Praise Olatoke is Ohio State's most unlikely NFL product



Going from Ohio State University to the NFL is nothing out of the ordinary, but for former Buckeyes track athlete Praise Olatoke — whose initial introduction to football came through club football in college — being signed to the Los Angeles Chargers via the NFL International Player Pathway Program (IPPP) was the stuff of wildest dreams.

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

Olatoke took part in club football at Ohio State, initially struggling even to put his equipment on but showing promise in his second game as he caught a 65-yard touchdown pass against Michigan State. He never looked back from there, but it was a long road to the top. After all, this was club football — far away from the bright lights of the Buckeyes’ NCAA team.

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

“The club football is just guys who come together to play football and enjoy a Saturday morning. That’s really it. It might be 15, 20 people in a crowd. There could be 50. Who knows? Basically, the difference is: the NCAA has money, and with money comes talent, notoriety, eyeballs, 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 gone differently had he grown taller than 6-foot-2. However, with height not on his side, he opted for football over hoops. By his own admission, his rapid rise in football through the NFL IPPP at IMG Academy involved a significant amount of luck.

“I’m not going to deny that I got lucky to be in this situation,” he said. “So many different dominoes had to fall my way. I think the statistic is one out of every 300,000 or 400,000 high school kids in the U.S. make it to the league. I wasn’t even in high school [in the country], so I can’t deny that I got lucky; but if you want it bad enough, I think you can always make things fall your way. You can create your own luck essentially.”

According to Ohio State’s College of Public Health, the chances of a high-school player going professional are 0.023% based on data from 2016.

Fortunate as he was, Olatoke had to overcome disappointment on his road through the IPPP. He worked out for Philadelphia Eagles, but was unsuccessful in his efforts to convince them to sign him. The Chargers, however, needed little in the way of persuasion once they saw his electric pace and willingness to work and learn.

“After the IPP and stuff, there were a couple of teams that reached out,” he said. “One of them, obviously, was the Eagles. I went to their rookie minicamp, but that didn’t work out. A few weeks later, the Chargers reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we would be interested in bringing you out to our minicamp’.” Before the Chargers reached out, he was beginning to fear that American football was not 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 second-to-last day, ‘Hey, am I going back home’. Nobody could give me a straight answer.

“On the last day — which was a Thursday — one of the staff said, ‘Hey, you’ve got a meeting with the GM’. I walked in and saw the GM. There were a couple of 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 up for it and you’re willing to work, we’re going to sign you.’

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

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

Olatoke and his friend, Louis Rees-Zammit, a former Wales rugby star, are likely to add electrifying pace to the league. Whether they will have the wherewithal to outsmart experienced D-line players at the very top of the game remains to be seen.



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