Nigerian Kenneth Odumegwu continues whirlwind year, joining Green Bay Packers as defensive end

Kassidy Hill
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY − For most of his life, Kenneth Odumegwu didn’t know he could even dream about the NFL. For that matter, he didn’t know the game of American football. Around a year and a half ago, he was plucked out of a basketball league and told he had a chance to play in the NFL. Then, ahead of rookie minicamp, Odumegwu was allocated to the Green Bay Packers as their first player from the league's International Player Pathway. 

The IPP, first established in 2017, provides a chance for elite international athletes to compete at the NFL level, improve skills and possibly earn a roster spot. This year, the eight teams of the NFC North and AFC West were chosen by random draw to each be allocated a player from the program.

“I wish I could show you my diary at home,” Odumegwu said Saturday, meeting with local media for the first time. “I try to remind myself every time I was here for a reason. Things don't just happen. So like I try to remind myself every time that, yes, I'll be giving what's expected.”

As Odumegwu immerses himself in the game and Green Bay, here are five things to know about the newest Packer. 

Kenneth Odumegwu's first sport was football … the other kind 

Being born in Nigeria means the first sport every kid is introduced to is fútbol (soccer), Odumegwu said. If you want to play ball, you start on the pitch. But Odumegwu is 6-foot-6 and easily towers over many around him with a large frame that could swallow most soccer athletes. So he was moved to a different sport.

“I was too tall for soccer, so I had to play basketball,” Odumegwu said. “Me playing basketball, I was doing alright. Then, I got this call from scouts. They were like, 'OK, we've seen you. We've seen your size. We've seen your physique. We want you to come try out and work out with us.' That was the Educational Basketball.” 

Educational Basketball “is an Exclusive Premier Select Player Development Program” founded by two brothers raised in Houston, but of Nigerian descent. Their program scours their homeland for potential pro talent, and develops their skills and connections into the pro world. 

“Something in my heart just felt like this is very possible, so I had to make the switch (from soccer),” Odumegwu said. 

A former NFL star saw Odumegwu’s potential 

From that program, fellow Nigerian and New York Giants legend Osi Umenyiora found Odumegwu. The latter attended his first football camp, put on my Umenyiora, in Ghana, where the former Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end saw something familiar in Odumegwu. 

“(Osi) actually assigned me to the D-line position, to D-end,” Odumegwu said. 

After Umenyiora’s camp, Odumegwu was invited to the NFL’s international player combine in London last October. He reported a 4.8 40-yard dash and a 33.5-inch vertical jump and was subsequently one of eight players invited to spend 10 weeks in Bradenton, Florida, for an intensive training camp. He was able to work out for NFL scouts at local pro days. 

For now, Odumegwu is focused on his goal of making an NFL roster, but he’s already making plans to grow the game in his home country. 

“In the future, I want to be a part of the pioneers for American football in Nigeria,” he said. “I would like to grow the game more in Nigeria, just like Osi Umenyiora has done.” 

He’s still learning a lot about the game 

Given his relative newness to the sport, Odumegwu will readily admit he has a lot to learn. 

“I'm still yet to play an organized game of football, to be honest,” Odumegwu said. "To be honest, football is a brand-new sport to me ... I've seen it on the media. Like last year, I didn't know like what was a line of scrimmage. I didn't know none of that. So, to be honest, we don't know about American football in Nigeria, so it's a very new sport to me.”

Green Bay coaches have been in communication with Odumegwu, helping him understand the playbook in whatever way he best can. They often send texts, Odumegwu said, breaking down plays at a molecular level. 

While in Florida, he was able to work on position-specific drills such as “the step through the bags, the figure 8, then the bags, the pop-up drills,” as well as learn the basics of football. Umenyiora has also become a sounding board and mentor, providing tips as well as pointing Odumegwu toward the best training videos. 

The newest Green Bay Packers participate in rookie minicamp Friday at the Don Hutson Center.

“But I mean, you learning from videos is different from someone telling you, ‘OK, this technique is not good. Yeah, this is how you have to correct this technique.’ So that's what I've been doing,” Odumegwu said. “At the IPP, we had a coach called Jared. He was trying to, 'OK, this is what you do. Like when you swipe, you go with a rip,' so yeah, the techniques start to click in.” 

It’s a nerve-racking experience, he said, but he was recruited for a reason, and in that knowledge is what he’s remaining confident. 

“I think the work will speak for itself … going into the first training (Friday practice), I was like nervous, but I was here for a reason. It's good to be nervous, but I was here for a reason.” 

There's still a lot of learning ahead, as coach Matt LaFleur pointed out Saturday, but the prospect is exciting: "He's a ball of clay," LaFleur said. "We have to mold him."

He already has some connections in Wisconsin, and is quickly making others 

Before Odumegwu knew he would be a Packer, he already had some knowledge of the team. Former quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a part in that, but Odumegwu was also familiar because of another Nigerian connection, linebacker Kingsley Enagbare. 

The second-year player is a graduate of South Carolina and was born in Georgia, but he’s of Nigerian descent. While the two haven’t met yet, Odumegwu said he already feels more comfortable in the defense because of both Enagbare and Rashan Gary. 

“I don't have a favorite NFL player,” Odumegwu said, “but right now, I'm glad to be on the same team with JJ (Enagbare), some other linebackers, RG-Rashan, so I'm like excited, and yesterday I met with Rashan. He was in the meeting room and he was telling us some stuff and I was excited. 

“Even on my social media page, the fans have been very welcoming. Somebody even gave me a nickname on Twitter. OD. They said they couldn't pronounce my last name. I was like, 'OK, that's fine!' So it's been good and the weather, yeah, I'm from Nigeria, so Nigeria is hot, but I've been to Norway, so I've experienced cold. It's very welcoming here.”

"The moment I got allocated to this team, the Green Bay Packers," Odumegwu said, "I started learning more about the team and I'm proud to be part of the team who has the most championships in the history of NFL."

What’s next for Odumegwu? 

Clubs with IPP players are allowed an additional, 17th, practice squad spot to hold their IPP player. The team is allowed to terminate that contract, though, and sign the player to a practice squad contract and then elevate them to the active roster. Being worthy of the spot is now Odumegwu’s goal. 

“I'm gonna be here July (at training camp) and I'm gonna do everything I can to make the team," he said, "make them proud that they got me in. I'll work myself out. I'll do everything asked of me. I promise to be great.” 

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