In 2015, Ayo Oyelola’s mind began to wander in a lecture through the first yr of his law degree on the University of Nottingham. He loaded up YouTube and got here across highlights of NFL running back Saquon Barkley.
Inspired by what he saw, he attended a training session for the university’s American football team that very same day. Seven years later, he stands on the cusp of becoming an expert NFL player with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“The coaches told me, ‘You appear to be an NFL player’ due to the way in which I ran,” the 23-year-old from Dagenham, east London, tells The Athletic. “So I assumed to myself, ‘Well, I would as well attempt to go to the NFL then’.
“The position I play is all about footwork, and I’ve got good footwork. Coaches often ask me, ‘How is your footwork like that after so little time?’, and truthfully, it’s all due to soccer. I’m used to using my feet and moving quickly. It comes naturally to me, so it’s helped loads. I’m in fine condition and that’s all from soccer.”
Ten years ago, football was the game Oyelola dreamed of playing for a living.
After leaving Southend United’s academy in Essex, he joined Sunday league team Dagenham United after a coach really helpful he play for them for a yr to assist him develop for a trial at Chelsea.
Oyelola visited his old-fashioned during a recent visit to London (Photo: Kyle Hemsley)
Oyelola took part in a talent ID day and was offered a spot at Chelsea’s academy when he was 13, featuring alongside such future Premier League regulars as Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Declan Rice, Eddie Nketiah and Trevoh Chalobah. Of that group, one player stood out.
“Mount was fidgeting with the yr up more often than not, so I didn’t really see him that much, but he was definitely probably the most technically gifted. Eddie Nketiah was good too (and) Tammy, but Mount was probably the very best,” says Oyelola, who was released six months later.
“They gave me their reasons. I used to be a goalscorer but I used to be just pace and power. There wasn’t much link-up play, and so they said they were searching for a more complete striker.”
Oyelola signed for Dagenham & Redbridge and was playing for the club’s under-18s as a 14-year-old. But as his GCSEs (national exams aged 16) drew closer, he needed to stop to concentrate on his studies.
Then got here a possibility at Ebbsfleet United in Kent when he was 16, prompting him to have to come to a decision whether to pursue a profession in football or go to college.
“I made a decision that university was higher for me, so I left right before the college yr began in 2015 and I began doing my A-levels (national exams aged 18). I still played for St Alban’s reserve team while I used to be in sixth form but by that time, I knew I wasn’t going to play skilled football anytime soon.
“I didn’t play university football at Nottingham because I knew I didn’t wish to be a professional, so there was no point. But the primary day I went right down to play American football for the primary time, I made a decision to present it all the things I’ve got.”
Most players who enter the NFL achieve this after playing in college, which often involves playing in stadiums with huge capacities and coverage by major sporting broadcasters within the US. On the University of Nottingham, nevertheless, Oyelola was playing in local parks in front of small crowds. In his opinion, “99.9 per cent” of individuals he played with were just there to have an excellent time, relatively than dreaming of the NFL.
How did he stay motivated in an environment where his peers didn’t share the identical level of focus?
“That’s the primary time I’ve been asked that,” he says. “It was hard. At some points, I used to be like, ‘Why am I doing this?’. I had been playing high-level sports my entire life but every match is recorded. I just had to inform myself, ‘I’m not doing it for the people here, other individuals are going to see this soon and it’s going to get me my likelihood’. So I just needed to suck it up and get on with it. However it was hard.”
Eventually, that game tape served its purpose. After featuring within the university’s all-star game, after which he was named MVP after posting 4 sacks, 12 tackles and three tackles for a loss as an edge rusher, European teams began to succeed in out to him.
Oyelola speaks to pupils at his old-fashioned in east London (Photo: Kyle Hemsley)
At Nottingham, he played a wide range of positions across the defence and was a standout prospect. A team within the German Football League desired to sign him, but COVID-19 derailed that, which proved to be a blessing in disguise.
Oyelola got a call from the NFL’s London office after they got here across his highlights. He then did a number of workouts in a park in south London to check his athletic ability. In November 2021, he was awarded a spot on the NFL’s International Pathway Program (IPP).
“If I used to be in Germany, I could’ve got hurt, I may not have been in a position to attend the workout they (NFL London’s office) wanted me to do, it could’ve slowed things down. So it worked out well ultimately. But on the time, it was tough.”
Aspiring NFL prospects do hardly get called as much as the NFL’s IPP twice. During his pro day, where he was put to the test by NFL scouts from across the league, he tore his hamstring and wasn’t allocated to an NFL team.
Oyelola decided to sign with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers within the Canadian Football League (CFL), which is widely thought to be the very best league outside of the NFL.
While playing in Canada, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup and Oyelola once more put himself on the radar of the NFL’s IPP, securing an unlikely second invitation.
“In Canada, I won a hoop and got experience of what it’s wish to be a professional for a complete yr. Each time I went into practice, I kept telling myself, ‘I’m going to the NFL’. I used to be present but I remembered why I used to be there. I’m not entitled to anything. I used to be grateful to be there, but at the back of my mind, I knew I used to be going to the NFL.”
He expected to play within the CFL for at the least three years but, following his second call-up to the NFL’s IPP after only one season in Canada, he was allocated to play with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a security. He’s now on their practice squad battling for a likelihood to make the ultimate 53-man roster.
The setbacks Oyelola experienced along the way in which have only served to raised prepare him for this moment. “I learned the way to handle rejection at a extremely young age, so it doesn’t trouble me anymore, because I understand it’s going to work out.”
(Top photo: Kyle Hemsley)