By Will Stevenson
The NFL has featured games in London the past few years, and now the NFL has given a special “overseas exemption” to four teams for their practice squad. The NFC South has been selected (random division draw) to allow four players to join the Panthers, Bucs, Saints and Falcons practice squad for the season: The new program is called the International Player Pathway. The players include former England rugby star Alex Gray (who will join the Atlanta Falcons); recent college players Alex Jenkins (New Orleans Saints) and Eric Nzeocha (Tampa Bay Buccaneers); and defensive end Efe Obada (Carolina Panthers), who was originally signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 (per NFL sources). With NFL rosters always in flux, adding an 11th player to the practice squad does not cut into the original 10-man practice squad. All four of these players are ineligible to be added to the roster during the season. At this moment, I am assuming that means the regular season only, but I’m sure details will be released on the specifics in the coming weeks.
As for now, we hope these four players find their way through the season, provide a gateway for more to follow in their footsteps.
The four players taking part in the 2017 International Player Pathway Program are (per NFL):
ALEX GRAY, Tight End (UK), Age: 26 – Atlanta Falcons
Born and raised in Bishop Auckland, England, Gray captained England’s rugby teams at Under-16, Under-18, Under-20 and International Sevens levels and played for Newcastle Falcons and London Irish. He was named in the original extended Great Britain Sevens squad for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, before suffering an injury. He signed for Yorkshire Carnegie for the 2016-17 rugby season and recently decided to convert to American football.
“I have been working hard for this goal and to be told it was going to happen was an amazing moment,” he said. “This is the start of another journey. It is a fantastic thing that is happening, but I am not going to get to where I want to be without keeping myself grounded. Making the decision to give this my all from rugby, there was a big transition period and it was mentally very humbling. When you have to start from scratch again, that was a huge mental battle for me. When I look back I will be very proud of the way I approached this.’
ALEX JENKINS, Defensive End (UK), Age: 24 – New Orleans Saints
Born and raised in Bath, England, he began playing football at the Bath City Academy and for the Bristol Aztecs, earning a spot on the Great Britain youth team. Having been selected to participate in an all-star high school camp in Virginia, he earned a scholarship to play college football at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. He was a three-year starter as defensive end at UIW, posting 3.5 sacks in his senior year.
“This is a chance to develop and become a player in the NFL,” Jenkins said. “It has been a pretty intense time. It feels too good to be true. I always thought I would be trying to do this on my own until NFL International found me. The fact that the Saints will be playing in London this season [vs Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium on October 1] makes it even more exciting for me.”
ERIC NZEOCHA, Linebacker (Germany), Age: 24 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Nzeocha began playing football for the Franken Knights youth team in Neusitz, Germany, and was selected for the German national junior team. He played three years at the University of Wyoming, switching from tight end to linebacker before the 2015 season. His brother, Mark, is a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.
“It is overwhelming, one of the greatest moments of my life,” said Nzeocha when hearing the news of his placement. “It has been my dream since I started playing football at the age of 14. When they told me this was happening I was overwhelmed. I am looking forward to it so much. It’s unreal.”
EFE OBADA, Defensive End (UK), Age: 25 – Carolina Panthers
Raised in London after arriving from the Netherlands at age 10, Obada signed as a free agent for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 after playing only five games of amateur football with the London Warriors. He played in the preseason for the Cowboys and spent part of the 2015 season on the club’s practice squad. He has since had spells on the rosters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons.
“I am very happy and excited about the opportunity,” he said. “I feel like this is something I need to progress and further my career. I am very grateful to the guys who have worked with us and put their neck on the lines for us. It’s a chance to develop my skills and it is going to be nice to be in that NFL environment again.”