The Other Globe Trotters: Foreign Stars in the NFL
Some ground rules here before any readers have a panic attack. This list is comprised of NFL players BORN in a foreign country. They don’t necessarily need to be raised in that country to make this list, although that makes it even better. Secondly, this list does contain a lot of kickers, albeit interesting ones. When dealing with foreign players primarily from countries where soccer is the predominant sport, it only makes sense that, in most cases, if they were to take up football, kicking would be their position of choice. Let’s take a look at the global talent pool that makes up some of the NFL’s best foreign players.
Born in South Korea to an American father and Korean mother, the ferocious Ward is arguably the most recognizable player on this list. A standout receiver at the University of Georgia, Ward earned his shot to play in the NFL after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 1998 Draft. He played his entire career in Pittsburgh, where he won two Super Bowls, one Super Bowl MVP, played in four Pro Bowls, and was elected to the Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time Team. Although he was beloved by Steelers fans, Ward was hated by virtually everyone else and was considered one of the dirtiest players in the league.
Super Bowl LII champion Jay Ajayi is one of the hardest-working running backs in the NFL. He runs downhill and demolishes most people in his way. Hailing from London, England, Ajayi made his way to the U.S. at the age of seven. After attending high school in Texas, Ajayi accepted a scholarship to play for Boise State University, and after three years there, declared for the NFL Draft, eventually being chosen in the fifth round (2015) by Miami.
Following a slow start his rookie year, Ajayi had a breakout sophomore season, amassing over 1,200 yards rushing. Midway through the following season, Ajayi, labeled with a negative attitude, was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. There, the back meshed with the team’s culture and he became an integral part of the team that captured their first Super Bowl in franchise history. In their historic victory, the once-disgruntled back gained 57 yards on the ground, second to LeGarrette Blount’s 90 yards.
The Great Dane. One of the most prolific kickers in league history, Denmark’s Morten Andersen’s tale to glory is an uncommon one. Raised in a small fishing village, Andersen spent his senior year of high school in America on a foreign exchange program. Growing up playing soccer, the young Dane knew how to kick a ball and, on a whim, decided to try his hand (or foot) with the high school team. That season, Andersen impressed enough people stateside to earn himself a scholarship offer from Michigan State.
Following an impressive career with the Spartans, where he was an All-American, Andersen moved up to the NFL after being taken in the fifth round by the Saints in 1982. Over the course of his 25-year career, Andersen became the NFL record holder for most games played, field goals kicked and made, and points scored. He also racked up seven Pro Bowls.
Ten seasons following his final year in the league, Andersen got the call he’d been patiently waiting for, the one from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s currently one of only four placekickers in the Hall.
The first player in NFL history to come by way of South Africa was legendary kicker Gary Anderson. Born in Parys, South Africa, Anderson kicked his way onto the Syracuse football and soccer teams, excelling in both. It was football, however, where Anderson saw himself having the longest career. In fact, he’d play for a total of 23 years in the NFL, becoming a four-time Pro Bowler in the process. He also sits near the top of numerous records, including games (2nd), field goals made (3rd), and extra points made (3rd).
He’s also notable for having the first perfect kicking season (regular season only) in league history, converting on all field goals and points after touchdowns.
However, Anderson will always be remembered for missing a kick in the 1998 NFC Championship against the Falcons. That kick would be his only miss that entire year and is remembered as one of the biggest chokes in NFL history.
Steve Van Buren
Many names that have “Van” preceding the family name are of Dutch descent and mean “of” or “from,”, but Steve Van Buren comes from a land far, far away from Holland. Born to an American fruit inspector and a Honduran mother in Honduras, Van Buren was orphaned at 10. At that point, he and his brother moved in with their grandparents in Louisiana. He’d stay down south for college, starring at Louisiana State University.
Wham Van, as he was called, was destined for greatness and took his ferocious running style to the NFL, where he became an all-time great. Chosen fifth overall by the Eagles in 1944, Van Buren’s career was cut short due to injury, but in the eight (relatively) healthy seasons he did have, he was a beast. He led the league in rushing four times, was a five-time All-Pro, brought Philly two NFL Championships and had his number retired by the Eagles.
Many believe his physical running style coupled with blazing speed paved the way for the modern day running back.
Automatica Gramatica. Argentinian kicker Martin Gramatica, at his peak, was one of the highest paid Argentinian athletes, trailing only a few soccer stars from his native country. But becoming an NFL third-round pick and Super Bowl champion wasn’t always part of the plan for Gramatica.
When he and his family moved from Buenos Aires to LaBelle, Florida, soccer was the only sport he was interested in. However, his high school coach convinced him to give kicking a shot and Gramatica never looked back. Following high school, he went to Kansas State and, despite medically redshirting one year, was good enough to garner NFL interest. Tampa took the bait and chose the kicker in the third round in 1999. There, the flamboyant kicker became a Pro Bowler and was an integral part of the team that throttled the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII to give the Bucs their first and only Super Bowl victory.
Slightly more famous than his older brother but for all the wrong reasons, Bill Gramatica was an Argentinian kicker who played college football at the University of South Florida, following his transfer from Florida State University. As a Bull, he kicked the longest field goal in their program’s history. Impressive performances and accuracy helped Bill get drafted in the fourth round by the Arizona Cardinals.
As a Cardinal, Bill had his most infamous moment. Considered a flamboyant kicker who celebrated often, Bill was frequently jumping for joy following even the most routine of field goals. Well, after hitting a basic 43-yard attempt midway through the first quarter of a tie game, Gramatica jumped in the air with fists raised! It’s 3-0 boys! He hung in the air for what felt like an eternity before landing awkwardly and tumbling to the ground clutching his knee. That fateful kick ended his season due to an ACL tear which became one of the most embarrassing celebratory moves in sports history.
Finally, this name belongs to a real person instead of a classic example of the most generic name on the planet. And this name belongs to the Patriots kicker who famously kicked the what would be game-winner in the Snow Plow game in 1982.
Born in England, John Smith was a trained soccer player before attempting to try his luck playing the other kind of football. He eventually kicked his way onto the Patriots. His career highlight was the aforementioned Snow Plow game.
In that frigid blizzard-like day in Foxboro, the Patriots and Dolphins were deadlocked at 0-0. Enter a convict on a snow plow who was working the game on a weekend work release program. As Smith trotted onto the field to try and break the tie, Patriots coach Ron Meyer flagged down the plower and deliberately told him to clear the area where the ball was to be kicked.
In a game where people were sliding and slipping, any tactical advantage could prove to be the difference. And it did. The spot was cleared and the English-born kicker nailed the field goal, giving the Patriots a major upset by a final score of 3-0. He also nearly induced a heart attack with Head Coach Don Shula who was full of rage following the kick and shady tactics used against his Dolphins.
Garo Yepremian is a notable NFL kicker not just because he was born and raised in Larnaca, Cypress. Yepremian will go down in history as the only accomplished kicker who is most famous for attempting a pass.
Known best for his career stint with the Miami Dolphins, Yepremian actually joined the NFL as a member of the Detroit Lions in 1966 and made an immediate impact on the record books, hitting six field goals in a game against Minnesota. He then spent a year in the U.S. Army, and when he returned in 1968, the Lions chose not to bring him back. After a year in the CFL and another out of the game, he signed with Miami in 1970.
Garo would spend the next eight seasons with the Dolphins, earning two Pro Bowl honors and a pair of Super Bowl rings. But he almost cost the Dolphins dearly in Super Bowl VII against the Redskins, putting the perfect 1972 season in jeopardy with one bone-headed play. At first, it seemed like fate. Called upon to kick a field goal late in the fourth quarter, and with the Dolphins leading 14-0, it appeared Yepremian was about to end a 17-0 season by making the Super Bowl final score 17-0. Instead, his kick was blocked and the ball bounced directly into his arms. For a moment, Garo saw glory and attempted to pass the ball downfield.
This is where Garo made his big mistake. Kickers kick, not throw. Instead of tossing a game-clinching touchdown, the ball slipped out of Garo’s hands and in a moment of panic, he awkwardly batted the ball straight up into the air. Washington’s Mike Bass snagged the easy interception and ran untouched down the sideline for a touchdown, making it 14-7 and forcing the Dolphins defense to get a late stop to keep the Redskins from tying the game. A perfect season had its imperfect ending.
His nickname is one of the best in NFL history: “The Nigerian Nightmare.” It sums up the life and NFL career of Christian Okoye pretty well. Born in Enugu, Nigeria, Okoye became one of the most fearsome running backs in league history, a giant load of power of speed who truly was a nightmare for defenders tasked with getting Okoye to the ground.
Taken in the second round of the 1987 Draft by the Chiefs, Okoye arrived in the NFL with an abundance of athletic talent. As Azusa Pacifc University, Okoye was a seven-time track champion, and his 6-1, 260 pound frame made him an ideal prospect for a pro football career.
With the Chiefs, Okoye led the league in rushing in 1989 with 1,460 yards, the first of his two Pro Bowl seasons during his six-year pro career. He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Year and was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2000.
Sack master Osi Umenyiora’s journey to stardom in the National Football League was anything but traditional. Born in London to Nigerian parents, Umenyiora and his family decided to move back to their ancestral homeland when he was just 7 years old. After spending seven years in Nigeria, Umenyiora moved stateside to pursue a better education.
Despite being a standout on his Auburn high school football team in Alabama, the defensive end only received one scholarship offer: Troy University. Osi took what he was given and excelled at Troy before being taken in the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft.
In the NFL, Umenyiora became an integral part of one of the most feared and disruptive defensive units in football. He’d win two Super Bowls, become a two-time Pro Bowler, and finished his career fourth all-time in Giants history for quarterback sacks.
With about 50,000 people, American Samoa is one of the smallest countries in the world, both by total population and land mass. In fact, it’s the 10th least populated country on earth. But for Mosi Tatupu, one of the all-time greats for the New England Patriots, being from a small country didn’t hamper his big dreams.
Drafted in the eighth round of the 1978 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots, Tatupu played all but one season in New England, where he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro status during the 1986 season. He ended his career second all-time in offensive games played, trailing only Tom Brady.
His son, Lofa Tatupu, also made it to the NFL as a star linebacker, primarily for the Seahawks. Not bad for a guy from an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a population that’s less than Gillette Stadium.
Five-time Pro Bowler. Two-time All Pro. First round draft pick (20th overall). Second all-time in sacks for the Kansas City Chiefs. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Liberia’s own Tamba Hali.
A country mired in problems and stricken with civil war, Hali escaped Liberia at the age of 10 and fled to New Jersey to meet up with his dad who was a local professor. Although New Jersey is endearingly referred to as the armpit of America, it’s still an upgrade over a famine-ridden country bogged down by civil war.
Following a stellar career at Penn State, Hali took his pass-rushing skills to the next level, winning over fans and players in Kansas City. For over a decade, Hali was the face of the defense and one of the undisputed team leaders.
When the Lions drafted Ziggy Ansah — born and raised in Ghana — from BYU, they were primed to be one of the toughest defenses in the league. They were destined to have one of the most dominant lines in football. Ziggy Ansah, the fifth overall pick, was going to join Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Three first-round picks ready to terrorize the quarterback every week. Well, like most things in Detroit sports, this plan didn’t exactly pan out.
Suh became a massive liability thanks to his character and Fairley also dealt with character issues and injuries. The once-promising defensive line dissolved into a line solely anchored by Ansah, who, to his credit, has done a Pro Bowl-caliber job while managing the expectations that come with being drafted fifth.
As it stands, Ziggy ranks fifth all-time in Lions history for sacks, a ranking he’s primed to climb should he stay healthy. He’s also the only NFL player to hail from Ghana, where he spent his entire life until college.
Jesse Williams has a lot of first on this list, but being a first-round pick isn’t one of them. While at the University of Alabama, the Australian native who only began playing football at 14 became one of the most feared players in the land. He was a key member of some of the all-time great Alabama defenses that won back-to-back National Championships.
So what firsts does Williams have? By accepting a scholarship to play at the University of Alabama (following two years at a Junior College), Williams became the first indigenous Australian to accept a football scholarship. He then became the first indigenous Australian (and Australian at large) to earn a Super Bowl ring, when the 2013 Seahawks defeated the Broncos, despite spending the entire season on injured reserve.
Injuries and a bout with cancer cut short his promising career, as Williams retired in 2015 having never stepped foot on the field during a regular season NFL game.
Another Australian to emerge from the land down under to the ranks of the NFL, punter Mat McBriar is one of the more famous Aussie punters to play in the NFL, although he’s not the first. That distinction belongs to Darren Bennett, one of the most skilled punters of the 1990s and the first Australian to kick in the NFL.
McBriar, thanks to guidance from Bennett, became on of the league’s best punters and played in the league from 2003-14. He’s most widely remembered for his time with the Cowboys, where he was selected for two Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams.
Tom Fears was a man destined to break barriers. Born in Mexico to an American father and a Mexican mother, Fears became the first Mexican to get drafted by an NFL franchise. As an NFL receiver, Fears became one of the league’s brightest stars. He shattered records, won championships, and was respected by peers, fans, coaches, and the media.
After retiring from the game, Fears took up coaching. He became the first Mexican to become both an assistant and head coach in the NFL. His head coaching tenure with the New Orleans Saints wasn’t remarkable, but it paved the way for future minorities to coach at the highest level.
In 1970, Fears was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first player born in Mexico to get a bust in Canton.
When Jan Stenerud moved to the United States from Norway, he had all intentions of honing his skills as a world-class skier. After all, he was on an athletic scholarship to Montana State University for skiing, where he’d later become an All-American. But word got out that Jan was also a pretty good kicker and accepted a tryout for the team and earned a spot during his senior year. Stenerud excelled in both sports and became an All-American in both sports while winning an NCAA skiing championship.
It was the gridiron, not the slopes, however, that captured his heart.
Stenerud opted for football and was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1966, making him the first Norwegian to play in the NFL (although, at the time, the Chiefs belonged to the AFL).
In total, Jan played for 19 seasons, made six Pro Bowls, won one championship, and got a plaque in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not bad for a skier from Norway.
He was a bone crushing defender and one of the smartest players on the field. He was a eight-time Pro Bowler and four-time Super Bowl champion. Ted Hendricks brought a unique blend of size, athleticism, and intelect to the game of football that hasn’t been replicated by many players.
Originally from Guatemala, Hendricks grew up in Miami before attending the University of Miami where he earned the nickname the Mad Stork. At the professional level, Hendricks played for the Colts, Packers, and Raiders before retiring after the 1983 season. In 1990, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The name Bronko elicits images of a tough cowboy riding his horse at sunset. Maybe somewhere in Texas. Not this Bronko. This one hails from Canada. Born to two Ukrainian immigrants, Nagurski grew up doing hard labor on his family’s farm, the perfect way to build strength and formulate a rock-solid work ethic. His raw size and strength helped get him noticed by the University of Minnesota coach where Bronko played college ball.
Standing at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Nagurski was one of the larger players in the NFL of his era, and he used his size to his advantage en route to three championships and a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
Because of his impact on the game of football, Nagurski had an award named in his honor that’s given to the best defensive player in college football, The Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Who’s the greatest Brazilian kicker? Trick question, depends on the sport. For American football, it’d be Cairo Santos. The Tulane graduate grew up in Brazil and only discovered football as a high school exchange student in Florida. From there, Santos went to Tulane, where he became an All-American and received the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s best kicker.
After going undrafted, Santos signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. He made the 53-man roster and became the first Brazilian to play in a regular season game.
Small in stature, Santos’ big leg has led to a successful career in the league and is the record holder for most field goals made in a single game by a Chiefs kicker.
LUUUUUUUUUUKKKKEEEEE. That’s the endearing chant Seattle faithful yelled when their Canadian tight end Luke Wilson made a big play.
Hailing from Ontario, Canada, Luke decided to take his talents south for college and played at Rice University in Texas. Following four seasons, Wilson was drafted by the Seahawks in the fifth round. Not a stat stuffer, Wilson did play an integral role in Seattle’s Super Bowl winning season and capped off his rookie year a champion.
After five years in Seattle, Wilson signed with the Detroit Lions.
He doesn’t discriminate when tossing. He may toss quarterbacks and he may toss the discus or shot put. Either way, Margus Hunt is a scary, powerful beast. Standing at 6-foot-8, Hunt is one of the taller NFL players and the only active Estonian in the league. Hunt began football after the track and field team at his university, SMU, folded. Had it not folded, Hunt very well may never have played on the gridiron.
Throwing the discus and shot put was his true talent and passion. At the 2006 World Junior Championships, Hunt won gold in both the discus and shot put, all while setting the Junior World Record in discus.
Fortunately for Hunt, his raw size and athletic ability earned him a spot on the football team at SMU. Four years later, Hunt was the Bengals second round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Jamaica’s Patrick Chung may be a laid back chiller off the field, but when the helmet is strapped on, Chung flies around the field and hits with intensity. His days on the gridiron, however, were jump-started after Chung, the son of a famous Jamaican singer, moved from his home country to California at the age of 10.
Chung’s speed, power, and pure athleticism led him to commit to the University of Oregon where he starred. The Patriots selected the safety in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. His impact on the team has been huge, helping the Pats win two Super Bowls (although he’s also been on the losing end of two as well).
Yeah, he’s had the drops in his career, but when it mattered most Agholor came up huge. In Super Bowl LII, he had nine catches for 84 yards, one of many Eagles who feasted on the Pats’ porous defense. That Super Bowl was just the icing on the cake, a symbolic way to represent the true turnaround the receiver has had since being drafted in the first round by Philadelphia in 2015.
Agholor starred at USC after drawing national attention as a standout multi-sport athlete in high school in Tampa. His Tampa household was strict and disciplined, something Agholor’s father instilled in the family after moving them to the states from Lagos, Nigeria.
That strict discipline and tight-knit family bond guided Agholor through the tough streets of Tampa, to the spotlight at USC, to the least forgiving sports city in America: Philadelphia. He’s kept a level head through it all and is primed to be one of Philly’s key offensive weapons in their quest to repeat as champions.
The Kingdom of Tonga is a tiny island nation in the middle of Polynesia that has produced some big NFL talent, including Starlite (Star) Lotulelei, the 14th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Chosen by the Carolina Panthers for his run-stuffing ability, Star hasn’t disappointed and was one of the primary reasons why the Panthers had a 15-1 season and played in the Super Bowl (losing to the Broncos, however).
After five seasons in Carolina, Star signed with the Buffalo Bills and will be a key member of a revamped Bills defense looking to dethrone the Patriots atop the AFC East.
First-round draft picks from Germany? Although Dirk Nowitizki may be the first player that comes to mind in sports at large, Bjorn Werner also fits into this category, albeit without the success and in a different sport.
Taken 24th overall out of Florida State in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Colts, Werner got his football start playing in his native Germany, but his career really took off to the next level while playing high school football in Connecticut where Bjorn was an exchange student.
Drafted with high expectations, the defensive end never really found his stride in the pros and lasted a total of three seasons before retiring, citing injuries as his primary reason for leaving the game.
Born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, the flamboyant, red-headed Canadian punter has gained the love of Seahawks fans thanks to his impressive punting skills and outgoing demeanor. Ryan played college football in Canada and was drafted into the CFL where he played for two seasons before garnering the attention of NFL scouts.
Eventually, Ryan was signed by the Packers and lasted for two subpar seasons in Wisconsin before being signed by Seattle. In the Pacific Northwest, Ryan solidified himself as one of the league’s best special-teamers and was chosen as a captain for his squad.
At the end of the 2013 season, Ryan raised the Vince Lombardi Trophy after his Seahawks crushed the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Polish Hammer. Sebastian Janikowski is one of the most interesting kickers in NFL history, mostly because he was the first kicker in since the AFL/NFL merger to be drafted in the first round. The Raiders had so much talent and Janikowski was one of the greatest kickers in Florida State history, and this perfect storm allowed for Janikowski to be chosen 17th overall in 2000. It’ll be a long time until another kicker is chosen in Round 1. A really long time.
For a few seasons, Janikowski was tied for the record of longest kick in NFL history after successfully booting a 63-yard kick. After a long career with Oakland, where Janikowski set the record for most games played for the Silver and Black, he signed with the Seattle Seahawks.
Another kicker from Florida State, Graham Gano was born in Scotland, where his father was stationed while serving in the United States Navy. However, Gano grew up in Florida and was one of the more prolific high school kickers in the state.
Following college, Gano originally failed to make an NFL roster and played for the Las Vegas Locomotives of the United Football League. After one season there, Gano signed with the Redskins. He then moved to the Panthers, where he solidified his status as one of the league’s most consistent kickers. He made a Pro Bowl and signed a lucrative (for a kicker) four year, $17 million contract extension that will keep him kicking it in Carolina.
Anchoring the line for the New England Patriots is no easy task. Protecting Tom Brady must be a stressful job, and when the GOAT is nearly immobile, it makes the job that much harder. The Patriots recipe for success: keep Brady upright and give him enough time to make good throws. Rinse, repeat.
When New England selected University of Houston’s Sebastian Vollmer, a native of Germany, the objective was clear. Use your 6-8, 320 pound frame to keep Tom upright. And for seven years, he did a noble job. He earned two Super Bowl rings and was a Second-team All-Pro in 2010.
Back-to-back Germans here. Mike Jenkins, a cornerback, was born in Germany, where his mother served with the United States Army. However, unlike Vollmer who was raised his entire life in Germany, Jenkins and his mother moved to the States when he was a child and was raised in Florida.
After standing out on the field at the University of South Florida, the Cowboys selected Jenkins with the 25th pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. He bounced around the league and ultimately played for four teams before landing in the free agent pool where he’s yet to be signed. The former first-rounder did make one Pro Bowl during his career.