Moubarak Djeri's journey to Cardinals spans three continents


TEMPE, Ariz. -- Four years ago, when Moubarak Djeri was starting his career with the Cologne Crocodiles of the German Football League, he first brought up the idea of playing in the NFL with coach Patrick Kopper.
Kopper was supportive, but warned the then-18-year-old that he needed to be realistic. It was going to be hard. NFL players were bigger, faster and stronger, and to compete with them, Djeri would have to work out "like a beast."
But Kopper didn't try to dissuade Djeri from chasing his dream.
"I know they are big, but why not?" Djeri remembered saying then. "Why not to try? Why say right now, no and all this stuff. Why not to try?"
Djeri's pursuit of the NFL, with a wide-eyed naiveté, ultimately served him well. In March, he went from playing for free with the Crocodiles to a tryout and, ultimately, a contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
Crocodiles offensive coordinator David Odenthal, a native German who grew up playing for the club before receiving a scholarship to play at the University of Toledo and who spent time in two NFL camps before playing in NFL Europe, loved Djeri's optimism.
"I like and liked the way he thinks about it," Odenthal said. "He doesn't know or doesn't care about all the things that go on about playing in the NFL. He didn't know how hard it actually is and that makes him so special. I know he meant it when he said it."
Odenthal and other Crocodiles coaches started preparing Djeri for the long road ahead of him. They peppered him with stories of going through two-a-days in NFL Europe followed by meetings all night. All it did was motivate Djeri.
"I said, 'OK, if they both have to work that hard to play in the NFL Europe, I have to work more to be in the NFL,'" Djeri said. "And I started working out every day like for four, five hours."
Two years ago, Odenthal told Djeri that if he continued to work hard, he would help him get to America to play football. Odenthal had an in. He not only played college football and in NFL Europe, but he had two connections to the Cardinals. He had been scouted by Arizona's current general manager, Steve Keim, while at Toledo, and he had developed a relationship with Ryan Gold, a Cardinals scout, when Gold was an assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts. Gold had recruited two of Odenthal's offensive linemen.
But, two years later, Djeri was still waiting for a bite from the NFL.
In the meantime, teams around Europe had started recruiting him. And they were able to offer him something the Crocodiles couldn't: money. They saw the potential in Djeri, a 6-foot-4, 268-pound player who showed burst off the edge and enough speed to get into backfields as well as track down receivers past the line of scrimmage.
The allure of getting paid for the first time in his football career at age 22, four years in, was tempting.
"With this payment, I can help my family," Djeri told ESPN.
What Djeri didn't know was Gold had reached out to Odenthal in September to see if he had any interesting prospects. Odenthal mentioned Djeri.
Djeri's film was passed around the Cardinals' scouting department and, Gold said, the team thought there was an upside.
Gold liked Djeri's foot speed, natural bend and power. But what was most enticing to the Cardinals was that since Djeri hadn't gone to college, he was, in the NFL's eyes, a free agent and not a draft-eligible prospect. So if the Cardinals were interested in signing him, they could bring him in for a tryout and not risk losing him in the draft.
And that's what they did.
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Djeri was 6 years old and living in Togo, a small West African country, when he saw American football on TV for the first time.
He instantly fell in love.
Like any kid enthralled with a new sport, he went straight to his mother and asked to play. He doesn't think she knew what the sport was at the time, but she still gave him a resounding "no." Her reasons for not letting him play fell in line with those of many American parents today: "You're going to get hurt," she told him.
"Like moms are," Djeri said.
For the next five years, Djeri continued to watch American football on TV with a child's wonderment.