Babatunde Aiyegbusi towered over a tall table at Champps Americana in Eden Prairie on Friday, trying to wrap his head around the concept of waffle fries.
“This is potato?” the Poland native asked. “And at breakfast it is like cake, like a pancake?”
Six days earlier, the 6-9 offensive tackle arrived in the United States for the first time with a pair of goals. The first, eating some tacos, was the easy one. The second, convincing an NFL team to give this virtual unknown a shot, seemed to be far from it.
But there he was Friday, decked out in a supersized black Vikings hoodie, sipping pink lemonade and scanning the lunch menu of this sports bar in the foreign but not totally unheard-of land of Minnesota, a place he will call home for at least the next few months.
Aiyegbusi chose chicken wings and agreed to try a side of the waffle fries, too, before beginning to tell the improbable tale of how a 27-year-old former basketball player with no college football experience abruptly flew here from Poland — a country that prefers fútbol to football — and was able to score an NFL contract with the Vikings.
“I’ve got a lack of technique, the footwork and maybe hand placement are wrong, but I’m here to be coached and I know the coaches are going to do whatever it takes to make me better,” he said. “And I’m about to make this team. Believe me on that.”
Aiyegbusi was raised in Olesnica, Poland. His father, who is Nigerian, is a doctor. His Polish mother is a head nurse. The two met in medical school and had three children. Babatunde, who was sandwiched in age between his two sisters, was always the biggest boy in his classes.
“I was always this fatty with a big belly,” he said, demonstratively puffing out his cheeks.
As a youth, Aiyegbusi played both basketball and soccer, where he was a goalie. But as a teenager he settled in on the hardwood. He was a junior national champion in 2005. But he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble while banging bodies under the basket.
“I was always the first one to sit on the bench because of the five penalties,” he said. “The coach was all over me and killing me, saying, ‘Hey man, you better chill out.’ I wasn’t doing anything! I was just trying to get the ball! And he was just like, ‘Sit down.’ ”
Finding his sport
At 18, a stranger, seeing his size, asked him to give football a shot. Football was obscure then in Poland — its popularity is growing — so he knew nothing about the sport or the NFL. But Aiyegbusi strapped on the goofy gear and became hooked when he got praised instead of penalized for pushing people around.
In 2008, when he was 20, he left Poland to work in security in the United Kingdom. After a year and a half there, he decided to return home to focus on a football career.
Over the next few years, Aiyegbusi blossomed into a standout left tackle, helping lead the Wroclaw Giants of the Polish American Football League to a league championship in 2013. Last year, he played for the Dresden Monarchs of the German Football League.
Aiyegbusi got on the radar of the coaches at Texas Tech, who were interested in mining for hidden gems overseas, when a European coach sent them game tape of Aiyegbusi. But he was ineligible to play in the NCAA ranks because he played professionally in Europe.
So Texas Tech assistant Kevin Curtis passed along his tape to NFL agent Jeff Griffin. Intrigued by a big athlete who dwarfed defensive ends, Griffin reached out to Aiyegbusi via Skype.
“Are you really 6-9?” Griffin asked first.
“Yeah, I think so,” Aiyegbusi answered.
“You think so?”
“I’m 206 centimeters. Do whatever you want with it.”
Aiyegbusi also informed Griffin that he weighed more than 150 kilograms and could hoist 200 on a weight bench. And after Griffin crunched those numbers to discover that Aiyegbusi was 351 pounds and could bench nearly 450, Griffin said, “You need to be in the States.”
That was Friday, March 13. Within a week, Griffin was able to get Aiyegbusi an invite to the University of Texas-San Antonio’s pro day and Aiyegbusi was somehow able to get a visa quickly enough for him to catch a plane to Texas on Saturday, March 21.
That Sunday, he practiced the kind of drills NFL scouts would ask prospects to run at UTSA’s pro day. A day later, he wowed scouts, including Vikings area scout Mike Sholiton, with a 26½-inch vertical jump and 5.28-second 40-yard dash. The Vikings called Tuesday and invited him to Winter Park for a Wednesday workout. They signed him Thursday.
“I was happy about it. I smiled,” Aiyegbusi said of signing a three-year, $1.575 million contract with no money guaranteed. “But I’m not satisfied yet. It’s all up to me what I’m going to do after this.”
Still a project
Aiyegbusi knows a spot on the 53-man roster or the team’s 10-player practice squad is far from guaranteed, and he will have to convince the coaching staff in spring workouts and, if he sticks, training camp that this Polish project is worth the time.
He has not yet met coach Mike Zimmer, but teammates such as fellow tackle Phil Loadholt and defensive end Everson Griffen sized him up at the practice facility Friday morning.
He will work out at Winter Park with the strength and conditioning staff until team workouts start in three weeks, leaving his wife, Luiza, and Babatunji, his 2-year-old son, back in Poland while he tries to secure a more permanent NFL gig.
In the meantime, “Babs,” as he likes to be called, has been checking out Minnesota, a place he is a little familiar with after he started closely following the NFL — and admiring Vikings running back Adrian Peterson — from afar.
On Friday night, Aiyegbusi and a Vikings PR staffer hit the Mall of America to buy some jeans after his pair got misplaced during his frenzied first week in the United States. He also fueled up at Buffalo Wild Wings. Chicken wings have been his American food of choice after the tacos he had in Texas underwhelmed him.
Aiyegbusi admittedly didn’t know much about the American way of life before last week.
“I know you’ve got big cars. That’s it,” said Aiyegbusi, who folds himself into a tiny Ford Focus back in Poland. “And I wanted to try tacos.”
He paused and added, “That and I know American football,” with a wide grin.
The playful Pole is certainly going to learn another thing or two about that in the coming months.