Foreign players in the National Football League
Compared to other major professional sports leagues in the United States, the National Football League (NFL) has the lowest percentage of foreign-born players. In 2017, roughly 1 out of 39 active players (2.56%) were born outside the US. In recent NFL Drafts, teams have made efforts to search internationally for prospects. A record 12 international players were drafted in the 2015 NFL Draft. As of the beginning of the 2018 NFL season, Canada is the most represented foreign country in the NFL, with 13 players, followed by Germany with 6 players.
Internationals have played in the NFL since the league's founding season in 1920. There have been nine foreign-born players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Many international players have found success on special teams; two of the three highest scorers in NFL history were foreign born: kickers Morten Andersen of Denmark and Gary Anderson of South Africa. Canada is the all-time most represented foreign country, with 107 players, followed by Germany with 80 players and Jamaica with 40.
- German brothers John Nesser and Phil Nesser for the Columbus Panhandles. They were part of the Nesser Brothers, one of American football's most famous families of the early 20th century.
- Canadian Tommy Hughitt, player-coach for the Buffalo All-Americans. A star quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines football team before joining the NFL, he was named to the 1922 All-Pro Team by George Halas. As Buffalo's head coach, he led the team to 34 wins, 15 losses, and 7 ties from 1920 to 1924.
- Irishman Bob Nash for the Akron Pros. He contributed to several firsts in NFL history, including being the first player to score a touchdown on a fumble recovery and later was the first captain of the New York Giants. He was also part of the first player-trade between league teams when he was sold to the Buffalo All-Americans prior to a game in 1920 for $300 (equivalent to $3,665 in 2017) and five percent of the gate receipts.
Hispanics and Latin Americans
The first Hispanic to play in the NFL was Ignacio Saturnino "Lou" Molinet, a Cuban who signed and played with the Frankford Yellow Jackets in 1927. His contract was donated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame by his daughter in 2000. Following Molinet were brothers Jess Rodriguez and Kelly Rodriguez of Spain; Jess was a tailback for the Buffalo Bisons in 1929, while Kelly played for the Yellow Jackets and Minneapolis Red Jackets in 1930.
In 1944, the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Steve Van Buren, a halfback who was born in La Ceiba, Honduras, to an American father and Spanish mother. He played for the Eagles for eight seasons and retired as the NFL's career leader in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. Van Buren became the first Hispanic inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965.
In 1948, the Los Angeles Rams drafted Tom Fears. Fears was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, to an American father and Mexican mother. He led the Rams' receiving game as a split end from 1948 to 1956, winning an NFL championship with the team in 1951. He later became the first Latino head coach in the NFL, serving as head coach of the New Orleans Saints from their inauguration in 1967 through 1970. Fears was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970.
Several native Europeans played in the NFL's inaugural season in 1920, including fullback John Barsha of Russia, tackle John Kvist of Sweden, end Bob Nash of Ireland, and German brothers John and Phil Nesser. Later, Bronko Nagurski signed with the Chicago Bears. Although born in Canada, he was the son of Ukrainian immigrants and well known for his Ukrainian heritage. Born Bronislau Nagurski, he became renown for his extraordinary strength and power as a fullback and linebacker for the Bears in the 1930s.
Fullback Ace Gutowsky of Komolty, Russian Empire, played for the Detroit Lions from 1932 to 1938 and became the franchise's career leader in rushing yards. Contemporary sources state Gutowsky also set the NFL's career rushing yards record of 3,399 in 1939 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In 1950, the San Francisco 49ers used their first draft pick as an NFL franchise on Leo Nomellini, a defensive tackle from the University of Minnesota who was born in Lucca, Italy, and moved to Chicago at a young age. Nomellini played with the 49ers until he retired in 1963 after 10 Pro Bowl invitations and nine All-Pro selections. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969 and the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.
Garo Yepremian, born in Larnaca, Cyprus, was a placekicker for the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, during a career from 1966 to 1981. He won two Super Bowls and was a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Dolphins, and is a member of the NFL 1970s All-Decade Team. But Yepremian may best be remembered for a blunder in Super Bowl VII, in which his attempt to pass the ball after a blocked field goal attempt resulted in a fumble returned 49 yards for a touchdown by the Redskins.
Scandinavia has produced the two lone exclusive placekickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Jan Stenerud came from Fetsund, Norway, to the U.S. by way of a skiing scholarship to Montana State University. There he picked up placekicking, and was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1966 AFL draft. He played 19 seasons in the AFL and NFL with the Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, and Minnesota Vikings and kicked a then-record 373 field goals. Morten Andersen, born in Copenhagen, Denmark, played 25 seasons in the NFL for five different teams. Nicknamed the "Great Dane", he is the NFL's career leader in field goals made and attempted, games played, and points scored. He retired as the career franchise leader in points scored for both the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.
English-born placekicker John Smith played for the New England Patriots from 1974 to 1983. Although he led the league in scoring twice and was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1980, he is best known for kicking a game-winning field goal against the Miami Dolphins in 1982 in the famous Snowplow Game. Other notable Englishmen include two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora and current Eagles running back Jay Ajayi. While with the Miami Dolphins in 2016, the London-born Ajayi became the fourth player in NFL history to rush for 200 or more yards three times in a season. He also became the first London-born skill position player to play in his hometown, when the Dolphins faced the Saints in the NFL International Series at Wembley Stadium in 2017.
In recent decades, Polynesians—in particular Samoans—have found great success in the NFL, so much so that the island of American Samoa has been referred to as "Football Island" by outsiders. According to Forbes in 2015, a Samoan male was 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than a non-Samoan male.
Samoans began to make their mark in the NFL in the 1970s with players such as Jack "The Throwin' Samoan" Thompson and Pago Pago native Mosi Tatupu. Thompson was the first Polynesian quarterback in the NFL, and Tatupu was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1986 as a special teams player. Current NFL player and American Samoa native Mike Iupati has been invited to four Pro Bowls as an offensive guard.
Vai Sikahema was the first Tonga native in the NFL. He led the league in punt return yards in 1986 and 1987 while playing for the St. Louis Cardinals. Sikahema's cousin, Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui, also from Tonga, later played seven seasons in the NFL as an offensive guard. Super Bowl XLIII featured two Tongan offensive guards in Lutui for the Cardinals and Chris Kemoeatu for the Steelers.
The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame was established in 2013 to honor the greatest players, coaches, and contributors of Polynesian descent in football history. Native Polynesian NFL players that have been inducted include Thompson, Tatupu, Sikahema, New Zealander Riki Ellison, and Samoans Jesse Sapolu and Maa Tanuvasa. Tongan Ma'ake Kemoeatu, cousin of Chris, was announced as an inductee for the 2018 class.
Placekicker John Lee was the first Asian drafted in the NFL. He was born in Seoul, South Korea. The four-year, $900,000 contract he signed with the Cardinals in 1986 was the richest in NFL history for a kicker. Although highly successful in college for the UCLA Bruins, he lasted only one season in the NFL.
One of the most popular Asian-born players in NFL history is Hines Ward. Born in Seoul to a Korean mother and African-American serviceman, Ward played 14 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1998 to 2011. During his career he won two Super Bowls, was invited to four Pro Bowls, and set numerous Steelers franchise receiving records.
In 1984, Obed Ariri of Owerri, Nigeria, set Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise single-season records for field goals (19 of 26) and points (95). Ariri also encouraged fellow Nigeria native Donald Igwebuike to tryout as kicker for the Clemson Tigers football team. The Buccaneers cut Ariri after the 1984 season and signed Igwebuike, who went on to become Tampa Bay's career leader in field goals and scoring. A later representative of Nigeria was fullback Christian Okoye of Enugu, who became famous as the "Nigerian Nightmare" due to his powerful running style and ability to break tackles.
Players representing Africa as of the 2017 season include Liberia native Tamba Hali, a five-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Ghana native Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, a defensive end the Detroit Lions. Despite his young career, Ansah has been called one of the most influential and greatest Africans to play in the NFL. Ansah was invited to the Pro Bowl in 2015 after recording 14.5 sacks and forcing four fumbles.
Recent seasons have seen a surge of Australians in the NFL primarily at the punter position. As punting is a vital aspect of Australian rules football, many players who are not fit for the physical play of that league have been able to find success in American football. The first Australian in the NFL was Melbourne native Colin Ridgeway, a punter who played a single season with the Dallas Cowboys in 1965. The first to spend significant time in the league was Darren Bennett, who was a punter for the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings from 1995 to 2005. He is credited with having paved the way for the upsurge of recent Australian punters in the NFL, which includes Ben Graham, Matt McBriar, Brad Wing, Saverio Rocca, Jordan Berry, and Lac Edwards.
Defensive tackle Colin Scotts was the first Australian to be drafted into the NFL, selected by the Cardinals in the third round of the 1987 draft. In 2015, rugby league player Jarryd Hayne of Sydney signed with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent. He played a limited role in eight games for the 49ers as a running back and punt returner before returning to Australia to resume his rugby career. Despite Hayne's brief NFL career, Scotts credited him with spurring the popularity of American football in Australia.
List of foreign players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
Nine former players born outside the United States have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
|Morten Andersen||Denmark||Placekicker||New Orleans Saints (1982–1994)
Atlanta Falcons (1995–2000)
New York Giants (2001)
Kansas City Chiefs (2002–2003)
Minnesota Vikings (2004)
Atlanta Falcons (2006–2007)
|Tom Fears||Mexico||End||Los Angeles Rams (1948–1956)||1970|||
|Ted Hendricks||Guatemala||Linebacker||Baltimore Colts (1969–1973)
Green Bay Packers (1974)
Oakland / Los Angeles Raiders (1975–1983)
|Bronko Nagurski||Canada||Fullback||Chicago Bears (1930–1937, 1943)||1963|||
|Leo Nomellini||Italy||Defensive tackle||San Francisco 49ers (1950–1963)||1969|||
|Ernie Stautner||Germany||Defensive tackle||Pittsburgh Steelers (1950–1963)||1969|||
|Jan Stenerud||Norway||Placekicker||Kansas City Chiefs (1967–1979)
Green Bay Packers (1980–1983)
Minnesota Vikings (1984–1985)
|Steve Van Buren||Honduras||Halfback||Philadelphia Eagles (1944–1951)||1965|||
|Arnie Weinmeister||Canada||Defensive tackle||New York Giants (1950–1953)||1984|||
List of foreign players currently in the NFL
Active foreign-born players as of the 2017 season
- Black players in professional American football
- List of foreign NBA players
- List of foreign WNBA players
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