It’s incredibly hard to make it to the NFL even when the path to getting there is very clear. If you live in America, you’re going to want to star on your high school football team to get into a good college, and then star on your college team to get drafted to the NFL. But, the path for players born outside of American isn’t nearly as straightforward.
Unlike soccer or baseball, football isn’t played in the same capacity in other countries and is historically dominated by American players. Despite that, there have been many foreigners who’ve made their mark on the league and you probably didn’t even know they weren’t American. Here they are.
Jay Ajayi was born in England but came to the US at a young age. He was was a star running back at Boise State and set a school record by rushing for 200-plus yards on three different occasions.
He was drafted in the fifth round to the Miami Dolphins, and he found his groove in 2016 when he ran for 200 rushing yards in three different games that season. He was only the fourth player to ever crack the 200-yard barrier in back-to-back games.
Jan Stenerud was a multi-sport athlete who was born in Norway and played college football while also ski-jumping in the US. He was a trendsetter in that he was the first “soccer-style” kicker to make it into the NFL.
He made his way to four Pro Bowls and played 19 seasons with three teams. He won a Super Bowl ring and was selected to the prestigious NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. He was also enshrined in both the Kansas City Chiefs’ and Green Bay Packers’ Halls of Fame.
Bronko Nagurski’s parents were Ukrainian-Polish immigrants to Canada. He would go on to play football for the Minnesota Golden Gophers as a fullback and tackle.
He’s a three-time NFL champion running back and was named to the NFL 1930s All-Decade Team and the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. His jersey was retired by both the University of Minnesota and the Chicago Bears. He was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Gary Anderson was an iron horse in the NFL. The South African born kicker ended up playing 23 seasons in the NFL and is the No. 3 all-time leading scorer with 2,434 points. He’s extremely accurate, which was what kept him in the league.
He was accurate on 80% of his 672 field goal attempts and was named to the Pro Bowl four different times. He became the lone kicker in NFL history to go through a regular season without missing an extra point or field goal.
Ted Hendricks can speak fluent Spanish as he was born in Guatemala and moved to the US for football. He was a two-time All- American at the University of Miami. He still holds the record at the school for the most tackles by a defensive lineman.
Hendricks won four Super Bowls and was named to the Pro Bowl eight times. He is one of the few players who have been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Umenyiora was born in England to Nigerian parents. He was drafted as the 56th overall pick in the 2003 draft after a strong season as a pass rusher for Troy State University.
He’s a two-time Super Bowl champion and finished his career with 85 sacks, four touchdowns, and 35 forced fumbles. His most iconic game came in 2007 when he collected six sacks in one game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He played twelve seasons in the NFL and was inducted into the New York Giants’ Ring of Honor.
Ansah was born and raised in Ghana and had dreams of becoming a basketball star. At 6-foot-6, he definitely had the size but failed to make the BYU basketball team, so he joined the football team as a walk-on.
The Detroit Lions selected Ansah with the fifth overall pick despite the fact that he didn’t touch a football until his early 20s. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2015 when he collected 13.5 sacks and had a breakout season.
Morten Andersen is not only one of the most decorated kickers to ever play in the NFL, but he’s also one of the most decorated players in general. He was born in Denmark and retired as the league’s all-time leading scorer, and currently sits at No. 2.
Not only that, but he also played more games in the NFL than any other player in league history. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame and was selected to seven Pro Bowls. He was voted onto the NFL 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Team.
Tamba Hali was born in Liberia before his family was forced to escape the war-torn nation at the age of 10 due to political instability in the region. He would become an All-American linebacker at Penn State and was named the 2005 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
He was drafted in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection. Hali, who was tabbed as one of the NFL Top 100 Players in 2016, played his whole career for the Chiefs.
Christian Okoye went by the nickname “The Nigerian Nightmare” when he was at Azusa Pacific University as a track and field star. He didn’t even start his football career until he was 23 because scouts saw that he had unique size and speed.
He was the Kansas City Chiefs’ second-round selection in the 1987 draft and would go on to be voted the 1989 AFC Offensive Player Of The Year. He was inducted into the KC Chiefs Hall of Fame during his short six-year career.
Hines Ward was an incredibly gifted athlete growing up. He was born in South Korea and eventually made his way to the University of Georgia. He was a multi-sport athlete and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 1994 draft.
He chose to give the NFL a try instead and it worked wonders for him. He was the Super Bowl XL MVP and is among a select group of players to have over 1,000 career receptions. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time team.
Janikowski was a two-time All American at Florida State University and was named the best kicker in college football in back-to-back seasons. He was born in Poland and was a teen soccer star. In fact, he was a member of the Polish under-17 team and is one of the only kickers to actually be drafted in the first round.
In 2011, he had set the NFL record for the longest field goal when kicked a 63-yard field goal.
Sebastian Vollmer was the first German-born player ever to be drafted into the modern NFL. He didn’t even start playing the game until he was 14. He ended up being recruited to the University of Houston as a tight end but transitioned over to defensive tackle later on.
He’s a Super Bowl Champion with the New England Patriots and won the Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award in 2010. Injuries forced him into retirement in 2016.
Ernie Stautner was born in Bavaria, Germany and moved to New York when he was three years old. He spent some time with the Marine Corps before getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he would play 13 seasons for.
Stautner ended up winning two World Championships and his number 70 has been retired by the Steelers in honor of what he was able to accomplish. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is a Canadian-born guard who went to school at McGill University in Montreal. He was drafted into the NFL 200th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs and was drafted 19th overall into the Canadian Football League in 2014.
He’s played his entire career thus far for the Chiefs, but what’s even more impressive is that he’s the fourth NFL player to become a medical graduate, and as of 2018 he’s the only active player.
Arnie Weinmeister was a Canadian-born defensive tackle who went appeared in four Pro Bowls. He only had a six-year tenure in the All-America Football Conference and National Football League combined, but still made it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He had one of the shortest careers of any Pro Football Hall of Fame member ever and is one of only three NFL players (Jon Ryan, and Rueben Mayes) to be born in Saskatchewan, Canada.
Steve Van Buren
Steve Van Buren was born in La Ceiba, Honduras to an American father and mother of Spanish heritage. He moved to Louisiana and joined the football team in his sophomore year. He went onto play for the LSU Tigers football team before being drafted as the fifth-overall pick to the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1944 Draft.
Van Buren would go on to win three straight rushing titles. In 1948 he led the league in carries, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and yards from scrimmage.
Tom Fears played for the Los Angeles Rams from 1948 until 1956. He was born in Mexico because his American dad had an engineering job down there and married a Mexican woman. Fears played for the UCLA Bruins and was eventually inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
He was drafted by the LA Rams in the eleventh round and was the first Mexican-born player to be drafted into the NFL. He led all receivers in catches and set the league’s single-season record with 77 catches in 1949.
Leo Nomellini was a Hall of Fame offensive and defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers. He went to the University of Minnesota where he became a two-time All-American and was the 49ers’ first-ever NFL draft choice in 1950.
He was born in Italy and was a 10x Pro Bowler, six-time First-team All-Pro and was named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade team. His No.73 was retired by the 49ers as he played 266 games in total over his 14-year career.
Patrick Chung was born in Jamaica but has since become an American citizen. He lived in Jamaica until he was ten years old and started football pretty late. He was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft out of Oregon.
Chung holds the distinction of starting more games than any other defensive player in Oregon history having played 51 straight games during his career. Chung has enjoyed a decade-long career playing for both the Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.