Defensive end Moubarak Djeri takes part in OTAs with the Cardinals.
Moubarak Djeri flew to Arizona in late March with four days’ worth of clothes and a dream.
Eight weeks later, he still has the same comically thin wardrobe. More importantly, he still has that dream.
There are 23 undrafted rookies on the Cardinals’ 90-man roster, none more unique than Djeri (pronounced Moo-buh-RACK Jerry). The 22-year-old defensive end hails from Germany, where he played the past two seasons for the Cologne Crocodiles of the German Football League.
The offensive coordinator there, Cologne native David Odenthal, played college football at the University of Toledo in Ohio during the early 2000s. Odenthal has long yearned to get foreign prospects into the NFL, and through a relationship with scout Ryan Gold, told the Cardinals about Djeri, who had 12 sacks last season.
“I knew he was a special breed of athlete when I met him first,” Odenthal said in an email. “I saw him at the bus stop and he looked just like a pass rusher that I saw in college. (Djeri) was 16. But to go the league you have to be very special. So the last two years I thought if he could progress the way he progressed he might have a shot somewhere. But really this offseason his talent exploded.”
Djeri arrived on a tryout basis -- hence the reason for the light packing -- and the Cardinals were intrigued enough to sign him to their offseason roster. The indoctrination was swift, as the speed of the first few practices was a wakeup call.
“Football is football,” Djeri said. “Nothing has changed with that part. What’s changed is that I have to pick it up. I have to get to this level.”
At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Djeri looks the part of a professional football player, but his true talent level can’t yet be gauged. Offseason rules restrict contact, which makes Cardinals coach Steve Wilks hesitant to make any grand proclamations about the foreign import.
“He’s learning the game, as we play it over here,” Wilks said. “It is a process for him. I love the way he works. (Defensive line) coach Don Johnson is doing a tremendous job with him, as far as giving him the things he needs to understand the base fundamentals. I’m excited about him. He’s a project. We’ll just have to see exactly how it goes.”
Odenthal tried to prepare Djeri as much as possible, but knew the early days would be a shock.
“I mean, he comes right off a dirt field in Cologne, Germany to an NFL facility,” Odenthal said. “That’s a big jump.”
Djeri’s acclimation to American culture will also take time. He grew up in Togo, a small West African nation that borders Ghana, and moved to Germany at the age of 11. He speaks and understands English, but there are still some words that flummox him.
This is his first time being stateside, and he’s doing it alone. Djeri talks to his long-time girlfriend every night on WhatsApp, and calls his mom regularly. Some days are easier than others.
“If I’m here working and playing football, I don’t think about it,” Djeri said. “But if I’m in the hotel alone, you think a little bit about it. But I know why I’m here. That’s what I have to do. I have to work to show the coaches that I want it.”
Odenthal remembers a similar feeling when he arrived at Toledo.
“I saw all the parents move in their kids, fill up their refrigerators, support them, come to their games and give them love,” Odenthal said. “I had none of it. Coaches became like fathers. My brother worked in Cincy and was there at times. Roommates became my family and still are. But nowhere but in the United States do you get that chance to become great.”
A support system has already been formed for Djeri.
Yogi Hale, a former Crocodiles teammate, lives in Arizona and has given him tours of Scottsdale and Tempe. Cardinals defensive ends Bryson Albright and Vontarrius Dora recently took Djeri bowling and to Topgolf. Defensive end Praise Martin-Oguike, a native of Nigeria who moved to the United States at the age of 10, has become a fast friend.
“I can see his viewpoint, where he comes from,” Martin-Oguike said. “We have both experienced that cultural difference. It makes it easy for me to communicate with him and get him situated with everything.”
Djeri is still getting used to the food, which is different from his standard fare.
“I cooked more African (meals),” Djeri said. “More spicy. More sauce.”
Djeri is tailoring his diet to the specifications of the Cardinals’ nutrition staff, but has found a favorite cheat meal when he’s allowed to stray.
“He likes chicken wings a lot,” Martin-Oguike said.
Like any tryout player, Djeri has a tough climb to make the roster when the Cardinals pare down to 53. Unlike the others, he will have plenty of faraway followers checking his progress.
“There aren’t a lot of German guys that have come over,” said Djeri, who joins Bengals tight end Moritz Böhringer, Ravens fullback Christopher Ezeala and Buccaneers linebacker Eric Nzeocha as Germans in the NFL. “It’s a big surprise that somebody is here and has an opportunity to make it happen.”
It’s common for foreign NFL hopefuls to have a groundswell of support back home. Martin-Oguike said many people in Nigeria don’t really understand the game of football, but grasp the gravity of a local landing in the league.
“It’s a big deal to them,” Martin-Oguike said. “It motivates you. It drives you to become one of the first people to be in that sport.”
After Djeri signed, he could have returned to Cologne to gather more belongings, see his family and prepare mentally for the sudden shift in his life. But that would have meant missing valuable practice time.
“If I’m here in the beginning and I can learn all the stuff, then I can learn more,’” Djeri said. “So that’s why I stayed here.”
He hopes the dedication will give him a chance to make the team. If that happens, he will really need some new clothes.
“Right now I have a lot of Cardinals stuff that I wear,” Djeri said.
Images of Cardinals QB Josh Rosen and WR Christian Kirk at the NFLPA Rookie Premiere in Beverly Hills over the weekend