Polish prospect: Vikings give giant 27-year-old tackle a try
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Babatunde Aiyegbusi has limited American football experience in leagues in Germany and his native Poland. Yet the 27-year-old offensive tackle is getting a shot at the NFL.
He is the latest example of the obsessive search by NFL teams for unknown talent, a hunt unbounded by U.S. borders. Hulking at 6-foot-9 and 350 pounds, it's a wonder how Aiyegbusi has ever been hidden.
''I consider myself as a smart guy, so I feel like I can handle the playbook,'' Aiyegbusi said, catching his breath after a recent practice. ''But still, in Europe, my physique was good enough for beating everyone. And down here, you guys are big and strong. And they've got good technique. If he's not stronger than you, he's probably got better technique and knows what you will do before you do it, actually.''
His name is pronounced bah-BUH-toon-day ah-YEHG-boo-sehee. It's Nigerian, the nationality of his father who moved to Poland and met Aiyegbusi's mother. Aiyegbusi is married with a 3-year-old son, a family he eagerly returned to this weekend after three months away for workouts and practices with the Vikings.
''The guy is truly a sponge. He absorbs all the information. Completely coachable,'' Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson said. ''We are starting from ground zero, though, so I know as a coach I have to be patient. We're just looking each day to find one thing that he's going to improve on, because you can't do them all at once.''
Research by the Vikings turned up four other Poland-born players in modern NFL history. Three were kickers, including Sebastian Janikowski, the 15-year veteran of the Oakland Raiders. Defensive tackle Jason Maniecki, who spent three seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1996-98, was the only position player.
They all played high school and college football in the United States, though. Aiyegbusi played his first game at age 18.
His team in the top Polish league, the Wroclaw Giants, won the championship in 2013. He played for Dresden in the German league last year. Texas Tech assistant coach Kevin Curtis has contacts overseas and alerted agent Jeff Griffin to a highlight video of Aiyegbusi, who's ineligible for college ball because he's been paid in Europe. Griffin had a hard time believing the film.
''He's running down the field almost catching the running back after he blocks. I'm like, `Man, is this real?''' Griffin said.
With scouts from more than half of the NFL teams scheduled to attend a pro day workout at Texas-San Antonio in less than two weeks, Griffin hustled to secure an expedited visa for Aiyegbusi, with NFL assistance. Waiting until his new client's 4 a.m. arrival the day before the workout, Griffin waited with worry that ''the guy was going to come out and be 5-8, 340.''
He was as big as advertised on the YouTube clip with more than 580,000 views, highlighting pancake block after pancake block.
The Vikings were impressed enough to fly Aiyegbusi to Minnesota for a private workout two days after the session at Texas-San Antonio. They signed him the next day.
Working in the security industry, Aiyegbusi finally felt financially secure enough this year to take the risk of traveling to the U.S. for his NFL tryout - with no guaranteed contract and the constant threat of being cut.
To try to prevent that, he's had his oversized head buried in the team's oversized playbook.
''And this is a big playbook in a different language, so I'm a little bit back,'' Aiyegbusi said. ''I'm trying to catch up. My weekends are all about lying in bed and resting and reading the playbook and watching the film and trying to get better.''
For the Vikings, this was the ultimate low-risk, high-reward move, given the 90-man roster they're afforded during the offseason. When it's time to reach the 53-player limit at the end of training camp, though, or even assemble the 10-man practice squad, finding space for an undrafted player is always tricky. Even for a prospect of his enviable size, the lack of college experience will be a big hurdle for him.
Worst case, this is a rewarding cultural exchange.
Aiyegbusi said he's been warmly welcomed by the Vikings, some of whom went out with him one day for Polish food in the northeast part of Minneapolis that was settled largely by Eastern Europeans. Some of his teammates even expressed interest in visiting him in Poland in the future.
He's hungry to soak up as much skill and strategy of the sport as he can to share with Polish teammates, the guys he's used to staying up with until 7 a.m. to watch NFL games live before scattering for work or school. Even if this experience doesn't last past August, he'll always be an ambassador to Poland of the game he's become so fond of.
''My opportunity is just for them to get better,'' Aiyegbusi said. ''Everything that I learn here I will bring back home one day and then teach them.''
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