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.
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.
Then Djeri — 11 at the time — his mother and his four siblings moved to Germany to reunite with his father, whom Djeri said he hadn’t really know. He asked to play football again after they moved, but this time both parents nixed the idea, and he started playing the other football — soccer. Djeri stuck with the sport for seven years, but he started to outgrow the other kids on the pitch. He was too physical, and all that contact quickly led to penalty cards, so his coaches put him in net. He flourished as a goalkeeper, leading his team to a league championship.
But Djeri wasn’t satisfied. European football wasn’t cutting it. He still wanted to play the football he had grown up watching on TV.
So he did what any younger sibling would do: He went to his older brother to plead his case to play American football. Djeri’s brother, six years his elder, told him he would cover for Djeri with their parents if Djeri wanted to try.
Djeri, 18 at the time, had gotten his chance, but he would have to play covertly. And he did, until one day his mother saw him with his pads. She asked what they were, and Djeri confessed to playing football behind her back. She wasn’t pleased. Djeri bargained with her. He had a game on Sunday that week, he told her, and he wanted her to come to it. If she still didn’t like that he was playing, he’d quit. If she liked it, he’d continue.
And she never stopped going to a home game.
“She’s come to support me and watch me. That’s the big motivation I had,” Djeri said. “My family supports me, too. My big brother supports me in what I do, but right now my mom’s coming, and after that my dad.
“My mom loved that I played football.”
Djeri’s tryout with the Cardinals lasted 15 minutes.
Cardinals defensive-line coach Don Johnson put Djeri through a set of drills that tested his mental and physical mettle. Arizona wanted to know how Djeri could handle a hard workout and what kind of shape he was in.
“I was so nervous,” Djeri said. “In the tryout, I couldn’t breathe.”
He took a few big deep breaths, and then the tryout began. At one point, Djeri felt like he was blacking out, but refused to stop. He wanted to show the Cardinals how badly he wanted to play in the NFL.
When it was over, Djeri started crying.
“I said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it better.’ He said, ‘No, take a shower. We’re going to talk after,'” Djeri remembered. “I was in the locker room and I started crying. I said, ‘Damn, I missed it.’ After that, coach came in. He said, ‘Hey, you made it well. We like your get-off.’ I thought I didn’t make it good.
“He said, ‘We would like to make you an Arizona Cardinal.’ I was like, ‘OK, stop crying, stop crying.’”
The Cardinals signed Djeri to a three-year deal. If he makes the team, he’ll make $480,000 this year, $570,000 next year and $660,000 in 2020.
When Odenthal found out Djeri had been signed, he got goosebumps and tears filled his eyes.
“From Day 1, I knew he will be something special,” Kopper said. “He is absolutely fearless and gives everything he has on every single down. He loves the game from the bottom of his heart.”
Djeri’s journey to the NFL is just beginning. But the 22-year-old is used to starting from scratch and fighting the odds. Cardinals coach Steve Wilks called him a project. But Djeri has been making strides. After a few weeks on the field, Djeri said the biggest adjustment has been the tempo. That’s to be expected for someone who’s not just new to the NFL but new to the American style of football.
Djeri isn’t satisfied with getting a tryout or getting signed. He wants to make the Cardinals’ 53-man roster.
“I say I have to think that I can make it,” Djeri said. “If I think I couldn’t make it then I’m never going to make it. If I think I’m going to make it, I’m going to make it or not.
“I don’t want to say it’s easy because it’s a competition. I’m hoping and I try my best to make the team, and that’s why I’m here. At the end of the offseason program, I want to be on the field and I want to play.”
Gold likes what he’s seen from Djeri, but there’s work to be done.
“I think he’s going to just have to keep getting better,” Gold said of Djeri making the team. “He’s going to have good days and bad days — learn from the bad and don’t get too excited about the good ones.”
When Djeri got the contract offer from the Cardinals in March, he said he felt like a weight was lifted off of him. It has been 16 years since he first saw a football game, 11 years since he asked to play in Germany and four years since his brother covered for him as he began playing.
“I was like, ‘Damn, I made it.'”