Meet Nigeria's NFL Combine hopefuls, most of whom gave up hoops for gridiron

As Nigerians bear the brunt of blackouts, floods and high crime rates at home, 12 young men, most of whom only recently took up football, will have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of their compatriot -- New York Giants' Roy Mbaeteka -- by impressing at the NFL International Combine in London (October 3-4).

Like most of the dozen players, Mbaeteka was a convert from basketball. He was discovered by the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation and roped into trying football by 2006 Cleveland Cavaliers draftee Ugboaja and two-time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora.

Nigeria will be the best represented country at this year's London Combine and the only African country to field players, and 11 of their 12 invited prospects are also former basketball players.

Among those, the standout names are Chijioke 'CJ' Basil Okoye and Kenneth Odumegwu, the offensive and defensive MVPs respectively at the NFL Africa Touchdown camp in Accra, Ghana three months ago.

Okoye, another product of the Ejike Ugboaja Foundation, admitted that due to the turbulence in his home country, failure is not an option for him.

"Every single day here is a tough time. You just have to survive. Nigeria is like a jungle. If you survive today, you've got to hope for tomorrow," Okoye told ESPN.

"For me, I know I have more to lose [than other players at the Combine], because I can't even think about losing at all. I've tried not to think of it. Losing is not an option right now. It's been hard since we came back from Ghana. I've been working nonstop [to improve]."

A select number of standout Combine performers will be invited to train in the US for three months upon completion, with the cream of the crop from there allocated to NFL teams.

Mbaeteka, who took part last year, is on the Giants practice squad, while Efe Obada (UK/Washington Commanders), Jakob Johnson (Germany/Las Vegas Raiders) and Jordan Mailata (Australia/Philadelphia Eagles) are examples of players who came through the NFL's International Player Pathway (IPP) program, of which the Combine is a part, and went on to earn roster spots.

Odumegwu, meanwhile, is one of seven Combine players who converted to football via Educational Basketball -- the same program which produced Basketball Africa League (BAL) rising star Emmanuel Okorafor. He shared a similar perspective to Okoye regarding the situation in Nigeria.

"There's less development in the country [than before]. Less things are in order and things are not going well. You have to be wise and strategic about your every move in the country," Odumegwu said.

His fellow Educational Basketball convert, Jason Godrick, who will also be at the Combine, added: "We have more to lose and the most to gain, so in that sense, we're going to give 100%... It doesn't matter where you're coming from. You can still excel."

Explaining how so many of their basketball prospects ended up in football, Educational basketball co-owner Iseolupo Adepitan told ESPN: "We [he and his brother, Olutobi,] had been here [in Nigeria] for about seven years. We sent a guy to the NBA Academy [Okorafor] and we have people who come from all over the world to come and train.

"Last year, we were connected with Osi Umenyiora, and we discussed the common goal that we had, which was to give guys opportunities to play sports. He said that he wanted to see how he could get guys to play American football.

"As soon as he said that, we immediately knew that it would work, because the amount of talent was just too much. We had guys in our program who were maybe 20, 21 [or] 22 who looked like football players, but there were no opportunities. We had a brief conversation with [Umenyiora] to connect the dots and here we are."

Educational Basketball thus turned into Flourish Sports Group, which can take credit for the development of David Agoha, Emmanuel Nzekwe, Johnbosco Ezeani, Desmond Osuji and Udochukwu Precious Uzuegbu, as well as fellow Combine participants Odumegwu and Godrick.

Odumegwu may have earned a prize from Umenyiora, but Adepitan warned that Nzekwe ought not to be underestimated.

"All of them are elite athletes, but I'm going to be honest -- the one that stands out the most [as a surprise] that we've been training is probably Emmanuel, because he's literally the shortest of the group," he said.

"You've got guys who are all 6-foot-five and up and then you've got this one guy who is 6 foot and can jump higher than everyone else. I remember this one time when he jumped and was able to kiss the rim [in basketball]. That's not normal."

Ejike Ugboaja Foundation product Ifeanyi Anine, meanwhile, is another basketball convert, and regularly uploads video footage of himself practicing hoops on Instagram.

His peers from the foundation, Ifeanyi Augustine Nwoye and Chibuike Chisom Omemgboji, were also invited to the combine. The list of Nigerian players at the NFL International Combine is rounded off by Amos Laoye.