The past three months have been a little surreal for a longtime Ravens fan named Christopher Ezeala.
And a little daunting.
Ever since the 22-year-old German was assigned on May 1 to the Ravens as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, Ezeala has tried to get up to speed — literally and figuratively — on American football.
“Football in Germany, of course you’ve got a playbook, but it’s not that big and deep,” Ezeala said after practice Monday at the Under Armour Performance Center. “I’ve got to watch a lot of details, watch a lot of tape. It’s a whole ’nother world.”
Though he grew up in Munich and like many of his friends rooted for Bayern Munich in the country’s famed Bundesliga, Ezeala preferred to play American football over soccer.
“I’m more the physical guy, so I chose to play football,” Ezeala said.
Since tackling is not allowed until age 16 in German youth football leagues, Ezeala played three years of flag football before he ever hit an opponent.
“Actually it’s good and bad,” he said of the no-tackling rule. “In Germany, football is not a big thing. Here, the kids are starting to tackle when they are very, very young. That’s why they got an advantage.
“For me, it doesn’t matter because I’m a physical guy. I’m a fullback right now, so I’ve got to hit. It’s just a mental thing. I’m not thinking that the other guys have been playing football longer than me. I just do my thing.”
Ironically, his first connection to the NFL came through the Ravens. Ever since he began playing at age 13, Ezeala rooted for the team from Baltimore.
“The Baltimore Ravens was actually my favorite team [because of] Ed Reed [and] Ray Lewis,” Ezeala said. “And I love purple. Purple is my favorite color.”
Like many Ravens fans, Ezeala has fond memories of the team’s Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the 2012 season. Since Munich is six hours ahead, Ezeala didn’t get much sleep that night, especially after the prolonged delay because of a power outage at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I waited and waited and waited [for the restart] and had to get up for school,” he recalled. “I was so tired, but I was so happy.”
Ezeala had considered coming to the United States for high school with hopes of earning a college scholarship, but his Nigerian-born parents were skeptical.The tapes he sent out sparked interest from a number of schools, including from Texas-El Paso and some junior colleges.
It never got any further and Ezeala wound up playing for three different teams in German Football League, a 14-team league that dates to 1979 and plays by the same rules as American college teams.
Though the promise Ezeala showed earned him an invitation to a Pro Day in Florida this spring and ultimately an invitation to Owings Mills, the first week of training camp has been another level of his football education.
“It's a big, big difference,” Ezeala said. “You’ve got some big guys, fast guys. I have to adjust and I had to really watch all my linemen assignments and take care of everything so I can compete. If you go in there and block with no technique, I’d get run over.”
Said Ravens coach John Harbaugh: “He’s very physical, very smart. He picks things up quick. He doesn’t know a lot. [Running backs coach] Thomas [Hammock] is down there. … Some of the things Thomas says to him, I’m like, ‘Gosh, I’m glad he doesn’t speak great English.’ "
Calling Ezeala “a great young man”, Harbaugh said he thinks the 5-foot-11, 243-pound fullback "has a chance to make it" to the NFL. His involvement in the International Player Pathway program guarantees Ezeala a spot on the Ravens practice squad for the 2018 season.
“He learns very quickly, and he gets better one day to the next,” Harbaugh said. “I think it’s not going to be this year, probably, but maybe down the road he can play.”
Ezeala is trying to become the latest German-born player to make the NFL.
After being picked in the second round of the 2009 draft following a college career at Houston, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer played seven seasons with the New England Patriots and was part of two Super Bowl teams, including one champion. He was named a second-team All-Pro in 2010.
Tight end Moritz Boehringer was the first German League player to be drafted by an NFL team when he was picked in the sixth round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2016. Cut by the Vikings in September 2017, Boehringer converted to receiver and was signed to the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad.
Ezeala acknowledged the transition from the German Football League to the NFL can be difficult, even when it comes to forging relationships with his new teammates.
“I have get used to everything," he said. “I'm a stranger. I didn’t play college ball, I didn’t play high school. They kind of [keep a distance]. I’m starting to make some connections. We are starting to create a bond.”
Asked what it would mean to play for the Ravens, Ezeala said: “Wow. It would mean a lot because that’s my dream since I was a kid. I’m so happy and so glad to be here, and I want to work my butt off to make the team and stay here because I love the organization, I love the city. I'm trying to do 150 percent at every practice and do better every day.”