Nigerian OT Roy Mbaeteka grew up playing basketball, and when he was scouted for his athletic ability by former New York Giants star Osi Umenyiora, the only thing he knew about American football was the name ‘Tom Brady‘.
Mbaeteka, who lives in Benin City when home in Nigeria, only started playing football as an adult after being discovered at a basketball camp and pointed in Umenyiora’s direction, given he’s 6ft7in tall, strong, and fast.
The tackle, who was on the Giants’ preseason and practice squad till late September, told ESPN about his minimal football knowledge at the start: “I once saw the end of a game on TV, it was the Patriots.
“And I kept hearing the name Tom Brady. I didn’t know who he was or how big he was, I just thought he was some guy who threw the ball.
“I didn’t know the formations or what the players did, all I saw was a bunch of guys running around. Not many people I knew were into the NFL, we only saw the ends of the games sometimes while waiting for the basketball to start on ESPN.”
Mbaeteka, currently a free agent, got his first taste of the NFL during preseason with the Giants, against the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals, and has defied the expectations of his mentors.
Having turned a hooper into a baller in less than two years, after developing Mbaeteka at one of the Uprise camps he runs in Nigeria, Umenyiora told ESPN that he’s been shocked by how quickly the outside tackle is learning the game.
Though Umenyiora admitted to ESPN that aside from learning what a quarterback like Brady actually does, Mbaeteka is still far from the finished product: “He has a lot to work on. The technical aspect of American football is something that’s very under-rated.
“You can have all the physical skills in the world, but the movements that people have spent most of their lives training have become second nature to them.
“[But] I watched Roy play the last game against Cincinnati. He played the entire second half of the game. Quite frankly, I was amazed by what I saw. I didn’t expect to see him perform the way he performed. I was expecting him to get his butt kicked.
“That was his second game of organised football ever. It was one of the more remarkable things that I’ve ever seen. That offensive line coach for the New York Giants, Bobby Johnson, must be some sort of wizard.
“I played all those years of college and high school football and when I got to the NFL, in my rookie year, I was getting dominated. Imagine someone who has never played the game before, and all of a sudden, their first game is against all these people who have been playing their whole lives. For him to perform the way he did… a lot of credit goes out to him and the coaching staff.”
Now just 22, Mbaeteka was discovered by Umenyiora after former basketball star Ejike Ugboaja suggested that he trade in his beloved hoops for the football field. He was snapped up in April by the Giants, Umenyiora’s old team, as a free agent.
Ugboaja, who was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2006, has an established partnership with Umenyiora and is always on the lookout for basketball players who would be better suited to football.
But according to Ugboaja, Mbaeteka was a reluctant convert, as he initially didn’t want to give up basketball.
Ugboaja told ESPN: “Roy happened to be one of the basketball campers. [Due to] the aggressiveness and how strong he was, I called him to the side and asked him to join my football team at the time.
“Roy didn’t like it at first so I persuaded him to join them. I told him, ‘You will travel if you can do football very well.’ That’s how he changed his mind and became what he is today.”
Umenyiora echoed Ugboaja’s praise of Mbaeteka’s physicality: “When I actually had them (the Uprise campers) doing one-on-one drills with defensive linemen, I started to look for physical traits.
“When you put them in one-on-one competitive situations, that’s when you start to see the athleticism come out. I wanted to see that — I wanted to see how they performed in pressure situations or in situations where they have to go [one-on-one] with somebody to see if they have that physical ability, the movement skills and all of those things. That showed up for him for sure.”
The OT is the first to acknowledge that there is much room for improvement, but is confident of showing up on another roster soon: “I definitely think I need to fine-tune my technique a bit more, because there are certain things that show up that I know I could do better if I could just get the technique right.
“I do my best not to think too far ahead of myself, so what I do is: I try and think of what I can improve today. I look at what I did yesterday that wasn’t good and try to improve it today.
“The goal is to become so good fundamentally that I understand the game enough to get out of any situation and play through any situation. That is my ultimate goal for now.”
He concluded: “I just know this, to me, is like a dream. I’ve always dreamed of playing any sport at the highest level.
“I thought it was going to be basketball, but somehow, it became football, and now that I’m here, I think that if I made it here, that there isn’t anything else I should be really nervous about.”
Watch the Giants’ three-part docuseries on Mbaeteka at 3pm CAT on Oct. 9 on ESPN in Africa, and the Green Bay Packers vs the New York Giants live after that.
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