No sooner had Usher delivered the final “Yeah!” of his Super Bowl LVIII half-time show, when the millions watching worldwide were transported from the cacophony of Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium to the quiet of a child’s bedroom in Ghana’s capital Accra.
Titled “Born to Play,” the two-and-a-half minute advert saw an ensemble of current NFL superstars hurtling and hurdling through Accra’s bustling streets to celebrate the growth of the sport across the world and, crucially, the opening of global pathways to play at its summit.
The game waged by Saquon Barkley, Justin Jefferson, Cameron Jordan and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah may have been staged in the imagination of a football-mad young boy, but it ended at a very real location – the inaugural NFL Africa Camp in Accra.
There, the inspiration for the commercial – two-time Super Bowl champion Osi Umenyiora – awaited to greet the youngster, played by Eldad Osime. The British Nigerian, former New York Giants defensive end’s regional football program in Africa – called The Uprise – helped spawn the continent’s first camp in 2022.
The speech he gave then to a gaggle of hopeful youngsters served as the basis for a commercial broadcast Sunday in a prime-time slot to the largest television audience since the 1969 moon landing.
“That’s the most important Super Bowl commercial that they have in terms of the NFL,” Umenyiora told CNN.
“So for them to place it there and place it right after the half-time show shows how serious they are, shows their level of commitment to what we’re doing with the program and what we’re doing in Africa. It’s really exciting.”
In a poll of over 160,000 conducted by USA Today, “Born to Play” ranked fifth of the 59 commercials shown during Super Bowl LVIII.
Directed by Lagos-born photographer and film director Andrew Dosunmu and shot on location in Ghana with a cast of 400 local actors, the commercial’s story of a boy harboring sporting dreams that are dismissed as fantasy by family and others rang true for Umenyiora.
Having been born in London and moved to Anambra, Ogbunike Village in southeastern Nigeria as a child, the future All-Pro was made to quit playing sport when his grades began to falter.
In Super Eagles soccer stars Jay-Jay Okocha and Rashidi Yekini, as well as Lagos-born NBA legend Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon, a young Umenyiora had no shortage of sporting idols, but his family did not always share the same conviction that he could follow in their footsteps.
“I think most African parents, especially when they first get to America, they’re not interested in their kids playing sports – it’s all about academics,” the 42-year-old said.
“It’s about being a doctor, an engineer – the same story … Most parents are going to be dismissive of you chasing your dreams, especially if you’re African, and I understand it, because the chances of making it are so low.
“If you get an education, the chances of you doing something with yourself are actually pretty high,” he added. “But I think that attitude is changing now.”
‘Talent is global but opportunity is not’
Umenyiora is playing a direct role in those changes. After co-founding The Uprise in 2020, three Nigerian talents from the program were signed to NFL rosters the following year.
Over 100 players of African descent were playing in the league in 2022, according to the NFL, but Umenyiora is keen to see that figure rise.
At the heart of these hopes lies the league’s International Player Pathway (IPP) Program, which gives “elite international athletes” from outside the US and Canada the chance to earn a spot on an NFL team.
Yet the NFL has come under fire for racial allegations in the past at the player level, and has faced criticism for a lack of diversity in its coaching and executive ranks. At the start of the 2023 regular season with 32 teams, there were no Black majority owners and only eight Black general managers.
“I want to see a time where at least 15 to 20% of all the players in the National Football League are from (Africa),” Umenyiora told CNN in 2022.
“(Also) people should be watching American football because their brothers are being very, very successful playing that game. I want more people to be engaged in the sport and to understand the success and to understand the game.”
Umenyiora has no doubts about the potency of ability available outside North America. The issue is that “talent is global but opportunity is not” – hence the message of the commercial.
“Opening doors for international athletes is not only a passion of mine, but it’s a way to give back to future generations of athletes,” he told the NFL in a press release.
“This campaign shows young people globally that it doesn’t matter where you were born, but you were born to play.”
CNN’s Earl Nurse contributed to reporting.
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