EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Most of the players have been struggling in the heat and humidity of Giants training camp. Not Roy Mbaeteka.
He’s spent most of his life in Nigeria so 90 degrees with high humidity is nothing for him.
“It’s great,” he said of the weather in East Rutherford this summer. “Not too hot, not too cold.”
Then he paused and the smile on his face turned to worry.
“I hear the winter is cold.”
He’s never seen snow, he said.
“But I can imagine what it will be like.”
Mbaeteka has a vivid enough mind to conjure all kinds of wild thoughts. Stranger, more foreign and less likely than snow in the Northeast is playing in the NFL.
Yet here he is, a 6-foot-9, 320-pounder who had never played football in high school, never played in college, lining up on the offensive line for the Giants in training camp. He participated in the Giants’ Fan Fest scrimmage at MetLife Stadium on Friday night and given their current lack of depth on the line he will probably get a chance to play in the preseason opener in New England on Thursday.
“I’m just doing the thing I always wanted to do,” he said. “It’s like a dream come true.”
Mbaeteka was first spotted by fellow Nigerian Osi Umenyiora at a camp in Nigeria in May 2021. He was one of three players selected to train at the NFL Academy in London that October. Three months later, the NFL announced that he was one of 13 players selected to compete for a spot in the 2022 International Player Pathway program. Mbaeteka was one of three potential linemen to travel to Arizona to work with former NFL center LeCharles Bentley.
The NFL held a showcase for the international players in Arizona that was attended by Giants scout Jeremy Breit, who was so impressed with Mbaeteka the team flew him to New Jersey and signed him in the spring.
Since then he’s been taking a crash course in American football.
“People have to keep this in perspective: Roy has put on football pads I believe four times in his life,” offensive line coach Bobby Johnson said after the team’s fourth padded practice this week. “Roy is about to play in his first competition against somebody other than his own teammates. What he is doing right now is pretty remarkable. Even with some of the technical flaws or the lapses in understanding, it’s pretty remarkable that a guy who had never put on football pads is functioning in an NFL camp…. He’s been in the country what, four or five months? I can’t even fathom exactly what he is getting done.”
“I’ve been taking in all the culture and everything,” Mbaeteka said of the elements of the game that escaped him during his childhood and early athletic development.
He said his workouts in Nigeria were very “play-focused." His coaches would show him a bunch of YouTube videos of linemen performing drills and just tell him: Do that.
“We had no idea what they were calling in the huddles or if the defense was moving,” Mbaeteka said. “The idea was: He’s coming, block him. You’re big, take him out and block him. That was all. Make sure the quarterback has enough time to throw the ball and you hold this guy away for at least five seconds so he has time to throw it. That was how I was being taught. As simple as that.”
Now with the Giants, he said he understands how his role fits into the bigger picture.
“When you come here everything has a purpose,” he said. “It’s clear there is a movement for everything. You can’t just run out and do whatever you want. Yeah, you have to be physical, but you have to be smart as well… I can place meaning into everything I do now in my mind.”
Mbaeteka is even starting to get the hang of things. Sort of.
Johnson recalled a time earlier this camp when Mbaeteka met the 10-year-old son of assistant offensive line coach Tony Sparano Jr.
“He introduced himself and said: ‘Oh, I have caused your father many, many troubles,’” Johnson said. “He is witty enough to make light of his errors, but he learns from them. I just challenge him and tell him to relax and have fun out there. I think that’s the best way to get the best out of him on Thursday… He’s got natural God-given ability. He just needs time.”
Once in a while, though, there are moments when his inexperience disappears.
“It feels really good, especially when it shows up on tape,” he said of his rapidly improving technique, recalling a number of plays where things clicked for him, including one he called “probably the best practice [rep] I have taken since I got here.”
“I trusted myself and it worked out,” he said.
Much the way he wound up where he is.
“I always dreamed one day I would get somewhere,” he said, “but if you had told me I was going to make it to the NFL… .”
Mbaeteka laughed at the idea. It’s so absurd he couldn’t even finish the thought.
But just like snow, he can imagine it.