Record number of international athletes proves college football is now global

With its rabid fandoms, roaring student sections, iconic tailgates and elaborate marching band, college football is a spectacle unlike anything in the world.

No other country deifies student athletics in a way remotely similar to the 100,000 seat stadiums of the United States. In many ways, it is the peak of Americana, but college football is now less American than it has ever been.

While international athletes have found a home in college football for years, the rise of global recruiting services and US prep schools who target prospects overseas has made the rise meteoric.  In 2021, almost 700 players across all levels of college football (FBS, FCS, D2, D3, and NAIA) listed their hometown outside of the incorporated United States. While some of those players are immigrants who picked up the sport in the US, the gross majority are true international products whose NCAA dreams began in their home country.

Austria’s Bernard Raimann #76 is a projected 1st round pick playing for Central Michigan Photo: Central Michigan Athletics

It isn’t simply the major players in international football who are producing talent either. In total, 64 different countries could boast a player in the US college ranks last season, a number that would have once seemed unfathomable.

Estonia and Georgia boast Division 3 defensive ends in Ular Tiitma of Rowan University and Nikoloz Vasadze of St. Olaf College. Israeli offensive lineman Yaniv Kovalski just wrapped up his career at Stonehill College. Hungary has produced two Division 1 kickers in Old Dominion’s Dominik Soos and Stetson’s Cameron Gillis. Polish defensive lineman Rafal Szymanski plays for Houston and Boston College tackle Illija Krajnovic leads a trio of three NCAA players from Serbia. The list goes on.

Impressively, many of the least represented countries are also producing the best athletes. Scotland’s only representative is Michigan’s David Ojabo, a projected first round NFL draft pick. Same goes for Greece, who can claim credit for a potential top ten selection in Purdue’s George Karlaftis and recent Boise State transfer George Tarlas. Italy has just two players but Habbakuk Baldonado led Pitt with 9 sacks from his defensive end spot last year. Latvia can proudly claim defensive tackle Ralfs Rusins, recently selected for the NFL’s IPP program after a stellar career for Liberty.

Italy’s Habbakuk Baldonado led Pitt in sack production Photo: University of PIttsburgh Athletics

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most heavily represented nation outside of the US is their northern neighbor Canada. More than 200 players hail from the great white north, led by standouts such as Alabama receiver John Metchie III and Penn State outside linebacker Jesse Luketa.

Following the Canadians in terms of numbers, Australia can take credit for 104 college players. While their long tradition of Aussie Rules style punters still make up the bulk of that number, the land down under now has offensive and defensive lineman, safeties and receivers, even quarterbacks playing at the highest level. Minnesota’s 380-pound tackle Daniel Faalele should be their top representative in the coming NFL draft, not a kicker.

Germany, England, Mexico and Sweden are the next most numerous countries, with stars like Cincinnati guard Lorenz Metz, Utah tackle Bamidele Olaseni, Mississippi Valley State kicker Orlando Fernadez and UCLA linebacker Jordan Genmark-Heath representing them proudly.

Estonia’s Ular Tiitma #93 is a standout DE at Rowan University Photo: Rowan University Athletics

Other nations are punching well above their weight class. Austria has 8 players, but Central Michigan tackle Bernhard Raimann was the MAC conference offensive player of the year and an expected first round pick. Finland and France are both well-represented, while Japan suddenly has 13 players, including productive edge rusher Yosuke Sugano at St. Francis (PA) and a pair of walk-ons at Utah.

Perhaps most remarkably, the idea of an international quarterback has shifted from fantasy to reality. While Germany’s Alexander Honig redshirted at TCU, Spain’s Carlos Martin Nieto made starts at the Division 3 level with Western New England. Others to throw passes included Switzerland’s Bay Harvey at John Hopkins, Austria’s Yannik Grunner at Concordia Wisconsin, and Australian Lachlan Poor for NAIA school Ottawa.

Dozens of other nations, ranging from Brazil to Nigeria, The Netherlands to Denmark, all saw one of their own participate in the great American tradition of collegiate athletics, pulling on jerseys from schools both large and small. The numbers won’t be decreasing any time soon either, with international recruiting exploding and football becoming more popular globally every year.

The future of the most American of past times is now being found overseas and it’s time we all took notice.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.