By MICHAEL MAROT – AP sportswriter
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — George Karlaftis and Arnold Ebiketie made trips similar to the NFL Scouting Combine this week.
Both excelled in other sports before trying football. Both appeared as star defensive ends in the Big Ten. And when they both moved to America at the age of 13, neither knew much about the sport – or career path – that would change their lives.
About a decade later, Karlaftis and Ebiketie are both in Indianapolis, showing everyone that kids from all over the world can still achieve their dreams in America.
“I didn’t know anything about the game – what a first down is, how to get into a stance or how to throw a spiral,” said Karlaftis, who grew up in Greece. “I had to trust my instincts. It took me about a year to figure it out, but I could see that I was physically dominating my friends on the field, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
Purdue could not have been happier with the results. Penn State was similarly pleased when it got Ebiketie for its final collegiate season after the Cameroonian started at Temple.
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And as the draft draws closer, Karlaftis and Ebiketie are quickly emerging as something bigger than just potential first-round picks. You’re one of the faces of the NFL’s growing global reach.
In recent combines, the entry list has been sprinkled with athletes from around the world. But this year’s class could be bigger, more talented and cover a larger part of the world.
Offensive lineman Bernhard Raimann of Central Michigan came to the US from Austria after completing mandatory 6 months of military service. Former Penn State linebacker Jesse Luketa grew up in Canada, and massive offensive lineman Daniel Faalele was first spotted at a satellite soccer camp in Australia before heading to Minnesota.
Defensive end/linebacker David Ojabo was born in Nigeria and lived in Scotland before ending up at Blair Academy in New Jersey and eventually Michigan.
Then there’s John Metchie III, the receiver from Alabama who was born in Taiwan, moved to Ghana and later Canada before honing his football skills at a high school in Maryland. The experiences have taught Machie and others lessons that go beyond football.
“I think culture is one of the biggest keys to who I am today,” Metchie said. “Just living with so many different people and so many different cultures has definitely helped me become the man I am today.”
The transition from an all-American game to one with a foreign twist was no accident. League officials long ago hatched a plan that called for regular-season games to be played in London and Mexico City. Munich joins the international series this fall and Tokyo has hosted pre-season games.
Some mock drafts list Metchie, Ojabo and Raimann – along with Ebiketie and Karlaftis – as prospects for the first round. Faalele, who was measured at 6-foot-8, 384 pounds, and Luketa are likely day two picks.
Also, don’t expect the international train to stop any time soon. Luketa, a teammate of Metchie on Team Ottawa, is hoping to join Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Josh Palmer and Carolina running back Chuba Hubbard as fellow Canadians on the NFL rosters. More, he believes, are on the way.
“We’re everywhere,” Luketa said. “The talent in Canada is untapped. Being able to be in that position and bring that light home is everything. It’s so much bigger than us. There is so much talent in Canada, but it doesn’t have equal opportunity.”
Maybe it’s because not everyone follows the traditional path.
For example, Ojabo played soccer and basketball before trying soccer. Raimann competed in football until he was 14 years old. Karlaftis was such a strong water polo player that he made it to the Greece national team and stayed there to finish the season before leaving for West Lafayette, Indiana to be reunited with his family after the sudden death of his father.
And after Ebiketie’s father was assigned to the country’s American embassy, the 6-2, 250-pound pass rusher played basketball and competed in sprints and high jumping before developing into a top-flight soccer player.
Everyone now has the chance to introduce others to the sport they embraced by taking another step in their surprising journey.
“The first time I tried soccer was my sophomore year of high school,” Ebiketie said. “I was a born athlete so it wasn’t a problem. The biggest thing was learning the rules and once I learned the rules everything just fell into place.”
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