Polish-born behemoth makes unlikely journey to Vikings
Arriving in the United States for the first time in his life, Babatunde Aiyegbusi’s introduction to a new country was a delayed flight in Newark, N.J., followed by a trip to Walmart.
A long journey from Poland culminated in Aiyegbusi arriving in San Antonio, Texas at 3:50 a.m. and meeting up with Jeff Griffin. Griffin would represent the prospective NFL football player who would showcase his skills — and his size at 6-foot-9 and 351 pounds — a day later at the University of Texas-San Antonio Pro Day. Griffin, wanting to get Aiyegbusi some items for his room, drove the massive Polish prospect to Walmart.
"He’s a fun young man," Griffin said. "We start joking immediately like we’ve known each other forever."
Aiyegbusi had a plan inside Walmart and wouldn’t tell Griffin. The two went from aisle to aisle until they reached a section of candy where Aiyegbusi eyed a red bag of peanut butter M&Ms.
"He says, ‘This is it,’" Griffin recalled. "I said, ‘Are you serious?’ He said, ‘Yeah, this is a big deal.’ I’m wanting to take him to a Whataburger or somewhere I know he hasn’t been. ‘Nah, I need this. This is all I need.’"
Peanut butter M&Ms in hand, Aiyegbusi was ready to make his next goal a reality.
A whirlwind trip which saw Aiyegbusi, 27, secure a visa Friday, travel throughout Saturday and early Sunday and participate in the UTSA Pro Day on Monday, ended with a workout in Minnesota and an eventual contract with the Vikings. Less than a week after leaving his native Poland, Aiyegbusi had officially become an NFL player.
"This is my week," Aiyegbusi said. "This is all great stuff. What can I say? I’m actually still in a little, you know, surprised with everything, how fast everything goes."
Fast doesn’t begin to describe Aiyegbusi’s trek to the NFL.
He didn’t commit himself to the sport until 2010 after returning from a year in London. Aiyegbusi researched the options available in football. He turned to the Polish American Football League. In 2013, he helped the Wroclaw Giants to the league championship. Last year, he played for the Dresden Monarchs of the German Football league.
Born to a Polish mother and Nigerian father, Aiyegbusi was always big. His size led him to the basketball court until a stranger told him he should try football. After years of being chastised for being too physical in basketball, football was a welcome change.
Instead of being told not to push opponents, pushing became the objective.
"He said, ‘This is how we play football. You got to push someone to play this,’" Aiyegbusi said. "I said, Hey I’m in it. I’m playing football."
Eventually, Aiyegbusi’s size became too much to overlook. One of the coaches in Germany contacted Kevin Curtis, a former NFL player who had spent time in NFL Europe and still kept contacts. Curtis, a coach at Texas Tech, discovered Aiyegbusi had lost his amateurism by being paid to play in Poland and Germany and contacted Griffin.
A few interactions via Skype led to Aiyegbusi’s trip to San Antonio. The only football Curtis and Griffin had seen of Aiyegbusi was from YouTube videos.
"I saw the video and it looked like the ‘Blind Side,’" Griffin said. "You see this guy pushing players 10, 15 yards down the field and you see him running with these running backs that he’s blocking for. I just kind of thought it was amazing."
Griffin had three questions for Aiyegbusi: Had he had any serious injuries, had he ever been put in jail and was he really about 6-foot-8. The answer to the first two questions were negative. The final answer was in the affirmative (although he is listed as an inch taller) and Aiyegbusi and Griffin went about trying to get the big offensive tackle to San Antonio.
"I never thought it would be possible," Aiyegbusi said. "That is my dream to play here. I realized this was possible when my agent told me to come to the states and try myself. That was the day when I decided this was real. This is the moment and you have an opportunity to take it."
Aiyegbusi would become just the fifth NFL player born in Poland and the second non-kicker. Oakland Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski is the only active Poland-born player. Kickers Rich Szaro and Chester Marco and defensive tackle Jason Maniecki are the others.
"I feel with great pride to be one of those five because this is the way you motivate people to start chasing their dreams and want to accomplish more than they are able to," Aiyegbusi said. "This works for both, on different levels. This is good for me as an athlete so I can develop myself. This is great for Polish football, the Polish league, because I’m the first player that would play in the Polish football league and came to this stage."
Two hours of work on drills Sunday afternoon taught Aiyegbusi the work he would complete at the pro day. Several teams were in attendance and tried to fill in the gaps in Aiyegbusi’s football resume while talking with him after the pro day was over.
Vikings area scout Michael Sholiton made some phone calls and arranged a workout in Minnesota, where Aiyegbusi would perform in front of offensive line coaches Jeff Davidson and Hank Fraley. Aiyegbusi later signed a three-year, $1.575 million contract which will pay him $435,000 in base salary if he’s on the team this season.
"I had a good feeling I would if he turned out to be what he was over YouTube," Griffin said of the possibility of having team’s interested. "As far as him signing, did not know. But when I picked him up from the airport and I laid eyes on him, then I started really feeling like, you know, we might have something here."
Aiyegbusi hopes it’s a future in the NFL. He left behind his wife, Luiza, and son, Babatunji, in Poland while he tries to secure his spot with the Vikings. He wants to work out in advance of the start of offseason workouts on April 20.
Any sightseeing — he enjoys the "huge" cars in the U.S. which fit his immense frame — will have to wait while he works on his "primary" goal: football, not peanut butter M&Ms.
"I’m trying to stay focused on my goal and not distract myself with other stuff," Aiyegbusi said. "This is not the way to do it. If I had more time, I will see some places."
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