With Nigerian blood coursing through their veins, Daniel Akinkunmi and Ewole Thompson Umukoro have been blessed with an unshakable fighting mentality that has guided them to the top of the NFL Academy.
Despite growing up in London, Akinkunmi has always stayed close to his roots, using the lessons taught to him by his parents as a guide to get through anything life throws at him.
Weighing in at 310 pounds, packed into a freakishly athletic 6 ft 5 frame, the powerhouse was always destined for stardom. And while he could have played any sport he desired, it was the rough and tough lifestyle of American Football that dragged him by the collar and has kept him ever since.
Daniel Akinkunmi is one of the hottest talents in the sport
With dazzling talent, the offensive linesman joined the NFL Academy in the summer of 2021, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Utilising his God-given skills, under the tutelage of esteemed coach Steve Hagen, he quickly excelled, becoming the number one prospect in Europe.
And with his explosive performances generating so much hype, the Londoner has caught the attention of the Americans.
During tours of Baltimore/Philadelphia, Texas and Georgia, he racked up a whopping 35+ Division 1 scholarship offers.
With a fierce will to win, Akinkunmi attributes much of his success to his African lineage.
In an exclusive interview with Sporf, he explained: “It’s definitely amazing to have that background. Even though I wasn’t born there, it’s instilled inside me. The heart and the passion we have as Nigerians is something that’s just unbeaten. I will keep on playing on that field until I literally cannot walk.
“The passion I have for the game is so great that I don’t think anyone can stop me. In my head, no one works as hard as me.”
“I love the game of football. I just keep on playing and doing the right things, and the scholarship offers are just the reward.”
Daniel Akinkunmi and Ewole Thompson Umukoro share the same African heart
Not only is the NFL Academy a place for gifted youngsters to develop their skills, but it also serves as a vessel to develop friendships.
Like Akinkunmi, Umukoro shares the love of his family history. The pair have developed a tight bond during their time together, with a mutual love of God, binding them by the hip and encouraging them to do their best to help one another on their journeys to give back to their loved ones.
Having showcased his natural flare at Osi Umenyiora’s NFL Africa programme, he earned his spot in the NFL Academy and hasn’t looked back.
With pace and an unmatched ambition to succeed, he’s proven his ability to play offensive and defensive line in equal measure. Like his friend, he believes it’s his Nigerian heart that has helped him reach the level he has today. And with heroes like Efe Obada having already paved the way, the road to the top is already laid out before him.
He beamed: “Coming from Nigeria, we have the mind of a fighter. We don’t want to lose or take no for an answer. So, we keep grinding, fighting and working until we get to our goal. If you look at athletes from our country like Efe Obada, you will see that same passion.”
Daniel Akinkunmi and Ewole Thompson Umukoro aren’t the only stars at the NFL Academy
After leaving Italy for the US at just eight years old, moving halfway across the world must’ve been a daunting prospect for Jack Troni. But as soon as he stumbled across football, his life took an upward turn.
The Quarterback, who exhibits all the minerals of a future great, proved his dedication last year, winning the NFL Academy’s ‘Best Performance in the Gym Room’.
And while a thumb injury has kept him out of action in recent times, Troni’s made his valiant return to the squad and expects to make a massive splash.
Troni asserted: “Obviously, I wasn’t too happy about what happened with my thumb. I had to miss a game that I really wanted to play and help my teammates win. Now I’m back; I think I can help the team and all of the coaches finish the job we have to do.
“I’m blessed to put Italy on the map. I hope that as football grows in Europe, Italy sees the benefits from that.”
Steve Hagen is training the next generation at the NFL Academy
Ultimately, it’s Steve Hagen who’s responsible for bringing all three of these players into their own. With 38 years of experience, 11 of which spent in the NFL with the New York Jets and the Cleaveland Browns, the seasoned coach knows how to make winners.
And he believes that as soon as the investment comes in, players from every corner of Europe will have the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with the very best athletes that the sport has to offer.
He said: “I think it starts at the younger levels. The difference in America is that the kids start young and play 11-man football. So when the UK decides that they want to do that, then you’ll produce more football players on the world stage. But if you choose not to, then it will take longer.
“In America, we produce a lot of big-time football players because they start playing when they’re six years old. Jack Troni, for example, went over to the States when he was eight. So, in the German culture, they’re starting to do that at younger ages, and they’re producing more and more football players.”
And with the NFL Acadmey having just turned over a US side in a stunning victory, it really does seem like this bunch of lads are on the way to achieving their wildest dreams.
Featured Image Credit: NFL Academy & Ewole Thompson Umukoro