Outstanding Immigrants Who Succeeded in the NFL

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Autumn is upon us, and that means that Americans will sit in front of their TV sets to watch a game no other country in the world plays, and which for reasons of history rather than rationality, they call “football.”

There was a time when becoming an American meant learning the rules of baseball and deciding whether to cheer for the New York Yankees, New York (now San Francisco) Giants or the Brooklyn (Los Angeles) Dodgers (the correct answer is Dodgers). You knew you were an American when your kids wanted to grow up to play in the Big Leagues. But the NFL has out-marketed Major League Baseball and has supplanted baseball as the “Great American Pastime.” Interestingly, that shift has diversified the talent pool of the NFL. In other words, more and more immigrants are playing American football at the professional level.

Immigrants Players in the NFL


Immigrants NFLImage Source: Bob lemke

That fact is that there have always been a few players in the NFL who weren’t born in America. There are eight players in the Football Hall of Fame (located in Canton, Ohio, if you care to visit) who were born outside the US. Two of them (Bronko Naguski, Fullback, Chicago Bears, and Arnie Weinmeister, Defensive Tackle, New York Giants – New York Football Giants before the baseball team left) were born in Canada. Canada has its own Canadian Football League, and since the 1920s or 1930s, their version of football has resembled the US game quite a bit – it certainly doesn’t look like the rugby they both descended from. That might have given Bronko and Arnie a boost.

Latin America

Immigrants in the NFLImage Source: California Sports

Then, there are the Latin American-born Hall of Famers. Tom Fears of the LA Rams was born in Mexico; dad was an American mining engineer and mom was a Mexican citizen, Fears learned the game when dad came back the California. Ted Hendricks was born in Guatemala to an American dad and Guatemalan mom – parallel to Fears. The same was true of Steve Van Buren – American father, Honduran mother.


NFL ImmigrantsImage Source: Msbs

Then, there are the two Europeans. Leo Nomellini was born in Tuscany, Italy and went to Minnesota as an infant (he played for the San Francisco 49ers and was a pro wrestler). The other was Jan Stenerud of Norway, who attended college in Montana on a ski jumping scholarship. He was kicking a ball around (soccer style), and the football coach noticed. He was the place kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs for ages.

Things have changed as American football has risen in cultural importance and as more immigrants have arrived in the last few decades. Now, nearly every NFL team has at least one immigrant player, with the Chicago Bears and the St. Louis Rams each having four.


Roman Gabriel

Nfl ImmigrantsImage Source: Wrhi

Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, the son of a Filipino immigrant who came to the U.S. in 1925 and worked as a laborer in Alaska and California before settling in North Carolina and marrying an Irish-American woman. Young Roman grew up poor, sickly and afflicted with asthma, yet ended up being 6-foot-4, 235 pounds—your prototypical modern NFL quarterback.

Dat Nguyen

NFL ImmigrantsImage Source: Lubbock Online

Dat Nguyen was conceived in South Vietnam and born in a refugee center in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, as his parents fled their homeland after Saigon fell in April 1975. His family, like many of the “boat people” who left Southeast Asia following the war, eventually settled in southeast Texas’ gulf coast, where a sizable Vietnamese community formed.

Kailee Wong

NFL ImmigrantsImage Source: Kabegami

All-American linebacker at Stanford University before being selected in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings. The son of a Chinese father and Hawaiian mother.


Christian Okoye

NFL immigrantsImage Source: Black Sports online

One of the first African-born players to stand out in the NFL was Christian Okoye of Enugu, Nigeria, the Kansas City Chief’ running back from 1987 to 1992. More sub-Saharan Africans have immigrated to the United States over the past few decades than at any other time in history. The 2000 U.S. Census revealed that the influx of Nigerians, Ethiopians and Ghanaians (the three largest groups of African immigrants to the United States) had increased by 370 percent, 220 percent and 235 percent, respectively, in 10 years. I expect a great many more African players within a decade.

American-style football will probably never be as universally watched or played as soccer. The NFL’s attempt to set up a league in Europe failed. The Super Bowl will remain a truly American championship. But it’s not just for Americans anymore.

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