ANTHONY DABLÉ WAS out of chances. A 26-year-old from the French Alps had no business chasing an NFL career, and he knew it. So last October, Dablé gave up his dream of being a wide receiver and returned to southeast France, where he started studying business management with a local CEO and, to stay close to football, helped coach a junior team affiliated with the Aix-en-Provence Argonautes.
At practice one day in January, Dablé got a call from his agent, Yoan Schnee. How soon can you be in London?
For Dablé, one of two European-born rookies with no American college experience in NFL camps this week, that question was the rebirth of a dream. But while German-born wide receiver Moritz Boehringer was a sixth-round draft pick of the Vikings in April, Dablé took a more circuitous route to the NFL.
Dablé, now 27, first learned about American football 11 years ago, when he, his brother Jordan and a cousin started playing the video game NFL Quarterback Club 98. "We didn't know the rules, but we realized how you can score and [learned] what a touchdown is, a PAT, a field goal," he says. "That's the way we fell in love."
Dablé had grown up playing soccer and didn't try football until 2007, when at 19 he joined a French pro team, the Grenoble Centuares. He was an instant success—his first three catches all went for touchdowns—but taking the next step in his career proved difficult. For more than two years Dablé tried unsuccessfully to find an American college that would take him on, and he was turned away from the CFL because of eligibility issues. In 2013 he moved to the German Football League, and in '15 he caught 15 touchdowns and had 1,251 receiving yards for the New Yorker Lions against competition that is roughly the equivalent of low-level college football in the U.S.
It wasn't enough to get the attention of NFL scouts. "I dominated, I did all the things I could control, but I can't control somebody looking at me," he says. "I had to start Plan B and take care of my family."
Last fall a YouTube video of Dablé's highlights made its way to Osi Umenyiora, the former Giants defensive end who now works to grow the game overseas as the NFL's ambassador to London. Umenyiora requested a meeting with Dablé and asked him, "How fast do you think you can run?" The next day the 6'4", 220-pound Dablé posted a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash. NFL UK invited him to train at XPE Sports Academy in Boca Raton, Fla., where he worked out alongside other NFL hopefuls like defensive end Joey Bosa, who would go to the Chargers as the draft's No. 3 pick. "I was where I always wanted to be," Dablé says. "It was natural."
Two weeks after arriving in the U.S., in February, the Giants invited Dablé for a tryout. It lasted no more than 15 minutes, but New York saw enough to offer him a contract on the spot. On his drive out of town he called his mother, Anne Bika, back in France to tell her that he had finally reached the NFL. She yelled in excitement. Dablé celebrated by having two cans of Coke on his flight back to Florida to resume training.
Since then Dablé has taught Giants quarterback Eli Manning a few words of French and run routes opposite wideout Odell Beckham Jr. He worries about how often he'll be able to see his two-year-old daughter, Zoe, who lives with his girlfriend in Lübeck, Germany, and he hasn't found anything as good as mama's cooking. For the most part, however, he is living his dream.
In camp Dablé is battling for a spot as New York's fourth or fifth receiver. Even if he doesn't make the team, his journey has already been rewarding. "To meet the people that I'm working with every day—it's amazing," he says. "It feels weird. Can you imagine?"
Seasons of professional football Dablé played in Europe
Previous NFL players who were born in France