Sport always came easy to Ayo Oyelola and he always believed he would play professionally. He just didn’t know which one.
The Londoner showed promise as an outside center in rugby and on the track at the 100m. But soccer was the Chelsea fan’s first love.
I didn’t really care about anything else. It was a big part of my life from the age of five – I just wasn’t allowed to play for an actual team before the age of 11 because my parents are pretty strict. I had to focus on my 11-plus exams and I just played in the park with the older kids. That was my training,’ says the 23-year-old.
Sport always came easy to Ayo Oyelola and he always believed he would play professionally
Oyelola trained with Reece James (left) and Mason Mount (right) with soccer team Chelsea
‘I was really good at rugby, but I couldn’t do academy soccer and play county rugby. I ran track to a reasonably high level. But being from London I made the decision that most kids would make.’
Playing as a striker, he won a place at Chelsea’s academy aged 13, training and playing with future Premier League stars.
‘Mason Mount was with the age group above a lot of the time but I trained with him. I trained with Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke and all the guys in the age group above me. But the guys who were in my age group were Eddie Nketiah and Reece James,’ Oyelola says.
Following his release, spells at Dagenham & Redbridge and Ebbsfleet followed before Oyelola reverted to his back-up plan – studying law at Nottingham University.
‘I wanted to be a professional athlete, but I also really wanted to go to university. It got to the age where I just felt like university was what I wanted and needed. So I decided to do that over soccer. I’ve always been good at written subjects and subjects where you can formulate an argument,’ he said.
‘I could have played soccer at university, but the way I’ve always been is if I don’t have aspirations of being a professional, I probably am not going to do it. So I chose to just focus on education because at this point, I wanted to be a lawyer more than I wanted to be a soccer player.
But when you’ve had sports in your entire life and all of a sudden you’re just a student it’s pretty hard to cope with mentally. It took me a couple of months to realize that I needed high level sports in my life.’
But he eventually swapped soccer for football and joined the Jacksonville Jaguars
Now in 2017 and with soccer in his past, he was in a lecture hall where a YouTube algorithm decided his future. He chanced upon a video of New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley.
I looked up the kind of athleticism they had, the size and speed. I just made the decision that I can do this if I apply myself. I know it’s not going to be easy, but I’m capable of this.
‘At that time, there was a massive void in my life. It was the first year – I didn’t have any sports in my life. And I really didn’t like it. So yeah, the kind of a combination of me believing that I can do it and me needing sport back in my life kind of led me to play football.’
Research led Oyelola to the likes of Efe Obada, Jordan Mailata and Jakob Johnson – players born outside the USA who have advanced to the NFL ranks.
‘I had watched like the Super Bowl and people had said that I should play football. You know, I’m from London, so I just never really took it seriously. And I looked up international players in the NFL that same day as well. I saw that there were guys who made it from Europe. If they can do it I can do it, you know.
‘I still think I would have tried it if I was the first one. But just knowing that there’s a set pathway – if you’re good enough – definitely played a massive part.’
Coming to terms with an entirely new sport was a strange concept.
‘My athleticism stood out, but it was very frustrating. I did not know what I was doing! I’ve never been the guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing when I’m playing sport, no matter what the sport. That was tough mentally.
Oyelola, pictured speaking to students, studied law at Nottingham University before the NFL move
‘I wanted to quit a lot of times, but I just kept with it. But I loved it when I first tried it. And that’s why I keep going. And I genuinely believed I could get to the top level if I kept on working.’
Playing as outside linebacker, Oyelola progressed throughout his three years at university and turned heads in an All-Star game.
‘Outside of North America, the best league to go to is the German Football League. My name has taken up a bit of buzz in Europe because there was an All-Star game in which I was the MVP.
A couple of European teams reached out and offered me contracts. I was supposed to fly out to Germany in April 2020, but Covid happened.
It probably worked out for the best. I was studying for my finals and I got a call from the Head of International Development at NFL International. They told me they liked my highlights, liked my speed and my physicality and they wanted to work with me in person.
I did that a couple of times with Aden Durde, who’s a defensive line coach with the Dallas Cowboys. They killed me but it was good!
‘They thought I had shown enough but it didn’t go my way – I tore my hamstring and didn’t get allocated to an NFL team.
‘So I signed for a CFL team, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. We won the Gray Cup and had a great year. I was at a great organization. The experience of being a pro was amazing. It reaffirmed to me that this is the life I want.
Injury stopped Oyelola’s chances at Dallas Cowboys but he’s now got his chance with Jaguars
‘And I was invited back onto the program by the NFL and this time I was successful.’
In 2017, the NFL introduced the International Pathway Program. It allocates four players to teams in a rotating division each season, allowing them an extra spot on the practice squad with the chance to advance to the 53-man roster.
In May, Oyelola found out that he was headed to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
I got a call from Doug Pederson, who introduced me to the team, and things went really fast from there.
It took a couple of days to sink in but as soon as I put on the helmet and I was running around with the guys you know it was go time I didn’t really didn’t have any imposter syndrome. They made me feel really comfortable.
I love the coaching staff. I love the players, I had a really good time at OTAs with my fellow rookies and I can’t wait to get to training camp.
He is also learning a new position.
‘In the CFL I was an inside linebacker but Canada’s a predominantly pride passing league. Compared to the NFL, it’s maybe 80 percent passing, so linebackers are basically defensive backs. Linebackers in the CFL are usually projected safeties in the NFL.
I really like Budda Baker who plays for the Cardinals. Jamal Adams, he’s a box safety which is a position I see myself being able to play. Rayshawn Jenkins is really good as well. So I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can for him.’
And as he begins his new life, does his mind ever wander back to his old soccer team?
I’m not gonna lie, I don’t keep up with them as much as I should. I’m a Chelsea fan at heart, but I’m a Fulham fan now, for obvious reasons!’