From club football to the NFL, Praise Olatoke is Ohio State’s most unlikely NFL product

Going from Ohio State University to the NFL is nothing special, but for former Buckeyes athlete Praise Olatoke – whose first taste of football came through club soccer in college – he was assigned to the Los Angeles Chargers through the NFL International Player Pathway Program ( IPPP) was the stuff of the wildest dreams.

Olatoke was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but spent most of his formative years in Scotland, where he moved at the age of 5. He immersed himself in rugby and sprinting, earning a scholarship at Canada’s Trinity Western and then transferring to Ohio State in 2021, where he spent two seasons with the Buckeyes track team — although a torn Achilles tendon ruined one.

Olatoke competed in club football at Ohio State, where he initially struggled to even put on his gear, but he showed promise in his second game when he caught a 65-yard touchdown pass against Michigan State. From there he never looked back, but it was a long road to the top. This was club football, after all — far from the bright lights of the Buckeyes’ NCAA team.

“I’ve never played NCAA football, but the difference is, I think NCAA football is quasi-professional football, just for college athletes,” Olatoke said in a news conference Tuesday. “There’s the training. Basically the NCAA has money; that’s all. The NCAA has billions of dollars pouring into it every year to make a show, to make a production.

“Club football is just guys getting together to play football and enjoy a Saturday morning. That’s really it. It could be 15, 20 people in a crowd. There could be 50. Who knows? The difference really is: the NCAA has money, and with money comes talent, fame, viewers and all that stuff. People who play club — it’s for the love of the game. That’s the difference.”

Olatoke was a huge basketball fan and his journey could have been different had he grown taller than 6-foot-2. But because height wasn’t on his side, he chose football instead of basketball. By his own admission, his meteoric rise in football through the NFL IPPP at the IMG Academy was a matter of a good dose of luck.

“I’m not going to deny that I was lucky to be in this situation,” he said. “So many different dominoes had to fall my way. I think the statistic is that one in every 300,000 or 400,000 high school students in the U.S. makes it to the competition. I wasn’t even in high school (in the country), so I can’t deny that I was lucky; but if you want it bad enough, I guess you can always make things go your way. You can essentially create your own happiness.”

According to the Ohio State College of Public Health, the chance of a high school student turning pro is 0.023%, based on 2016 data.

As happy as he was, Olatoke had to overcome disappointment on his way through the IPPP. He worked for the Philadelphia Eagles, but failed to convince them to sign him. However, the Chargers needed little persuading when they saw his quick pace and willingness to work and learn.

“After the IPP and all that, there were a few teams that reached out,” he said. “One of them was obviously the Eagles. I went to their rookie minicamp, but that didn’t work out. A few weeks later the Chargers contacted me and said, ‘Hey, we’d love to take you to our minicamp.” Before the Chargers made contact, he began to fear that American football wasn’t for him after all.

“At first I wasn’t sure what was going on because they only sent me a one-way ticket. I asked them on the penultimate day, ‘Hey, am I going back home?’ No one could give me anything a clear answer.

“On the last day – which was a Thursday – one of the employees said, ‘Hey, you have a meeting with the GM.’ I walked in and saw the GM. There were a few other people there and they basically said, ‘We like you. We think we’re going to take a chance on you, so if you’re ready and willing to work, we’re going to sign you.”

“There and then, within about an hour and a half, they offered me a contract and I’m a Charger.”

The Chargers went 5-12 last season, but have two of the IPPP’s top products – both born in Nigeria – in CJ Okoye and Olatoke.

Olatoke and his friend, Louis Rees-Zammit, a former Welsh rugby star, are likely to add an exciting pace to the competition. Whether they will have the tools to outplay veteran D-line players at the top of the game remains to be seen.

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