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French-born Junior Aho joins Panthers with spirit of "continuer de frapper"

Junior Aho

CHARLOTTE—"Complete is not enough to describe football."

When Junior Aho was 15 years old and first introduced to the sport, the Nice, France native was training in martial arts. Friends who were already fans of the American sport though saw enough physicality and dexterity in Aho to think he could play the game. He went to one practice, then another, then another, falling in love with the only sport he felt fully pushed him as an athlete.

"If you're fast, you need to be strong," Aho said Tuesday, after his first day of practice with the Panthers. "If you're strong, you need to be faster. If you got everything physically, you need to have a better technique. If you got a good technique and everything physically, you need to have a better understanding about the games.

"I think it's the ultimate sport. Not a lot of sports ask you for so many things. Got to jump high or run fast, push for a lot of weight, have conditioning and be smart. That's the challenge."

Junior Aho

The challenge, and subsequent conquering of it, would come to define the next 10 years of Aho's life, leading him here, where he signed on Monday as part of the NFL's International Player Pathway program (IPP).

Aho originally came to the United States in 2019 to play football at New Mexico Military Institute. Before enrolling, he took a tour of football camps around the country, attending one at Auburn, where a certain senior defensive lineman caught his eye. In getting acclimated with the Panthers tape recently, Aho saw that same defensive lineman, who just set a record for tackles in a season for a defensive lineman.

"Watching the tape, it seems like ( Derrick Brown ) does every little thing right," Aho praised his new teammate. "When your technique is that perfect, you make it look easy, that's impressive."

After one year at NMMI, he transferred to SMU, and spent three seasons fine tuning his craft as a defensive end with the Mustangs. After college, Aho signed with the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent through the IPP and spent the 2023 on their practice squad.

Each step was farther than Aho thought he could go, and motivation to see just how far he actually could.

"So, my goal was to make the French national team," Aho reminisced on Tuesday. "And when I started the first year, I made the French national team. I said, how can I go higher and higher and higher. So I said my goal was to make JUCO (junior college in the United States)? And then JUCO was always the dream for me and then D-1 and then the NFL."

Despite Aho attending college in the United State, as a French-born citizen who did not play any high school football in the U.S., he is eligible for the IPP. As such, he does not currently cost the Panthers a roster spot. Clubs that hold an IPP player are awarded an extra 91st roster spot during the offseason and training camp. After camp, teams can place the IPP player on the 53-man roster if they so wish. If not, that player must clear waivers as usual. If they do clear waivers, the club would be able to add the IPP player to the practice squad without taking up a spot, a 17th spot held for the International player.

Junior Aho

Aho's arrival in Charlotte not only gives the end an opportunity to extend his football career, it a humbling moment of reflection for Panthers scouting assistant, Kaleb Leach.

Working in Europe years ago, Leach first noticed Aho while the former was producing content for the site Europe's Elite, which highlighted American football talent there, providing a spotlight for those hoping to attend college and play the sport in the States. Aho won an international championship, the European equivalent of U-19 tournament, with his club, Blue Star Marseille.

Leach's site created a ranking, listing the top players in Europe at the time. Aho was No. 2 on the list, a high honor for someone still unfamiliar with the game. Shortly after the list was published, Aho sent the site a message on social media.

Thank you for the acknowledgment, he said. But I'm actually No. 1.

Kaleb Leach

The player listed at the top is a good friend of Aho's, and someone he says will make the NFL soon.

After his one year at NMMI and three seasons at SMU, Leach and other scouts around the league felt there was still more Aho could become if given the chance. So, they spearheaded the charge to have him accepted into the IPP.

The defensive end suffered a knee injury just ahead of roster cuts with the Vikings last year—something he attributed to "my weight and my speed is something I got to work on, to run faster but take it off my joints," all part of still learning the game of football. Because despite being introduced to the game at 15-years-old, the now 25-year-old points out it was only five years ago before he first received proper football training.

"In France it was a club team," Aho explained. "Now, it's getting a little bit more developed. The real start was when I came into the US when I was 19, when you start practicing every day and being in the meeting rooms. Being stronger and faster than everybody else doesn't, it's not enough no more. And you got to learn the plays and have understanding about the game. That's when it became serious."

With each goal Aho works towards next, his ceiling grows. And while some IPP players arrive to training camps, allocated by the league and needing to learn everything from what a hashmark is to how many points a touchdown is worth, Aho stepped in with a basic knowledge already learned from playing college football. He just needs to be molded.

Junior Aho

It's why, when Aho's name appeared on the eligible IPP players recently, Dan Morgan reached out to Leach, asking if the end was worth signing. The general manager didn't know of Aho and Leach's background but being able to help bring the French player he first recognized six years ago to Charlotte proved emotional for the scout.

"It's a very gratifying full-circle moment," Leach said.

The offseason is still early on; there is mandatory minicamp and training camp to get through. Whether or not Aho will reach the heights or longevity of former IPP players like Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman Jordan Mailata, or former Panthers (and current Commanders) defensive end Efe Obada remains to be seen. But as he's done since he was first introduced to the game, Aho will keep setting one goal, then another, then another, working to become the most complete player possible.

It's the manifestation of Keep Pounding, or as Junior Aho translated it Tuesday, "continuer de frapper."

View photos of the Panthers' second day of OTAs on Tuesday.

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