(Paris) “Give everything to be able to play in September”: Junior Aho who has just entered the workforce of the Minnesota Vikings, dreams at 24 of making his place in the prestigious professional league of American football, which a only Frenchman succeeded before him.

“Returning to the Vikings and the NFL is the culmination of nine years of work,” Junior Aho told AFP, happy to have achieved his goal. “It’s my mind more than my physicality that got me where I am.”

At 15, after having been French judo champion and having practiced several combat sports, he started playing American football, attracted by a sport that combines speed, strength and tactics.

During his “difficult” beginnings between Nice, Montpellier, Marseille, Finland and the France team, he never lost sight of his goal: the NFL.

It was in 2019 that he left for the United States on a scholarship from the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell. He then had three seasons at the top college level as defensive tackle for the Southern Methodist University (SMU) Mustangs in Dallas, totaling 25 games.

For foreign players, reaching the holy of holies is a rare thing: only one Frenchman, Richard Tardits, played in this championship, between 1990 and 1992.

“There are twice as many difficulties as a foreigner,” says Junior Aho. In these conditions, “there is no room for error, you have to be perfect”, he continues.

Accompanying non-Americans and non-Canadians to the NFL is precisely the goal of the NFL’s international program (IPP) created in 2017. The ten-week training camp organized at the start of the year allowed Aho to spotted by the Vikings.

One last step separates him from his dream, but it is very high: of the 91 players in the Vikings’ squad, only 53 will join the team after preseason games and summer training camps .

“I’m definitely going to play and be on the pitch in September,” the 1.93m, 117kg colossus confidently asserts.

He leaves armed with his foolproof mind and undeniable physical qualities, recognized by the head coach of the Vikings, Kevin O’Connell.

In an initial telephone conversation, he complimented the Frenchman on his size, strength and speed and promised him “to help him reach his highest potential”.

For Will Bryce, head of the NFL’s international program, his explosiveness is a major asset, which will be useful to him in several defensive positions where he will have to put pressure on the quarterback.

“He has a lot of experience. I think he can help a team” on game days, he said confidently.

The new Vikings recruit prepares for “sleepless nights” to study the tactics recorded in the team’s playbook.

On the Vikings side, “the guys in the locker room are very excited” about welcoming him, the coach told him. “I know I’m going to enjoy it,” he gloated.

For Junior Aho, “leaving a good image” would be a way to pave the way. “If Junior is well perceived by his team, it will make things much easier for the next players”, explains the head of the IPP.

The NFL is looking to open up. His motivation is clear: “to attract the best athletes in the world” to “improve the quality of the game”. The professional league has also doubled, from four to eight, the number of places offered to foreign players this year as part of this program.

The goal is also to popularize this sport beyond North American borders. “People like to follow players. If we have a Frenchman in the NFL, more people (in France) will follow the team and the league,” concludes the manager.