Eric Nzeocha's love for the game of American football has already taken him from Neusitz to Wyoming. Now it's taking him to the NFL.
Nzeocha, a 6-3, 224-pound linebacker who first began playing American football as a youth in Germany, will spend the 2017 NFL campaign on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' practice squad. He is one of four overseas players who will get the opportunity to perform on NFL practice squads this season, all in the NFC South. Alex Gray, a former rugby player in England, will join the Atlanta Falcons; fellow Englishmen Alex Jenkins and Efe Obada are headed to New Orleans and Carolina, respectively.
The placement of the four overseas players is part of a new NFL program called the International Player Pathway, which is striving to widen the league's talent pool. Nzeocha and the others have spent the past three months training with NFL players and potential draftees under the supervision of former New York Giants standout Osi Umenyiora.
Nzeocha, whose brother Mark is a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, is thrilled by the opportunity.
"It is overwhelming, one of the greatest moments of my life," he said. "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."
The International Player Pathway participants will not count against their teams' 10-man practice squad limits; rather, each club has been given an exemption to carry an 11th man. The overseas players will remain on their teams throughout the season but are not eligible to be activated to play in games. Putting one player each on the four NFC South teams' practice squads is also an apparent effort to make the program equitable.
Nzeocha played American football for the German national junior team prior to attending the University of Wyoming, following in the footsteps of his older brother. Mark Nzeocha was drafted by the Cowboys in the seventh round in 2015, the 236th overall selection, and has played in seven games over the past two seasons. Eric Nzeocha began his collegiate career as a tight end but switched to linebacker two years ago.
This is not the first time the Buccaneers have worked with an international player in this manner. In 2005, German safety Claudius Osei spent the season on Tampa Bay's practice squad as part of the NFL International Development Practice Squad program. Osei had played for the NFL Europe's Hamburg Sea Devils the previous spring. He was no stranger to the state of Florida, having played college football at Florida State. Osei later spent time with the New York Giants.