6'9", 345-Pound 27-Year-Old from Poland Is NFL's Unlikeliest Prospect

Greg CouchNational ColumnistJuly 14, 2015

AP Images

It started nine years ago near his home in Poland, Babatunde Aiyegbusi said, when "some guys on the street" approached him with this strange, inexplicable idea that maybe he would be good at American football, whatever that was. What gave them the idea?

"They said, 'Hey man, you're big. Maybe you want to try to play football?'" Aiyegbusi said. "I was like 'Nah. What is it?'"

Hey man, you're big. That was the extent of the pitch.     

A decade later, Aiyegbusi showed up in the U.S. for the first time, having never played in college. Or high school. Having played football seriously for just five years, and most of that in the Polish league in Wroclaw with little competition, few coaches and mediocre facilities.

Yet he drew two dozen scouts to his pro day workout in March, and the Minnesota Vikings signed him as an offensive tackle a day after the workout.

Why? He's 6'9" and 345 pounds. Hey man, you're big.

Aiyegbusi, at age 27, is still a long shot to make the team. The former basketball player is also athletic, but there's little refinement to his game.

But then again—and not to belabor this point—he is big and also good at pushing people over.

"When I first started playing, people in Poland didn't know what we were doing," he said. "They thought we were just a bunch of guys out there pushing each other around."

They were right. And that was what eventually got Aiyegbusi interested. He had been frustrated with basketball because he kept getting called for fouls. It was the non-contact part of basketball that bugged him. So after he first said he wouldn't play, when he was 17, he decided, well, why not try the American game, whatever it was?

"They put a helmet on me and told me to push the guy in front of me," he said. "That was surprising to me. In basketball, you cannot push anyone. So on my first block, I pushed the guy and he was on his ass. I was like, 'I can finally push someone! I like that. OK, let's work on it.'"

How did he get from that first block to Vikings training camp? In the most confusing way, but basically more of this: Hey man, you're big. A contact told Texas Tech assistant coach Kevin Curtis about Aiyegbusi. Texas Tech was interested and started recruiting him, but Aiyegbusi had played one year professionally in Germany, which made him ineligible for the NCAA.

Curtis then wrote his former agent, Jeff Griffin, and sent him a link to Aiyegbusi's highlight video.

"I watched the video and didn't really believe it," Griffin said. "What is this?"

He thought it was a joke, because Aiyegbusi was so much bigger than everyone else. On a video, you're never really sure exactly what you're seeing, who the other guys are, what's actually an optical illusion.

Curtis showed Griffin how to set up Skype on his computer and Griffin called Aiyegbusi, whose head filled most of the screen.

Hey man, you're big.

Griffin decided to have Aiyegbusi come to San Antonio for a pro day.

It took a few weeks to get a visa, and once that was done, Aiyegbusi was on a plane on a Saturday flying from Poland to San Antonio for a Monday workout in front of NFL teams. Thanks to flight delays, Aiyegbusi's flight didn't arrive until roughly 4 a.m. Sunday. Griffin took him straight to Wal-Mart to get Gatorade and some snacks and to start to get to know his client.

Courtesy of Babatunde Aiyegbusi

Aiyegbusi slept at Griffin's home until Sunday afternoon. When he woke up, they discovered a significant problem:

Aiyegbusi didn't know any of the American drills he'd need to know for his workout. So Griffin had a few of his other clients teach him that afternoon. Then at night, they were at Griffin's house, he said, flipping around the TV channels when they came across a show called Friday Night Tykes, which shows kids in Texas learning football.

Aiyegbusi watched in amazement, but also for an education. The next day, after his pro day workout, he went to a Tykes practice and talked with the coach.

"The funny thing for me is I saw how they were playing: tackling each other, the contact, smashing each other with helmets," Aiyegbusi said. "They were like nine, 10 years old. I was like, 'Whoa, that shouldn't happen. I was already 17 before I did that.'

"The coach said, 'This is Texas. This is how we do it here.'"

Aiyegbusi says he knows he was raw in his workout, but apparently he was skilled enough—and big enough—to get the Vikings' attention.

To get everyone's attention. Aiyegbusi has become a modern-day William "Fridge" Perry—a mammoth presence treated as a cult figure/carnival act. Fridge had the "Super Bowl Shuffle" ("You're looking at the Fridge, and I'm the rookie. I may be large, but I'm no dumb cookie."). Aiyegbusi has YouTube highlights, social media and a Jimmy Kimmel appearance.

He wants to be more than a carnival act, though. He thinks about the growth of the game in Poland, and he says he always watched NFL games on the Internet. Only lately have they been on TV.

Last year, Rick Lyman of the New York Times wrote about the rise of American football in Poland. The story said American football didn't come to Poland until 1999, when five high school friends tossed around a ball someone had brought back from a trip to the U.S.

The Poland league started in 2006, with four teams and hundreds of fans. And as of last year, according to the Times, there were 70 teams, with some drawing tens of thousands of fans, in 36 cities.

Aiyegbusi said there are more than 100 teams now, and an influx of American coaches and former American college players has helped the league's quality. The Times story suggested that the physicality and roughness of the game appealed as a change to Polish men, who typically had played volleyball.

Former Northwestern receiver Mark Phillmore went to Poland and was the league's top player in 2011. According to Tom Pelissero of USA Today, he is now a coach there, and he told the paper about the incredible growth in the game's popularity there.

"They ran out of beer before the first game," he said. "We had our largest opening crowd. We had to turn bodies away. I assume it's all because of the buzz with Babs [Aiyegbusi]. It's just a ripple effect throughout the whole entire country."

Hey man, you're big.

Aiyegbusi remembers people telling him "'It's different levels of sports in the U.S. You're going to fail.' I said, 'Why? We breathe the same air they do.'"

And he knows what he'll mean in Poland if he can actually stick with the Vikings. If he doesn't make it? He said he'll go back and play in Poland again.

He's not just going to stop pushing people over.

Greg Couch covers football for Bleacher Report.

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