30 out of the 32 teams in the NFL have a native-born or first generation African player on the roster. African players in the NFL isn’t something recent fans have seen NFL stars such as Christian Okoye and Nnamdi Asomugha. Christian Okoye, aka the Nigerian Nightmare, burst onto the scene in the NFL in the late 1980s to the early 1990s. This was the first African “star” to enter the NFL. Known for his enormous stature being 6’1” and 260 pounds, Okoye was powerful, bruising running back that also had track and field speed. Former defensive lineman and first generation Nigerian Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila remembers Okoye as an inspiration. Gbaja Biamila states, “I remember looking at Christian Okoye. Just that he was Nigerian was cool. I felt, if he can do it, I can do it, too. I’m delighted to see it [the influx of African players in the NFL].” His impactful mark on the NFL is what paved the way for the native-born and first generation African today.
While Christian Okoye was the most popular with the coolest nickname, there was another African native that played a lengthy and successful career in the NFL. His name is Gary Anderson and he was born in South Africa to an English professional soccer player and a South African mother. He was a placekicker that was drafted in 1982 to the Buffalo Bills. Anderson would have a 22-year career in the NFL. Anderson was a consistently accurate kicker which is why he had such longevity. His most notable years came with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Minnesota Vikings. The most famous season of Anderson was with the Minnesota Vikings in 1998.
The Vikings were flying high in all aspects of the game. They were led by wide receivers Randy Moss, Cris Carter, and veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham. The Vikings went 15-1 that season and were a sure favorite to win the Super Bowl. Anderson was the unsung hero as he would break the record for most points scored in a season without scoring a touchdown (164 points). The Vikings would fall one game short of the Super Bowl loss in the NFC championship but Anderson had the best season for a kicker of all time. Anderson is sure to make it to the Hall of Fame one day.
These two players were influential to African players due to their amazing and consistent play.
Another notable star was Nnamdi Asomugha. He was a cornerback for the Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, and San Francisco 49ers. Asomugha was born to Nigerian parents and raised in Los Angeles where he attended high school and college. The Raiders cornerback was a premier shut down corner in the mid-2000s. Asomugha would draw the assignment of guarding the best receiver for the opposing team and would succeed at the task. He was a 3 time Pro Bowler and 2-time first team All-Pro.
These players represent the toughness and grit that African players bring to the game. African players are a vital piece to many NFL teams today. Players like Nigerian born Nelson Agholor aided the Philadelphia Eagles in a Super Bowl 52 victory over the New England Patriots. Mohamed Sanu is a speedy receiver for the Atlanta Falcons. He is the son of two native Sierra Leone parents. Also, Jeremiah Attaochu of the San Francisco 49ers. He was born in Nigeria and was selected in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft.
West Africa dominates the NFL boasting the most players. Nigeria, Ghana, and Cameroon are the most represented with Nigeria having the most on an NFL roster. In the college recruiting and NFL draft process, there is an influx of African descent players. These players have all the measurables needed to play in the NFL like size, strength, and attitude. This is very interesting since sports are not stressed to be important in African households. In America, sports is seen as a way out. Lots of people are in poverty and sports can be that savior to many people. A scholarship to a university can lead to that multi-million dollar contract in the professionals.
African households view this differently as education is the number one goal. Many native-born or first generation players are children of two-parent households and college graduates. Sports isn’t seen as the way to make money. Fame and fortune isn’t the goal of a successful life in the minds of African players. That is why there is a major mindset difference when you compare American players to African descent players.
Pro Bowlers and future Hall of Famers are becoming a normal sight in the NFL. Here are a few players in the NFL today that are having the most impact on their respected teams.
Jay Ajayi: Philadelphia Eagles
Jay Ajayi is an NFL running back born in London, England to Nigerian parents. He helped win Super Bowl 52 with the Philadelphia Eagles. Ajayi went to college at Boise State University where he was a two-time first-team All-Mountain West Conference player. He would eclipse 1,000 yards twice in his three-year career and this would help him be selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft to the Miami Dolphins. Ajayi would blast onto the NFL scene when in 2016, he would rush for over 200 yards in back to back games. He would be the fourth player to carry out this feat, joining the ranks of Hall of Famers O.J Simpson, Earl Campbell, and former Pro Bowler Ricky Williams.
This would lead to a Pro Bowl nod for Ajayi in 2016. He would be traded next season to the Philadelphia Eagles. Ajayi would join an already phenomenal Eagles offense as he helped lead the franchise to their first Super Bowl win.
Tamba Hali: Kansas City Chiefs
Tamba Hali was born in Gbargna, Liberia in 1983. He was an outside linebacker for 11 seasons for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was a five-time Pro-Bowler and important piece and captain to the Kansas City Chiefs. Hali lived in Liberia until he was 10 years old. He would be sent to the United States to escape the war in Liberia. His father was a professor at Farleigh Dickinson University and Hali would join him.
Hali showed great courage as he came into the United States education system not knowing how to read. He says how it was humiliating for him as people would tease him. Hali would overcome this burden and ultimately earn a scholarship to Penn State University where he would become an All-American. His mother would still be in Liberia and he ultimately was able to have her come to the United States saving her life. Hali would be selected in the first round of the 2006 NFL Draft.
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah: Detroit Lions
Ezekiel Ansah was born in Accra, Ghana in 1989. He would attend Brigham Young University and played 3 seasons for the Cougars. He would get drafted in the first round with the fifth pick in the 2013 draft. Ansah would make the Pro Bowl in 2015 logging 14.5 sacks. He’s had an interesting career thus far, however, the most interesting part is that Ansah started playing football his sophomore season of college!
Ziggy grew up playing soccer and didn’t know anything about American football. He also was a huge fan of basketball which is what he played the majority of his childhood through his first year of college. He would play in pickup basketball games at Golden Sunbeam Montessori School in Ghana and would catch the attention of many people. When he graduated high school, he would try out for the Brigham Young University basketball team twice in 2008 and 2009 but would be cut both times. Ansah would run for the track team at BYU but then would be persuaded into trying football.
This is where he would learn the rules and how to put on equipment. He would make his début that season against Wyoming where he recorded his first tackle. His natural talent is what’s helping him to a successful career so far. His raw talent is amazing since he only has a short time of playing the game. He is still understanding the game and will dominate the NFL in the next upcoming years.
African born or first generation NFL players are already prominent but is sure to continuously grow. Seeing as Africa’s most popular sport is soccer, it is amazing how these players are succeeding in the game today. The first African born player in NFL history came in 1970 as Howard Simon Mwikuta played for the Dallas Cowboys in a preseason game. How far African players have come is great and will continue to grow as they dominate the NFL.
Other notable players include: Yannick Ngakoue (Cameroon), Russell Okung (Nigeria), Alvin Kamara (Liberia), Brian Orakpo (Nigeria), Ndamukong Suh (Cameroon)