How IAFA helps young international students to start playing football in the United States

A few months ago Michael Laurent announced the initiative by International American Football Academy (IAFA), where he is a board member, offering a chance for young players from Russia to make a shot at playing high school or college football in the United States. With his help we managed to speak with IAFA founders — ex-NFL stars Doug Cosbie and Ricky Hunley — and asked them to tell a story about their mission, approach, vision, reasons to help international players and opportunities they give to them.

First & Goal: Can you tell a bit about yourself and how you ended up with IAFA?

Doug Cosbie: I played Dallas Cowboys from I was a rookie in 1979 and retired in training camp in 1989. So, I played 10 seasons, played in three Pro Bowls, three NFC Championship games… Unfortunately, we lost all three. And then started coaching a couple of years after I retired. I have coached 17 seasons at every level of football from high school to professional. I have been a position coach, offensive coordinator, head coach. I was a small college and high school athletic director which is overseeing all the sports at the school or college.

Embed from Getty Images

And then briefly how has IAFA started. I coached in Italy in 2010 a Bergamo team, and there was a young player from the team in Parma — Michele Canali. We played Parma, and there was a young defensive end that, during the game, I noticed, was making plays. When I watched the game film, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy can play. He could probably play football in the US out of college.’ So, the head coach in Parma was an American Italian from Chicago, so I got a hold of him. I said, ‘Tell me about your number 92.’ And he said, ‘Oh, he is 19, and he just started playing.’ So, I contacted a friend of mine, who also happened to be an American Italian who was a head coach at a small college in NAIA and talked to him about the player, I sent him some game film. He was like, ‘Wow, this guy is good.’ you know, with little experience, not much coaching… Long story short, he ended up playing three years at Menlo College. And the funny thing is that he was the school’s very first academic All-American, and so I teased my friend like, ‘How can he be All-American? He is Italian. He is not even American.’

When I went back and coached in Italy in 2016, there were a wide receiver and a running back — their stories are on our website. So they were the same thing: they had played on the junior team, they were the first year on the senior team, they were 19, and they were like, ‘Hey, is there any way you think we could play college football in the US?’ So, I ended up helping both of them get to a junior college. One of them got a full ride to a four-year college, and the other one walked on at a four-year college. They are both graduating this May. One’s parents could afford everything, the other one needed some financial help, so I helped him with some of his tuition.

Some people — Ricky being one of them — were like, ‘Hey, you should form a non-profit, so at least you can write off the money from your taxes from what you are doing helping these kids.’ So, I formed a non-profit. Now we have a linebacker from Ghana who lives in Italy who already has a student visa. He is ready to come, but because of Covid, they are not playing JC football. Also, the current administration here has made it very difficult for international students to get into the US, especially from African countries. So he is hoping to be able to come and play next fall.

Ricky helped me last year in Bolzano again in Italy. He came for about six-seven days, worked with the d-line and linebackers. He was the one that said, ‘Hey, this kid Enzo can play! He is a big, athletic kid, very raw…’ Then, I was just talking to Ricky and some other ex-players about a non-profit I formed, and they joined me.

So what we are really trying to do is to find international student-athletes that have the athleticism and some background in football that could be successful coming to the US and playing in college and helping them through that process. And if the family has the money to pay for them to go to a JC – great, if they don’t, then we try to raise money and help. Most of the guys are going to have to go to a JC and play and develop their football skill and then and from there hopefully get a scholarship to a four-year university but also one of our big missions is to just help internationally with coaches and players developing a skill like doing coaching clinics and doing skill development work with players.

Having coached three times internationally, I know most of the coaches have a big passion for the game. Their coaching knowledge and skills can use a lot of work just like a lot of coaches in the US, you know, there is a lot of coaches in the US that aren’t great either, so that is kind of what we are trying to do: we are just trying to help where we can, be it getting young players opportunity to come to college and play here or helping coaches and players get better through education and skill development. Ricky can give you his background. Ricky is much more illustrious in American football: he is in the College Hall of Fame and a first-round draft pick and coached a long time in the NFL after playing.

Ricky Hunley: Doug was just being too kind with his intro. He was an All-Pro tight end in the NFL, and I made my claim to fame by just pounding on him. But I really got interested in this because of Doug. I took the trip over to Italy, and we saw just super-athlete kids with size and speed and fundamentals and some athletic ability, but if only we could develop that skill because they just needed coaching. The thing that we found that if we get coaching better and if we can coach the coaches better, these kids could develop a lot faster. They would just fall right in and fit into place, and junior colleges would love to have these types of athletes. Then these kids would have a chance to matriculate and go on to major college.

About me, I played college football in Arizona. I was in the college football Hall of Fame, all of that stuff. I went to drafted in the first round by the Bengals and traded to the Broncos, played in two Super Bowls.  After I finished with the Broncos, I was with the Cardinals and the Raiders. I started coaching at USC, Missouri, University of Florida, Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals. Oakland Raiders and the University of Memphis. And then we did camps all over the country and a lot of different places, so there is just a passion for coaching and not just coaching the kids but coaching the coaches.

Embed from Getty Images

F&G: You mentioned finding some money for those kids who don’t have it to go to junior college. How were you able to find it?

Doug: The first kid, Valerio Cuomo, who I helped — I just did it with my own money, and I received a couple of months ago a matching grant from the NFL Foundation, which is helping him finish his education. But as we find young student-athletes, we have an evaluation process where we use me, Ricky, and some other friends of ours that play different positions in the NFL. Let’s say if it is a DB, we have a good friend Daryl Pollard who has a couple of Super Bowl rings, and he would evaluate him and say, ‘This guy with some more work could play at this level and then from there.’ Or he makes it go, ‘This guy will be lucky if he can ever play at a JC, he is not going to get a four-year scholarship,’ so we would nicely move on. But if it is someone that we think definitely has the athleticism but also the work ethic — there is a lot of things more than just athleticism — he just needs to refine his skill, realize where he is right now. Then we would have that person write his story like a page about what it means to him to play American football, about the passion to come to the US to play, to get an education. And then we would use that to go to people we know in the football community and business people and go, ‘Hey, here is this kid, and we need to raise $25 000 for two years for him to pay all his expenses at junior college,’ and we would kind of tell the story. To me, that is a much more effective way to raise money when someone can hear the person’s story, maybe, even a video of them saying why it is important to them so they can see the person.

There is also an NFL Foundation that can match up to $5000 twice a year if a parent or ex-player donates. So, I feel pretty confident that we can continue to get five or ten thousand dollars a year from the NFL Foundation, but we have not started yet because there hasn’t been a need to go out to other people and businesses and all that. And I have some friends that already told me, ‘When you guys need some money, let us know.’ They are not gonna write $50 000 checks, but they might write $5000 checks.

F&G: It is not very common in Russia to do this kind of fundraising, so maybe not many people in Russia would consider that type of thing.

So, most of the work you are doing is around your network and your connections with other coaches, schools. How do they react to the idea of getting a kid from another country to their team? Are they happy with that or, maybe, they don’t look at the country, they look at some skills and dedication and something like this?

Ricky: The thing is, when it comes to football talent, it is universal. People want good players. It is just like basketball in the NBA — they don’t care where they come from, they just want to know that they can play. If they can help their team win, they are interested. That could be a challenge if the kid doesn’t speak English, it is going to cost more money to get him here, but if the kid speaks English, has basic skills and the aptitude, there will be a fit for him. I mean, we are not only talking about junior college. The junior college is probably the lowest level. We talk about division one, division two, division three, power five — there are so many levels of football here in the US that kids could play. Now, these kids will have the opportunity to develop their skills with us in advance of going to this junior college. But if they have the size and the speed and the athletic ability, they will fit in. You can find a place for them, so I don’t think it is a problem whether you come from Australia or China or Russia. It is whether you are passionate about football. It is whether you have the size, the speed, and all the measurables that they look for, just like when they do an NFL combine. They are going to check all your measurements, your height, your weight, your speed, your agility. Those things are going to factor into what your skill level is.

Embed from Getty Images

Anytime you are coaching, there are four things that you want to make sure are clear to the kid. I’m only going to demand from you the things that you control. If you control it, then I can demand it.

The first thing is, if you come here, you got to be coachable. You got to be open to being coached, to learning, being disciplined, doing all the things that are required to be a good football player. So having a good attitude is number one.

Number two is you gotta give your best effort. That is on you, how fast you run. If you say you run a 4,5, then play at a 4,5. Your attitude, your effort — those are two big things.

Number three — you gotta know what to do. That is part of the comprehension of being able to break the language barrier, being able to understand the basic things that you need to do in football to go from one level to the next level.

The fourth thing is off the field. Just don’t make your problem my problem. Don’t get in trouble. Don’t make me decide if you are gonna be on the team the next day because you decided to go out and experience the world the way you want to experience it. It is not in the best interest of the team or everybody that is there trying to support you.

So, if they can do those four things, then they can fit in. If they can’t — they need to stay home.

Doug: Oftentimes the big hurdle is getting a visa, and that really depends on a whole lot of different issues, but one is absolutely for everybody. If your country’s native language is not English, you have to pass the English equivalency test. One of the kids from Italy spoke English extremely well, the other one didn’t speak any English. He took the test, he studied, everyone he knew that spoke any English, he would speak English with them. He took it a second time six months later and barely passed it. Now he has a little bit of an accent, he speaks English better than me!

So, a big thing is getting a student visa.

Then the other part of what Ricky was talking about… I know he has talked to some of his coaches, and every college coach that I know that I have talked to about what we are doing, they are all supporting us because they are always looking for new talent. Everybody knows about college football recruiting; everybody knows about almost all the kids. There are so many scouting services. They buy information, coaches do their homework, but they don’t have the time and the resources to scout international. The big schools, the smaller schools, JCs, and every university have international students, so they all have admissions counselors that work with international applicants.

SPT KAM SCRIMMAGE- 30JULY 2015 - Kamehameha Schools and Farrington High School played in a scrimmage on Thursday evening. Pictured is Kamehameha Schools head coach Doug Cosbie. HONOLULU STAR-ADVERTISER PHOTO BY CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL

Different countries have kind of different body types and different kinds of skill sets. When I have talked to some of my friends that are college coaches about starting to do some work in Russia and, not to take anything away from the other positions, but what I have been told and educated on through is that the d-line in Russia is really really good big strong athletic guys. I would say, most people in the US, when they would hear about a Russian athlete, are thinking big tough guy. That is kind of the image, and coaches are excited about it. I mean, if you are to be a great football team, you got to be able to play defense. You can score a lot of points, but if you can’t slow them down and stop them… You score 40 and lose by 14. O-line and d-line are so important to having successful football teams.

All those coaches are excited about it. They are getting kids that they would never get. Some guys might be far enough to go to a four-year school the first year if their skill set is there.

Ricky: The most important thing with these kids is they got to be able to matriculate and graduate. A student-athlete is first a student. If he is unable to do the required work, they are wasting their and our time. If they are willing to handle that part of it, the other part is easy for us, because we have been teaching and developing kids on every level for years. As Doug said, these coaches understand that the football game is the one upfront.

If you got a guy who is 6-4, 250 pounds, and running a 4,8-4,9, coaches are just chomping at the bit to get a guy like that. Because anywhere you cut it, a quarterback has got about three seconds to make a good decision. So we are developing these kids’ skills to get their 2,5. We are creating a sense of urgency with these kids to work within those time frames. You always hear preaching to them, ‘Give me everything you got in 60 minutes!’ Well, there is nothing you could do full speed for 60 minutes, nothing. So, we trained them in increments of three to five seconds, so everything they are doing is in those time frames — the quickness, the speed, the agility, the power — all of that has to work within it because when you add it all up, they have only played about two and a half minutes of football in two hours. All other time is downtime when they are going back to the huddle, waving hi to moms…  That stuff doesn’t matter. It only matters when you blow the whistle to start the play and when you blow to stop the play. When you look at the tape, those are the segments that you take. Your resume is what you put on tape. We teach them to be good in between the whistles, and when you have the aptitude, you have the academics, you have the skillset, and you have the burning desire to play football and be passionate about it, you will get to the next level. You got to be half crazy in the first place. We can’t be having a bunch of guys who are like, ‘I don’t know if I want to play this.’ No-no, these are guys that will run through a brick wall for you just like Doug and I did….

Embed from Getty Images

My coach was an ex-marine, and we were scared to death for him, but we would do anything he said. We loved to hit, we loved to run, we loved to tackle, we loved to get on. And now we are paying for it with our bodies, but we do it all over again because we are just passionate about it. Those are the kind of kids that we are looking for because those are the ones who are gonna move up fast, especially if they already check all the boxes for size, speed, agility, quickness and they’re coachable and eager to learn.

Doug: As far as the student part, we also needed to provide academic tutoring for the kids. All the colleges, even the JCs have free resources on campus for athletes. If they need help in classes, we will supplement that as needed. The big thing is we want them to graduate with a college degree. I know the university system in Russia is good, and in a lot of the countries that we are talking to, people can get a great college education. Some of the countries we are dealing with, their educational systems not as good, but what I have learned about Russia through Mike and doing some reading — they don’t need to come here to get a great college degree. But if they are going to have to do that, that is anyway a good opportunity.

We are gonna supplement and help with position skill development through our network of ex-NFL players and coaches. I like to use the term ‘elite skill development’. It is not like a youth football coach teaching them. It will be people who played at the highest level and can also teach and coach it.

I think it is okay to have a dream, ‘I want to go to college, and I want to play in the NFL.’ There will be the percentages for anybody, no matter where they are from. For international players, it is even a smaller percentage. But it is starting to happen for players, and it is okay to have that dream. Realistically, it probably won’t happen, but it happens for some. So the thing we want to do is to help. We just want to help how we can.

Getting away from the student-athlete part of it, there are the coaching clinics and the camps. We have coaches that, as long as their expenses are paid and they get paid a little bit of money, are more than willing to travel around the world and help grow the game because they are all guys like Ricky and me that have a passion for the game and would love to see it grow internationally and allow international players to be as good as they can be and to help the coaches. Having coached three times in Europe, there are some good coaches. Most of them aren’t very good, but their hearts in the right place. They just don’t have much experience or knowledge, so we want to help coaches get better.

F&G: Speaking about coaches, do a coach from Russia or somewhere else have an opportunity to come to the United States to high school and take an internship?

Doug: Yeah, there are definitely opportunities if coaches want to come over here and spend some time. Actually, I have a story. Two young coaches in Italy made me so mad three years ago. My friend is a head coach at one of the best high schools in California, and I was helping them volunteering with the wide receivers; one of them is a starter at Clemson now. So, I said, ‘There is a DB coach and an O-line coach from Italy. They are young guys, they played, and they want to get into coaching. Could they come? They will just live with me.’ ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, no problem, it would be great!’

For them to be able to come longer than 90 days on a normal visa, they had to get an offer from school for a non-paid official position. So, the football coach wrote those letters with all this information, and then they said, ‘No-no-no, it has to come from the school district.’ Long story short, the school district said, ‘No, we won’t sponsor them because we had an international exchange teacher two years ago that was a disaster, it didn’t work out, she was horrible, the kids hated her and we won’t.’ So, these guys couldn’t come.

I told them, ‘Look, do this: my daughter was getting married, I will send you an invitation to the wedding, just go back just get a normal 90-day visa, you will come, you won’t be here for the whole season, but you still can learn a lot.’ They went back, but the State Department put them on the no-fly list because, ‘Well, wait a minute. First, you tried to get this teaching visa, now you are just getting a regular tourist visa to go to a wedding. We are putting them on the no-fly list for two years.’ By the way, they just got off a year ago, but they both have full-time jobs, and they don’t have time.

Anyway, if there are coaches that want to come over here, we can help them get connected to high schools and some of our friends at colleges. It is much easier probably during spring practice time because they are not getting ready for games, where they could take it down in the coaches’ meetings, watching practice and asking questions that are a part of coaching education that we also can help with. Especially if it is for a short amount of time. Just apply for a regular 90-day tourist visa and don’t say anything about anything else.

Ricky: They would love to have volunteers, there is a lot of graduate assistants that help that, and that is how most people learn coaching. That is how I learned to coach. I was a graduate assistant for two years at USC, and then I got my first job at the University of Missouri. I coached the defensive line for three years, then I became the linebacker coach, associate head coach for four years, Then I went to the University of Florida as a d-line coach. The next year Steve Spurrier took me to the Washington Redskins in the NFL as a d-line coach, and then Marvin Lewis took me to the Cincinnati Bengals as a linebacker coach for six years. After that, I went to the UFL, became a defensive coordinator with Danny Green, and that was a great learning experience because we were starting from zero — we were building a league. After two years of that, I went to Oakland Raiders as an outside linebacker coach, and then the coach gets fired, and I got out of coaching completely and do sales, and then I got back into coaching and coached d-line…

Embed from Getty Images

When you get into coaching, it can take you to lots of different places.  You will start making contacts. You will start making connections. You will have access to coaching clinics, development type of things. During this pandemic, we were on zoom calls with 400 coaches at one time, where they had coaches that you never have access to. James Franklin at Penn State, Mike Loxley at Maryland, Mario Cristobal at Oregon. These guys would get on these calls, they would just take questions from coaches from all over the country, and then they would have breakout sessions where they would go into the DB room or the d-line room, and that coach would clinic those individuals on that call for 30 minutes. There is a lot of different ways for the coaches to be developed and learn. You can get a lot of information off Youtube, but getting the fundamentals is the most important thing when you have kids with good skills that can be developed.

Doug: Another thing, we are working with NFL Flag to help them grow their organization internationally. We did some zoom coaching clinics with about five African federations a while ago, and we started talking to NFL Flag about the whole process. They are working through it to see how they can do that because they have to do background checks like make sure all coaches are not criminals or child molesters. There are some things that they have to work on, which are really easy for them to do in the US. They are just trying to figure out how to do that internationally. I don’t know how big flag football is in Russia for young kids, but I think it is a great way to start playing the game when you are young and, obviously, for girls. Hopefully, once they get all figured out, there could be another opportunity. We wouldn’t be involved, but we would just connect a federation or a team with the contact at the NFL Flag office, and then they would work out all the details.

Lots of people like the NFL Flag because the kids can wear, for example, 49ers jerseys when they play. Of course, you can also call your team 49ers and wear a red jersey, but legally you are not supposed to wear it. But just having that affiliation tied to the NFL is attractive for a lot of people. In the US you can’t wear an NFL jersey. You can’t just call yourself the Seahawks and wear the colors.

F&G: What about your closest plans. Probably, you can’t go somewhere with a pandemic right now, but how interested people can connect with you? Maybe they can attend some online sessions. Do you have some plans in six months or one year to go somewhere in Europe or maybe even Russia?

Doug: The easiest way to get in contact with us is on our website, there is a place where you can write a note, put some information. We have had some conversations with Michael and another his coach friend about doing a camp in France. Then I have a good friend in Germany who owns a team in the GFL. He wanted us to do something for a couple of years, we started working on it when Covid hit, but once we get back to normal, we will make it done.

I know Michael has talked to some people besides you in Russia about potentially an o-line/d-line camp as a place to start.

Ricky: We have a really good group of ex-players NFL players and coaches that want to do this. They want to go around the places, help coaches get better, help players get better, and allow student-athletes to come to the US. You have an opportunity, where you got former players and coaches that are passionate about the game and want to share. This is a win-win. These guys really care, I have worked with a lot of them on a lot of different camps, and what they want to do is to work do with people who care about football and care about taking care of the people. It is like Doug and me — we love this we, love helping out, and we do it for the kids more than anything. Because when I was a kid, I grew up poor, I had people who helped me on every level from picking me up, driving me to practice, and bringing me home — maybe it was because I was the best athlete on the team, but whatever — they helped me to get where I am today.

Everyone we have involved, almost everyone I played within the NFL, has the same stories. Most of the guys in the locker room grew up with nothing, anybody who played NFL or played NBA, Major Baseball, Ice Hockey in any country — all of them had stories about people that helped them when they were young if it was a coach, or a neighbour or whatever. I had people that drove me to practices, who put 10 kids in a car and take us to a 49ers game or San Francisco Giants baseball game. It costs a dollar to get in the worst seats in the stadium, but that was a big thing. The guys we are working with, and we are involved with all have that kind of heart.

Doug: Yeah, of course, they want to get compensated a little bit for their time, but as Ricky said, if we were paying them what their time is really worth, we couldn’t afford to do camps because we would have to charge too much money to get the kids up. But these guys, they just have big hearts, and they love the game and the international thing. Every guy that I have talked to, be it a college coach or ex-player, about international players — their eyes just light up.

Ricky: They see what is happening in the NBA. In my opinion, international players really helped save the NBA, and then the NBA is getting really popular all around the world because there are international players. To me, the NFL is doing it the wrong way. They are trying to buy it; they are trying to put a franchise in London for half a billion dollars as opposed to grassroots growing.

The other thing if you look at it from a college standpoint now that colleges have their version of free agency where college kids can put their name in a portal, and they can transfer out — it used to be you were committed to a school for four years when you signed a scholarship. But now you can leave every year if you want. You can test the water to see if another school wants you. Because kids can move from one school to the next school, they are always looking to fill that void with the next best talent. In basketball, you have one and done. These guys play one year, and they are done. They are going to the NBA. In football college, you have two and done. They play for two years, and then they go to the NFL if they are super talented. You invest all of this time into developing these players, and all of a sudden, they are gone. And you got to start all over, so you got to keep the funnel full.

We want to help them to fill this funnel with qualified student-athletes that can matriculate and be great players. This is how you continue to consistently be a winner year after year after year. Everybody wants a shot or taste of being a champion. When they recruit, they sell these kids on, ‘Come to Clemson — be a national champion. Come to Ohio State — be a national champion. Come to USC and be a PAC-12 champion or whatever it is.’ These kids bind to because those are the teams that get the TV, radio time. They have the brand of being something special, and these kids all want to be something special.

But you could be a kid like me: I went to the University of Arizona; they were one of the worst teams in the country. I got a chance to go to a school where I started as a true freshman, and because I started as a true freshman, I developed a lot faster. I became a freshman All-American, I was a sophomore All-American. Me and Herschel Walker were the only two sophomores on the playboy American team. Then I was consensus as a junior, senior and then I was the seventh overall player taken in the draft. Every All-American doesn’t come from Penn State, Ohio State, USC. They come from all over the country because they are looking for the best of the best. Your resume is what you put on tape, and to get on tape, you need to be on the field. And sometimes going to a school where they have a need is the best fit for you, and we are trying to help these kids find the best fit.

F&G: We hope you will come to Russia one day for a clinic or for a visit for a game, who knows.

Doug: That’s our goal. I know Michael is working hard on it. We will just say again, obviously, after the Covid has gone away, there will be a lot of opportunities. Maybe we could do some type of combine with the kids and try to assess some development and separate a few of those kids that are going to be at the top of the funnel that will have the best chance based on their skill level, and then other kids will have to continue their development.

I used to work for a company called All-American Heavyweights. Its owner was a billionaire, and he wanted to bring back the heavyweight to boxing, so he hired me and hired some other people to be recruiters to go out and find former athletes that were the basketball players, football players who had good size, avatar type bodies. We brought those guys in, and we developed their skill level. We tried to get guys into being Golden Glove champions and then being turned pro. They would manage their whole career all the way through. It was a great program: they had state-of-the-art facilities, they had a private chef to cook them five meals a day, they paid them a stipend based on their skill level. They got three guys boxing professionally right now, and they had about five guys that got into the Olympic trials. This is kind of like a semi model where we are trying to help some of these kids if they have goals and aspirations of getting to play college football or getting to the NFL.

Michael, if you have something to add, please.

Michael Laurent: I just want to give information about clinics in Russia, about the travel and in the period with Covid. Everybody is blind right now: we cannot play, we can do nothing about scouting. I have developed an email address especially for pushing, and I can start speaking and giving feedback immediately.

Doug: Michael has also set up a social media for IAFA and an email account so people in Russia can communicate with us. They can get on our website and communicate with us, but it would be good to follow Michael’s information. They could get a hold of Michael directly also.