in America, he still didn’t believe this was going to happen,” Umenyiora, 40, who lived in Nigeria from ages 7-to-14, told the News on the phone. “They’ve dealt with so much disappointment over the course of their lives. They’re thinking something’s gonna happen to the plane. It’s a crazy experience.”

Mbaeteka, 22, said the flight to America was surreal alongside teammates Haggai Chisom Ndubuisi, another offensive lineman, and Kehinde (Kenny) Oginni Hassan, a defensive lineman.

“It was like a dream come true,” Mbaeteka said on the phone. “It was still like I was sleeping at the time. I was not on the plane alone. I was with teammates. And I kept telling them, ‘I think this is a dream. If I start working out, it might start to seem real.’ No one had ever given me a chance to do anything this big before. I was full of joy.”

His name is pronounced CHEE-boo Roy Mm-BEH-tickuh. His NFL career is just beginning. But his journey to signing a contract with the Giants is a success story in itself, and it’s a credit to a lot of people who were determined to make a positive impact.

Starting with Roy himself.

SPEAK IT INTO EXISTENCE

Two-time Pro Bowl lineman LeCharles Bentley oversaw the Nigerians’ 10-week training regimen from January to March at his LB O-Line Performance facility in Chandler, Ariz. Roy started with the basics.

“He did not know what shotgun formation was when he first got here,” Bentley said.

But Umenyiora said at his April 7 Giants tryout, Mbaeteka blew the team away with his understanding of football’s X’s and O’s.

“The Giants took him to the board, asked him to draw up what he knew, and he knew the schemes,” Umenyiora said. “He knew who he was supposed to block, all the information.”

Bentley and lead performance coach C.J. Davis, another former NFL linemen, said Mbaeteka started separating himself early. He is “extremely intelligent,” Davis said, and his command of the English language stood out.

“Roy from Day 1 was always different,” Bentley said. “He was the most mature, and what made him more unique was the ability to communicate. It was a pride thing. He wanted to make sure education was never an impediment to success.”

Mbaeteka was born in Nigeria’s Anambra state, in the city of Onitsha, and moved with his family at a young age to Benin City, in Edo state, where he grew up in a “small house.” He has four siblings: an older sister and three younger brothers.

“My mom used to trade back-to-school items and snacks on a small scale,” he said. “And my dad used to work at a company that transports stuff. I definitely didn’t come from money.”

“In Nigeria, I came from the same background,” Ugboaja said. “We don’t know how we’re gonna eat our next meal. You see boys hucking waters just to eat.”

Mbaeteka spoke his Igbo tribal language as a child while he was learning English. In third or fourth grade, something happened to drive his hunger to learn.

“There was this family that moved in from Lagos, the bigger city, so the kids had better command of English, and when they came in, they were the cool kids. Everybody wanted to be friends with them,” Mbaeteka said. “I tried to hang out with them, and one day one of the young ones said my parents don’t like me hanging out with you because she thinks your Igbo is ruining our English. I felt really bad about it, and I told my mom and she said she’d do everything she could to make sure I got better.”

So his mother found an English teacher to give her son extra lessons, while Roy scoured foreign movies to reinforce his knowledge and learn more.

“I used to see cartoons, Disney movies like “The Lion King.” I remember watching “Titanic.” I remember I did cry, but I was also trying to learn the words,” he joked. “Every time, I’d read and learn the tenses and apply the words. And if I heard a word I didn’t know I would go to the dictionary — it was a small, Oxford dictionary we had. Little by little.”

Armed with a command of English, Mbaeteka was a basketball player up until around 2017, when he attended Ugboaja’s basketball camp for teenagers in Lagos.

That’s when everything changed.

THE DREAM

Ugboaja started running basketball camps in Nigeria in 2006. He quickly realized there were more football scholarships available in the U.S. and added a concurrent football camp in 2009.

When he met Roy, he knew.

“When I saw him I said, ‘Damn, this guy should be a football player, not a basketball player,” he said. “So I called him out and said, ‘Switch to go play football.’ He said, ‘No, I love basketball.’ I said, ‘No, you’re not gonna play basketball in this camp. You’re gonna play football. This is my camp, you’re gonna play football.’”

Eventually, Mbaeteka made the decision to leave his family and train with Ugboaja in Abuja. If he’d known he was taking his first step to leaving Nigeria for the United States, it might have been too daunting.

“It’s always difficult to leave your family,” Roy said Monday. “But at the time, I just thought I needed to try this out. I wasn’t thinking I was gonna LEAVE THEM, leave them. If anybody would have told me then you may not come back from this…”

Ugboaja met Umenyiora during his final NFL season with the Atlanta Falcons in 2014.

“Ejike has been trying to help people in Nigeria for a long time,” Umenyiora said.

The Giants legend helped officialize those efforts. He bought and acquired uniforms, arranged sponsorships for more gear, helped found NFL Africa, and then co-founded The Uprise football program with Ugboaja.

“Thank God for Osi,” said Ugboaja, who has 17 athletes living with him, plus another 45 in separate housing as they train.

Umenyiora then met Mbaeteka at The Uprise camp last May. Amazingly, Umenyiora, who was born in London to parents of Nigerian descent, is a native of the town of Ogbunike. That is right down the road from Onitsha, where Mbaeteka was born.

“Probably a 10-minute drive from my village. He might even be my cousin, I don’t know,” Umenyiora said, half joking.

Umenyiora said Roy immediately stood out to him in 1-on-1s. The players didn’t know proper techniques, but “the way he moved, his competitiveness, his fire, that’s what stood out to me.”

And no, the great Giants pass rusher did not test Mbaeteka himself.

“No, no, no,” Umenyiora laughed. “I haven’t put my hand in the dirt since 2014 maybe. I retired in 2015. That was the last time I put my hand down.”

Umenyiora did something better: he opened doors. He selected Mbaeteka, Ndubuisi and Hassan as three of the 56 players from 16 countries to compete in last October’s NFL International Combine in London.

From that group, 13 players from nine countries earned the opportunity to train in the United States and compete for spots in the International Pathway Program. All three Nigerian players made the cut.

“When Osi picked them, they were crying in the house,” Ugboaja said. “Just imagine if you have a family that could give you everything, Roy would be a first-class student. He’s smart but didn’t have people to take him to the next level. That’s why The Uprise becomes the future they can see now.”

DEVELOPMENT: A TEAM EFFORT

Damani Leech, the COO of NFL International, said the league’s placement of the Nigerian players at Bentley’s Arizona facility — rather than the previous host, Florida’s IMG Academy — was the product of development discussions with the NFL’s competition committee last year.

“The consistent theme was we want the best athletes, but we want you focusing on offensive and defensive line,” Leech said. “From a body-type standpoint, those are the hardest things to find. That’s part of what drove the interest in the three Nigerian players.”

Leech and Ken Edmonds, the NFL’s VP of Government Affairs, played pivotal roles in getting the players to the United States in January, too. Umenyiora said the Nigerian players at first were refused visas, and Leech and Edmonds straightened it out with the U.S. embassy.

“When we first got the news of Roy’s signing, I sent emails and started ticking off all the people involved, from Will Bryce guiding the program [as head of football development for NFL international] to Ken Edmonds in the D.C. office,” Leech said. “You’re still dealing with the logistics of travel and getting it in front of the right people, making sure they get it processed.”

Once they landed in Arizona, Bentley, a senior NFL advisor on player performance and development, said his lead performance coach Davis turned Mbaeteka’s lack of experience with organized football into a positive.

“He was fertile ground. Everything he learned was new,” Bentley said. “There was no time wasted in unlearning bad habits. So every day we were able to cover positive ground.”

Current NFL linemen like Alex Cappa (Bengals), Justin Herron (Patriots), Isaiah Prince (Bengals), Brian Allen (Rams), Taylor Decker (Lions) also train at Bentley’s facility. So that created a team-like culture and provided more positive influences for the neophyte Nigerians.

Bentley and Davis also took their players to a local high school one day to observe younger players being taught basic concepts to give them confidence they could learn it themselves.

Davis said all of the Nigerians “retained information” at a high rate and were diligent doing their take-home “homework” every night. He called Mbaeteka “the leader of the pack.”

Davis concentrated on teaching them concepts rather than specific plays or positions. He taught them the full field and the whys. Mbaeteka devoured the information.

“We stayed on one play for five weeks: one pass play and one run play for five weeks,” Davis said. “I knew if we could learn the concepts of this play, the rest would come naturally. We then did the rest of the playbook in three weeks.”

“I think I understood it as quick as they were putting it up,” Mbaeteka said. “I knew in the back of my mind I didn’t have the luxury of time. So anything I had to learn, I had to do it as quick as possible. They did such a great job of teaching it. They made it so simple.

“And when I got to the Giants and they started asking the same basic questions, I’m like, ‘OK, if this is it, then I’m probably ready to blow you out of the water, man!” he said with a laugh.

Bentley and Davis had a target date to have their players ready: March 14, for an international player showcase at Arizona State. That’s where Giants scout Jeremy Breit saw Mbaeteka and, unbeknownst even to Umenyiora, set the wheels in motion for Roy’s biggest break.

BECOMING A GIANT

“The speed of the whole thing was unreal,” Mbaeteka said of his signing with the Giants.

Roy was studying on a Saturday when he got a text from a number he didn’t recognize. It was Giants football operations assistant Charles Tisch.

“When I got the text from Charles Tisch that they would like to work me out, I kept looking at it like, ‘Did I meet this guy at the pro day?’ It was so out of the blue,” he said.

Bryce, the head of football development for NFL international, had given Mbaeteka’s number to Tisch. Roy called Bryce to find out if this was real. Bryce assured him he would just go through a routine workout in New Jersey, no pressure.

Mbaeteka said he worked out for the Giants alongside a couple college linemen on April 7, doing classroom work and then taking it to the field. As he stretched afterwards, O-line coach Bobby Johnson was one of many coaches to tell him: ‘Good job, Roy, I’m impressed.’”

“Everybody wanted to know what college I went to,” he laughed. “I told them I’m not from college. I’m from Nigeria.”

Mbaeteka was scheduled to fly back to Arizona that night, so he knew something was up when the Giants asked him to stay overnight to take a physical the next day.

“I’m like OK, OK, this is not a dream,” he said. “This is really happening. I was very excited. I was trying to keep my composure. Like pull it together, man.”

Roy’s first call was to Umenyiora. That’s when the Giants legend first learned that Mbaeteka was working out for his old team. The next day, when it was time to talk about the contract, he called him again.

“He was the first person I dialed up,” Mbaeteka said of Umenyiora. “And he talked with [Giants director football operations] Ed Triggs, and they talked the whole thing out. And before I knew it I was signing a contract.”

Mbaeteka signed a three-year, $2.56 million contract that guarantees $207,000 of his 2022 salary, indicating the Giants plan to carry him on their practice squad this year at least. He didn’t tell his family back home the good news until the ink was dry.

“I wanted to make sure it was a sure thing before I made the call,” he said.

The team lists him at 6-9, 320 pounds. Mbaeteka said of his height: “I am almost 6-8 without my shoes. But with my shoes I’m 6-9. I’m 6-9 on a good day!”

He’s not the only one of the Nigerians who has earned an NFL contract quickly, either. Ndubuisi is signing with the Arizona Cardinals after a recent workout, as well, sources tell The News.

The preemptive signings of these players are major developments, especially in the infancy of these NFL Africa efforts. The International Pathway Program places players on teams with a roster exemption that doesn’t take up someone else’s spot.

The Philadelphia Eagles hit the jackpot in 2018 by drafting Australian tackle Jordan Mailata in the seventh round, though, ahead of his placement on someone else’s roster.

Washington signed Chilean tight end Sammis Reyes last April. And now the Giants and Cardinals are wasting no time bringing in Mbaeteka and Ndubuisi, as well.

“There’s more momentum in that we had Jordan, then Sammis last year, now being able to repeat that with Roy is really exciting,” Leech said. “What’s also unique is going into a market where the NFL hasn’t been very active and seeing early returns from that time and energy.”

Bentley praised the Giants’ scouting department for “turning over all the rocks to see what’s out there” and the NFL for “expanding the footprint of what’s possible discovering talent around the globe.”

Ugboaja said Mbaeteka is going to blow the Giants away with how quickly he learns from them, too.

“The playbook, Roy is gonna kill that, because Roy can learn fast, he can learn quick. Just show him, he’s gonna do it,” he said.

Umenyiora said “I still have to pinch myself,” however, “to fully understand the gravity of what has transpired.”

“Ya know, Roy, Kenny, they were living in a situation where they didn’t know what tomorrow was gonna bring,” Umenyiora said. “They literally had no clue. And to go from that to you’re playing and signing a contract with the New York Giants within a couple of months? It’s crazy.”

“A lot of times in America you take the country for granted,” he added, “but these guys are coming from real struggle. And now they have this opportunity to not only better themselves but their families’ lives. The entire trajectory of their lives has changed.”

He thinks Roy can help change the Giants’ trajectory, too.

“If you give him enough time, I have no doubt he’ll be a great player,” Umenyiora said. “And there’s gonna be more of him. Be on the lookout.”

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