Foreign players in the National Football League

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Compared to other major professional sports leagues in the United States, the National Football League (NFL) has the lowest percentage of foreign-born players.[1] In 2017, roughly 1 out of 39 active players (2.56%) were born outside the US.[2] In recent NFL Drafts, teams have made efforts to search internationally for prospects.[3][4] 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.[5]

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.[6] Canada is the all-time most represented foreign country, with 107 players, followed by Germany with 80 players and Jamaica with 40.[5]



At least nine foreign-born players played in the inaugural season of the NFL, the 1920 season.[5] These included:

Hispanics and Latin Americans[edit]

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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14][15]


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.[5] 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.[16]

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.[17][18]

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.[19]

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.[20][21]

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.[22] 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.[23]

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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]

Pacific Islanders[edit]

In recent decades, Polynesians—in particular Samoans—have found great success in the NFL,[27][28] so much so that the island of American Samoa has been referred to as "Football Island" by outsiders.[29][27][30] According to Forbes in 2015, a Samoan male was 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than a non-Samoan male.[27]

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,[28] and Tatupu was invited to the Pro Bowl in 1986 as a special teams player.[31] Current NFL player and American Samoa native Mike Iupati has been invited to four Pro Bowls as an offensive guard.[32]

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.[33] 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.[34]

The Polynesian Football Hall of Fame was established in 2013 to honor the greatest players, coaches, and contributors of Polynesian descent in football history.[35] 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.[36]


Placekicker John Lee was the first Asian drafted in the NFL.[37] 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.[38] Although highly successful in college for the UCLA Bruins, he lasted only one season in the NFL.[39]

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.[40][39]


In 1984, Obed Ariri of Owerri, Nigeria, set Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise single-season records for field goals (19 of 26) and points (95).[41] 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.[42][43] 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.[44]

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,[45] 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.[46][6] Ansah was invited to the Pro Bowl in 2015 after recording 14.5 sacks and forcing four fumbles.[47]


Recent seasons have seen a surge of Australians in the NFL primarily at the punter position.[48][49] 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.[50] 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.[48]

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.[51] 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.[52] Despite Hayne's brief NFL career, Scotts credited him with spurring the popularity of American football in Australia.[51]

List of foreign players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame[edit]

Hall of Fame halfback Steve Van Buren was born in La Ceiba, Honduras.

Nine former players born outside the United States have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Player Birthplace Position Team(s) Inducted Source
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)
2017 [53]
Tom Fears  Mexico End Los Angeles Rams (1948–1956) 1970 [54]
Ted Hendricks  Guatemala Linebacker Baltimore Colts (1969–1973)
Green Bay Packers (1974)
Oakland / Los Angeles Raiders (1975–1983)
1990 [55]
Bronko Nagurski  Canada Fullback Chicago Bears (1930–1937, 1943) 1963 [56]
Leo Nomellini  Italy Defensive tackle San Francisco 49ers (1950–1963) 1969 [57]
Ernie Stautner  Germany Defensive tackle Pittsburgh Steelers (1950–1963) 1969 [58]
Jan Stenerud  Norway Placekicker Kansas City Chiefs (1967–1979)
Green Bay Packers (1980–1983)
Minnesota Vikings (1984–1985)
1991 [59]
Steve Van Buren  Honduras Halfback Philadelphia Eagles (1944–1951) 1965 [60]
Arnie Weinmeister  Canada Defensive tackle New York Giants (1950–1953) 1984 [61]

List of foreign players currently in the NFL[edit]

Active foreign-born players as of the 2017 season

Birthplace Nationality Player Position First year Team
 Albania  Albania Kristjan Sokoli DE 2015 New York Giants
 Angola  Canada Christo Bilukidi DE 2012 Free agent
 Australia  Australia Lac Edwards P 2016 New York Jets
 Australia  Australia Adam Gotsis DE 2016 Denver Broncos
 Australia  Australia Tom Hackett P 2016 Free agent
 Australia  Australia Jordan Berry P 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers
 Australia  Australia Brad Wing P 2013 Free Agent
 Belize  Belize Rakeem Nuñez-Roches NT 2015 Free Agent
 Brazil  Brazil Cairo Santos K 2014 Los Angeles Rams
 Cameroon  Cameroon Arie Kouandjio OG 2015 Washington Redskins
 Cameroon  Cameroon Cyrus Kouandjio OG 2014 Denver Broncos
 Cameroon  Cameroon Steve Longa LB 2016 Detroit Lions
 Canada  Canada Laurent Duvernay-Tardif OT 2014 Kansas City Chiefs
 Canada  Canada Brett Boyko OG 2015 Los Angeles Chargers
 Canada  Canada Eli Ankou DT 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars
 Canada  Canada Stefan Charles DT 2013 Kansas City Chiefs
 Canada  Canada Christian Covington DT 2015 Houston Texans
 Canada  Canada Tyrone Crawford DT 2012 Dallas Cowboys
 Canada  United States T. J. Jones WR 2014 Detroit Lions
 Canada  Canada Brett Jones C 2015 Minnesota Vikings
 Canada  Canada L. P. Ladouceur LS 2005 Dallas Cowboys
 Canada  Canada Austin Pasztor OT 2012 Atlanta Falcons
 Canada  Canada Jon Ryan P 2006 Free agent
 Canada  Canada Brent Urban DE 2014 Baltimore Ravens
 Canada  Canada Luke Willson TE 2013 Detroit Lions
 Canada  Canada Antony Auclair TE 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
 Democratic Republic of the Congo  Canada Boseko Lokombo LB 2017 Free agent
 Democratic Republic of the Congo  Canada Andy Mulumba LB 2013 Free agent
 England  United Kingdom Jay Ajayi RB 2015 Philadelphia Eagles
 England  United Kingdom Jack Crawford DT 2012 Atlanta Falcons
 England  United Kingdom Jermaine Eluemunor OL 2017 Baltimore Ravens
 England  United Kingdom Alex Gray TE 2017 Atlanta Falcons
 England  United Kingdom Lawrence Okoye OL 2013 Montreal Alouettes
 England  United Kingdom Menelik Watson OT 2013 Denver Broncos
 Estonia  Estonia Margus Hunt DE 2013 Indianapolis Colts
 France  France Anthony Dablé WR 2016 Free agent
 Germany  Germany Moritz Böhringer WR 2016 Cincinnati Bengals
 Germany  Germany/
 United States
Kasim Edebali OLB 2014 Denver Broncos
 Germany  Germany/
 United States
Jerome Felton FB 2008 Free agent
 Germany  United States Brandon Gibson WR 2009 Free agent
 Germany  United States Mike Jenkins CB 2008 Free agent
 Germany  Germany Mark Nzeocha LB 2015 San Francisco 49ers
 Ghana  Ghana Ezekiel Ansah DE 2013 Detroit Lions
 Haiti Dadi Nicolas LB 2016 Kansas City Chiefs
 Italy  Italy Giorgio Tavecchio K 2012 Oakland Raiders
 Jamaica  Jamaica/ United States Patrick Chung S 2009 New England Patriots
 Jamaica  Jamaica/ United States Danielle Hunter DE 2015 Minnesota Vikings
 Jamaica  Canada Orlando Franklin OG 2011 Free agent
 Kenya  Kenya Rees Odhiambo OG 2016 Seattle Seahawks
 Liberia  Liberia Jehu Chesson WR 2017 Kansas City Chiefs
 Liberia  Liberia Tamba Hali LB 2006 Free agent
 Liberia  Liberia Jonathan Massaquoi LB 2012 Free agent
 New Zealand  New Zealand Paul Lasike FB 2015 Free agent
 Nigeria  Nigeria /  United States Nelson Agholor WR 2015 Philadelphia Eagles
 Nigeria  Nigeria Jeremiah Attaochu LB 2014 Los Angeles Chargers
 Nigeria  Nigeria Obum Gwacham DE 2015 New York Jets
 Nigeria  United Kingdom Efe Obada LB 2015 Carolina Panthers
 Nigeria  Nigeria/ Canada David Onyemata DT 2016 New Orleans Saints
 Poland  Poland Sebastian Janikowski K 2000 Seattle Seahawks
 Scotland  United Kingdom/
 United States
Graham Gano K 2009 Carolina Panthers
 Tonga  Tonga Star Lotulelei DT 2013 Carolina Panthers
 United States  Spain /  United States Alejandro Villanueva OT 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers
 Zimbabwe  Zimbabwe Stansly Maponga DE 2013 Free agent
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See also[edit]


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