This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers battle the Minnesota Vikings at London’s Wembley Stadium. Marketed as the “International Series 2013,” the contest is the NFL’s attempt to globalize the sport of American Football.
Some pundits think playing in London is ridiculous. It forces teams to travel great distances and it cost a team, in this case the Vikings, a home game. By the way, the NFL returns to Londinium in late October.
Those pundits are wrong. NFL players are professionals. They go where the schedule tells them to go whether it’s their home field, a foreign city, or the Moon. NFL players’ jobs are to play football. If they rack up a bunch of frequent flier miles in the process so be it.
Now, the job of the NFL is to grow the league’s fan base. One of the ways to do that is by playing overseas. There’s a slight problem though. Foreigners flock to American football like they do to country music, gun ownership, and democracy—in other words, not very much.
Maybe the rest of the world will find American football more agreeable if some of the players had an international background? The league sure hopes so because more and more foreign-born players are putting on the pads and snapping on the chin-straps.
Trend or Fad?
The 2013 NFL Draft was nearly an ad for Benetton. A record 12 foreign-born players heard their names called. In the last two NFL Drafts, teams have picked five players who didn’t attend high school in North America. In the previous 21 years there was just seven.
“You’ve seen in other sports, this wide net cast all around the world,” said former NFL general manager Bill Polian. “It was inevitable with football, but there are challenges that baseball or basketball doesn’t have.”
Money, Money, Money!
Of course, teams aren’t looking for non-American players to help the league expand its fan base. They’re looking for anyone that can help their team win and they’re looking for bargains. The four players drafted in 2013 who went to U.S. colleges, but not a North American high school, have signed contracts worth $23.3 million in guaranteed money. But, if a team takes a chance on an athlete, and just keeps him on their practice squad, they’re paying him just a few thousand dollars a week.
One of those chances is Daniel Adongo, a member of the Indianapolis Colts practice squad. The South African is a former rugby player who’s 6-foot-5 and a chiseled 257 pounds. He was invited to camp without ever having put on a football helmet. Adongo started his foray into the pigskin by broad-jumping 11 feet. Had he done that at the NFL combine he would have had the sixth-best distance. His weekly salary is just $6,000.
“You might think a situation with a guy that has so little experience would be complicated, but it’s the total opposite. What you find is an eagerness to learn and a total absence of bad football habits to undo. Heck, they have no football habits at all,” explained former NFL coach June Jones.
To simplify the process, NFL scouts are now scouring the globe looking for amazing athletes they can “coach-up.” Their tutelage and the player’s physical prowess will (they hope) overcome a lack of football experience. One such example is Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah. Although he wasn’t discovered by an NFL scout, he did relocate from Ghana to Provo, Utah (BYU) to play hoops. Coaches saw his 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame and implored him to play football.
Ansah did and immediately impressed coaches with his natural strength and athleticism. He eventually impressed NFL war rooms. Ansah was drafted fifth overall in 2013 NFL Draft. After just three NFL games, the Ghanaian defender has two and half sacks and a forced fumble.
The Shining Example
While the current crop of international players are mostly potential, the one foreign-born player that is the model for future athletes and current scouts is offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer. He plays for the New England Patriots (who else).
Born in Germany, Vollmer wasn’t invited to the 2009 NFL Combine but he was drafted by the Patriots. All he has done since entering the league is make second-team All-Pro in 2010 and sign a $27 million contract in March of 2013. Not bad for a player who didn’t start playing football until he was 14.
Why Not Look For Athletes In America?
Conventional wisdom says if you’re an American and you’re a gifted athlete then you’ll eventually be discovered by some football coach somewhere along the way. There are however those who fall through the cracks. For example, Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas. The 6’ 5” Thomas was playing basketball for Portland State when one day he asked coaches if he could play football—he hadn’t stepped onto a gridiron since middle school.
Thomas took to the position quickly and was selected by the Broncos in the fourth round of 2011 NFL Draft. He started the 2013 NFL season by grabbing five Peyton Manning passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
“The most difficult part of a project like these guys are is patience,” claims Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
Since patience is so important when trying to develop inexperienced athletes into football players don’t expect the type of international influence in the NFL that’s experienced in MLB and the NBA. After all, NFL owners and fans are not known for their patience.
Still, if the aforementioned players continue to improve and perform fans should expect a few more athletes to stamp their passports and try their fortunes in the NFL. But don’t look to the current crop of foreign-born players to widen the NFL’s audience. For that it’s going to take more than offensive and defensive lineman. It’s going to take quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. In order to play the skill positions international prospects will need experience playing against top-tier talent. Unless they want to relocate to America at a very young age they’re not going to get that type of experience overseas.
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