The NFL currently boasts 50 international players. While 15 of the 50 players happen to come from Canada, the rest are from a diverse range of nations that they represent. The majority of the greatest of these players happen to be special teams specialists. The skill sets of special teams are a much more natural transition to American football for foreign players than adapting to be one the sports’ skill positions, such as wide receiver or running back.
Take for example Sav Rocca, who played Australian rules football from the young age of 1992 until 2006. Over that time he led scoring for both of the clubs he played for over numerous seasons, up until his retiriement. Rather than retire from all professional sports at this point, Rocca spent his final professional season preparing to become a punter in American league football.
A week after his final season with the North Melbourne Football Club, Rocca was immediately signed by the Philadelphia Eagles as a punter and became the oldest NFL rookie in league history at 32. This career advancement by the former Melbourne man was definitely a strange one and his reasons for transitioning to the NFL included financial benefits and continued self improvement.
While Rocca did not have a Hall of Fame career in the NFL, he was a great example of the rare foreign talent entering the NFL and benefiting the game. He was known for his hardheaded tackling for a punter, using his background in Australian Football to use a play style that most American punters could not replicate.
One of the greatest NFL kickers in recent history, Sebastian Janikowski, is the son of Polish immigrants and a member of the Polish under-15 soccer team. After immigrating to the United States and playing soccer in high school, Janikowski was recruited by one of the football coaches to play football. As the Raiders kicker enters his 16th year in the NFL, it would be an understatement to say that the transition between sports was successful.
Outside of the special teams positions, a surprising number of the NFL’s foreign players are members of the offensive and defensive lines. While the skill set to play on either line is incredibly nuanced, the entry prerequisite of “being large” is one that is not advantageous in most sports, so hopeful professional athletes of that body build around the world can make the leap into the line.
The Dallas Cowboys is the team in the NFL who has best taken advantage of this clientele of international lineman. Their defensive line includes Canadian Tyrone Crawford and British citizen Jackson Crawford, coincidentally sharing the same last name. Meanwhile, the backup to their offensive line includes fellow British citizen Lawrence Okoye who can play across the whole line.
There are players across the whole league that hail from various nations and cultures to come be part of the NFL family. Though there is not much of a historical background for the international footballer, the growing market of the league across the world is sure to pull in more interest globally to bring more of a talent pool in.
Despite the fact that no international player has made the Hall of Fame yet, Janikowski is probably on the fringe to, and some talent is sure to come over and break through to do so, especially as more nations come over to enrich the game and the league with their own personal additions to the game in style and spirit, as Sav Rocca did over a decade ago.