Unlike most other professional sports leagues in the United States, it’s extremely rare to find international players competing in the National Football League. In 2017, less than three percent of the players on team rosters were born outside the USA. And while the International Player Pathway Program has certainly enhanced international players’ representation in the league, it’s still far from the norm.
Players from across the globe however, have been playing in the NFL since the 1920s. One of the first – and most famous of the era – was Bronoko Nagurski; a Canadian with Ukranian-Polish ancestry. An All-American fullback and tackle for the Minnesota Gophers, Nagurksi was named to the NFL 1930s All Decade Team and is a member of both the College Football and NFL Hall of Fame.
Then there was Ted Hendricks. Born in Guatemala, Hendricks (nicknamed “The Stork” for his impressive height) was a two-time All-American at the University of Miami and holds the Hurricanes’ career record for most tackles by a defensive lineman. He completed a total of 15 seasons with the Raiders, Colts and Packers. Over the course of his career he won four Super Bowl Championship rings and was named to the Pro Bowl eight times.
With the 2019 season approaching, here are the top five international players trying to make a name for themselves in the NFL.
Efe Obada, Carolina Panthers
Nigerian-born and London-raised, Efe Obada began his NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys in 2015. He was signed as a free agent after playing amateur football with the London Warriors. He’s since been on the roster for the Atlanta Falcons and the Kansas City Chiefs. He was signed by the Carolina Panthers in May 2017 and became the first player from the NFL International Program to make a 53-man roster.
2018 marked the defensive end’s first regular season game, playing for the Panthers during Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals. With one sack and one interception, Obada was later named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week and awarded the game ball. With eight combined tackles and two sacks, Obada finished the season with a one-year contract extension with the Panthers and will be a player to watch for in 2019.
Jordan Mailata, Philadelphia Eagles
Jordan Mailata is a Samoan-born Australian offensive tackle. Drafted in the seventh round by the Eagles in 2018, Mailata is a former professional rugby league player for the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
While he didn’t play at all during his rookie year and suffered a back injury in December that placed him on injured reserve, his hard work on the sideline during and after practice has led to anticipation and excitement about his role on the offensive line in 2019.
“For such a young player who had never played the game before he came here, he’s made a lot of progress,” right tackle Lane Johnson said during the 2018 season. “When he gets it all together and understands how the game is played, he has a chance to be special.”
Moritz Bohringer, Cincinnati Bengals
The first player to be drafted directly from European football (without playing for any college) is 25-year-old Moritz Bohringer. The German-born tight end was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 during the sixth round.
After being waived by the Vikings in September 2017, Bohringer was signed by the Cincinnati Bengals as part of the International Player Program. He played in all four 2018 pre-season games and was then signed to the practice squad, where he remained throughout the regular season.
On December 2018 he signed a reserve/future contract with the Bengals; there’s loads of potential for his NFL career, and it appears that this franchise sees it.
Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles
London-born Jay Ajayi moved to Maryland, USA with his Nigerian parents when he was ten. Following a move to Texas, he played for his high school football team and rushed for 2,240 yards and had 35 touchdowns in his senior year. He played college football for Boise State from 2011 to 2014 and was drafted in the fifth round by the Miami Dolphins in 2015.
His 2016 season with the Dolphins proved impressive; as the lead running back, with 32 carries for 206 yards and a touchdown, he became one of 15 players in NFL history with three or more 200+ yard rushing games in his career. He also proved a valuable fantasy football asset, scoring 228 points over the course of the season. In the 2017 Pro Bowl, Ajayi had seven rushes for 18 yards and ranked 69th on the NFL Top 100 Players of 2017.
Ajayi was traded to the Eagles in October 2017. During Superbowl LII against the New England Patriots he rushed for 57 yards and helped his team bring home the Lombardi trophy for the first time in their history. Unfortunately, he was placed on injury reserve for a torn ACL during week five of the 2018 season in a game against the Minnesota. In February, just four months following surgery, Ajayi updated fans with a video posted on Instagram, showing him jumping on a step as he made a swift recovery.
Christian Scotland-Williamson is another international player who began his athletic career in a different sport. Until 2018, the England-born tight end played professional rugby for the Worcester Warriors in the English Premiership. He came to the attention of the NFL in 2017 when a video of his impressive tackle went viral.
Like many other international players at his level, Scotland-Williamson participated in the NFL’s International Player Pathway — and was subsequently signed to the practice squad of Pittsburgh Steelers. On 1st January 2019 he signed a reserve/future contract with the Steeler. His football career is one to watch out for in future seasons.