EAGAN, Minn. – Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell was able to make a life-changing call.
O'Connell spoke via videoconference with outside linebacker Junior Aho, informing him that he's been selected to join the Vikings roster through the NFL's International Player Pathway Program.
"This is a super exciting call for me to make. I don't know how long you've been waiting to hear where you would possibly get a chance to continue your football career, but I was thinking to myself, 'Why not here? In Minnesota, with the best locker room in the whole National Football League?' " O'Connell told Aho. "We've got a good thing going here, man, and I just wanted to give you a call and welcome you to the Minnesota Vikings."
Aho, a native of Nice, France, grew up playing for the Dauphins De Nice before rushing the passer at the NCAA FBS level with SMU. In 2022, he played in all 13 games and recorded 23 tackles, 2.0 sacks and a forced fumble. He played 25 games over three seasons for the Mustangs, totaling 43 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
Aho shined for Dauphins De Nice youth team before switching to practice with the Aigles les Rouge, also located in Nice. Aho played for the Marseille Blue Stars and Seinäjoki Crocodiles of Finland in 2018. That same year, he also played for the French National Team, helping them win gold in the European Championships.
The Vikings added OLB Junior Aho to the roster from SMU through the NFL International Player Pathway Program.
Launched in 2017, the NFL International Player Pathway Program is designed to provide elite international athletes the opportunity to earn a spot on an NFL roster. League staff hosted 11 prospects for two months of training at IMG Academy before allocating one player to each of the NFC North and AFC West clubs.
The roster spot is specially designated and does not count against the practice squad limit of 16 players.
O'Connell praised Aho's size, strength and speed and told the 24-year-old he's looking forward to getting him in the building.
"There's a lot of things we're gonna be really excited about – getting to see you compete on our team and get a chance to just continue your football journey, your football dream. We all have our story that we've grown up playing this game, and we maybe have different paths to this league, but there's no greater league in the world to play in," O'Connell said. "I know the guys downstairs in the locker room are really excited to have you join our roster."
Aho was all smiles.
"Thank you, Coach. I'm very excited. Thank you for giving me a chance," Aho said. "I'm excited to be a Viking. … I'm over the moon. I'm ready to compete. And I know it's a great culture with the Vikings; I know it's a high standard, and I'm so excited. I'm so excited."
O'Connell, who spent time as an NFL quarterback before entering the coaching sphere, has been on both sides of an exchange like Wednesday's, and it's something he'll never take for granted.
"I can remember what it was like to receive a call like that," he said. "If you love playing this game as much as these guys do, the opportunity to continue pursuing – not only your dreams and goals that everybody has for the National Football League – but just continuing to get to play this game is something that, to get to be the person extending that news and letting them know they're a Minnesota Viking, there's nothing better as the head coach of this team to get to do that and represent our organization.
"The calls, whether it's a first-round pick like Jordan Addison or a player in the International Pathway Program, everybody's a Minnesota Viking that I'm making that call to – and that means something. It means something to us," O'Connell added.
He noted the growth in global popularity the NFL has gained over the years, and he hopes players like Aho and others in the program can inspire young people in their home countries.
"There's something about football that I think makes it the greatest sport there is – both from the individual challenges, and what it takes from a mental and physical standpoint to play our game, but also the team aspect," O'Connell said. "The collective team environment and knowing that if you don't do your job as one of 11 on the field, your teammates can't do their jobs, either, a lot of times. And I think that resonates with a lot of players who truly are chasing that ultimate team goal, which is to win a world championship."
O'Connell, along with Vikings Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores and outside linebackers coach Mike Smith, are grateful to be alongside Aho as he starts his NFL journey.
"They can't wait to get you here, get you working, get you with our guys. You know, me personally, I'm just excited to watch you continue to chase this thing," O'Connell told Aho. "Our whole goal here, our whole motto, regardless of whoever the player is or whatever position is, our goal is to help you reach your truest, highest potential – whatever that may be.
"I know you're going to work incredibly hard to do your part; I promise you our coaches and our staff and everybody that supports our team will do the same for you," he added. "Just can't wait to see where you take this thing, man, but I'll be there with you every step of the way, OK?"