From Africa to the NFL
More native-born and first-generation Africans are playing in a league that is globalizing not only its fan base, but also its talent
Leave it to America’s Team to start a global revolution.
On Aug. 8, 1970, the Dallas Cowboys were playing their fifth preseason game against the San Diego Chargers in a penalty-plagued contest before nearly 40,000 fans at Jack Murphy Stadium.
Late in the fourth quarter, with Dallas leading the hometown Chargers 17-10, Cowboys rookie quarterback Roger Staubach drove his team 50 yards down the field. The nine-play Dallas drive, however, stalled at the San Diego 2-yard line. On fourth down, Cowboys coach Tom Landry sent out his special teams to attempt a 10-yard field goal. (The goal posts were then positioned on the goal line, four years before the NFL would move them to the back of the end zone.)
The Cowboys regular placekicker was veteran Mike Clark, a conventional, straight-ahead kicker. But instead of Clark, Landry trotted out an obscure, diminutive, soccer-style kicker, Howard Simon Mwikuta, a 29-year-old rookie from Atlanta’s Morris Brown College.
Mwikuta, who was also a defender for the Dallas Tornado of the North American Soccer League, put the football straight through the uprights, scoring the final points of a 20-10 Cowboys victory. Earlier in the game, Mwikuta converted an extra point on the Cowboys’ first touchdown. A few days later, Mwikuta would be among the Cowboys final roster cuts. He was placed on waivers by Dallas and went unclaimed.
The short career of Mwikuta, who was born in Zambia, may have been otherwise unremarkable had it not been for his distinction of becoming the first native-born African to be signed and play in the modern NFL.
(Wilkie Osgood Moody, born in 1897 in Irabo, Congo, played wingback for the Columbus Panhandles. He played in the Oct. 3, 1920 Panhandles game against the Dayton Triangles – the first regular-season game of the American Professional Football Association, which became the NFL a year later.)
Since then, more native-born and first-generation Africans have played in a league that is increasingly globalizing not only its fan base, but also its talent.
They play at nearly every position except quarterback. Many of them are stars, such as the Kansas City Chiefs’ perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Tamba Hali, a native of Liberia, who came to the United States as a teenager to escape his country’s civil war. Then there’s the Detroit Lions’ defensive lineman Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah of Ghana and the Oakland Raiders’ massive offensive lineman Kelechi Osemele, the American-born son of Nigerian parents.
Altogether, 18 countries have been represented, ranging from Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, to one of its smallest, The Gambia.
“You look up and down the rosters, you see a lot more of them,” said Ray Didinger, a longtime pro football columnist who works with NFL Films. “[Football] has become more of a global game.”
Former NFL lineman Brian Baldinger, who has visited several African countries, says the steady influx of native-born and first-generation African players in the NFL is a natural progression of globalization, in general, and the growing popularity of American football, in particular.
“I think we’re going to see more of it,” said Baldinger, who is an analyst with the NFL Network. “There’s Menelik Watson, who’s from London. A lot of these guys that are coming into the league are too big for soccer, but they still have the skills. I think it’s a real trend and it’s going to continue. You see it in basketball and football and you’ll see it in the colleges more and more.”
It would be nearly a dozen years before another African would follow Mwikuta’s footsteps in the NFL. And his impact would be even more significant.
Two Nigerian placekickers, both former Clemson University soccer players, Obed Ariri and Donald Igwebuike, were drafted by the NFL and played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But their careers would pale in comparison to the achievements of a single South African.
Gary Anderson was born in 1959 in Parys, what was the apartheid-ruled nation’s Orange Free State. His father, Rev. Douglas Anderson, had played soccer professionally in his native England. The younger Anderson was raised in Durban on the Indian Ocean before his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
On his third day in the States, Anderson, then 18, went to a local high school and started drop-kicking footballs 50 yards. His kicking prowess soon attracted attention, including a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Anderson accepted an athletic scholarship to Syracuse University, where he played both football and soccer his first two years. He played football exclusively as a junior. In his senior year, Anderson earned All-American honors.
Drafted in the 1982 by the Buffalo Bills, Anderson was cut before the regular season. He was picked up on waivers by Pittsburgh, where Anderson played for the next 12 seasons. Anderson wound up playing for four other teams in a 25-year career and when he retired in 2004, he was the NFL’s all-time leading scorer with 2,434 points.
While placekickers cracked the door to the NFL for native-born Africans, it would be the exploits of a position player that would bust it open. The story of what dreams are made of starts with a nightmare — the “Nigerian Nightmare.”
Born in Enugu, Nigeria, Christian Emeka Okoye was the first native-born position player to achieve stardom in the NFL. Standing 6-1 and weighing nearly 260 pounds, Okoye was a powerful runner blessed with a sprinter’s speed.
A star athlete in Nigeria, Okoye came to the States on a track and field scholarship at California’s tiny Azusa Pacific University. Excelling in the shot put, discus and hammer throw, Okoye joined the school’s football team in 1984 – even though he initially thought the game was boring.
“When I started playing football,” said Okoye, “I wrote to ask permission from my father. He told me he’d think about it. He read articles about it and thought it was extremely dangerous. He read about some people being paralyzed or having serious injuries. He didn’t want me injured.”
Okoye said his father insisted that he concentrate on his education instead of playing football, but he felt pressured by friends to play football. “So, after I had some success,” added Okoye, “I sent [my father] back articles and he shifted to supporting me playing football.”
Okoye was drafted in the second round of the NFL’s 1987 draft by the Kansas City Chiefs – after just three seasons of playing organized football.
After two injury-plagued seasons, Okoye burst onto the national scene in his third year, leading the NFL in rushing with 1,480 yards, earning the first of two trips to the Pro Bowl. His easygoing, soft-spoken demeanor endeared him to fans and won him commercial endorsements.
Knee injuries forced Okoye from the NFL in 1993. When he retired, he was the Chiefs’ all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns.
At the time of Okoye’s retirement, there were only a handful of native-born or first-generation Africans playing in the NFL, but major American colleges and high schools had already begun to recruit from this newfound pool of talent. The influx into the NFL over the past two decades would only proliferate.
Okoye’s stardom inspired many native-born and first-generation Africans to play football and dream of playing in the NFL.
“It was everything,” said Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, a former Pro Bowl defensive lineman with the Green Bay Packers who is the son of Nigerian parents and grew up in South Central Los Angeles. “I remember looking at Christian Okoye. Just the fact 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].”
Gbaja-Biamila was part of a second wave of native-born or first-generation African immigrants to make headlines in the NFL.
Nnamdi Asomugha, born to Nigerian parents and raised in Los Angeles, was a Pro Bowl cornerback who played 10 years for the Raiders, Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. Defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora, born in London to Nigerian parents, and Mathias Kiwanuka, the Indiana-born grandson of Uganda’s first prime minister, Benedicto Kiwanuka, teamed up to help lead the New York Giants to two Super Bowl victories.
They have been followed in recent years by stars such as Sierra Leone’s Mohamed Sanu, a speedy wide receiver with the Atlanta Falcons; Philadelphia’s Pro Bowl running back, Jay Ajayi, whose parents are from Nigeria; and New York Giants running back Orleans Darkwa, who is of Ghanaian descent.
So far, West Africans have dominated the ranks of native-born and first-generation players from the continent in the NFL, specifically from Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon. Each year, increasing numbers of Africans are being recruited into the college ranks, frequently immigrants who have grown up playing football after years in Pop Warner and high school programs.
“Last year, I went to the University of North Carolina, Charlotte pro day,” said longtime scout Mike Mayock. “I noticed them, but you don’t step back and have a discussion about where somebody is from, you’re just trying to gauge how big a player is, how fast they are and if they have the talent to make it in the league.”
Mayock and others have noted that many Africans are playing offensive line positions, usually reserved for the more cerebral players.
“There’s no doubt that to be in the NFL, you have to be highly disciplined, tough and intelligent, especially if you’re an O-lineman,” Mayock added. “You can’t fall in love with great measurables, size, strength and speed. The guys that are making it are tough and smart. If what you are telling me is they’re disciplined and tough and smart, the league wants these guys.”
While native-born and first-generation Africans have generally grown up around and socialized with African-Americans, they remain culturally distinct in some ways.
Many of the native-born and first-generation players are the children of college students and come from two-parent households. Generally, their parents stress sports, such as football, as a means to further their educational goals, instead of vice versa. Many of these athletes go on to finish either their undergraduate degrees or pursue postgraduate degrees after their playing careers are over.
“I don’t think they’re hungrier than American kids,” said NFL Network’s Jeffri Chadiha. “If you’ve been here, you realize you only have so many opportunities – you’re very aware that if you don’t make it through sports, you might not make it. But [native-born and first-generation Africans] are not distracted by the same things, fame and fortune, that prevent them from succeeding.
“They’re pragmatic. They pick up discipline quickly; it’s like a built-in advantage. I can’t remember any African-born player being a discipline problem. It’s different for American-born players; we’re socialized to value money and prestige. We feel lesser. Players from Africa aren’t hardwired with these sensibilities.”
Many of these players, like Okoye, are members of Nigeria’s Ibo people, one of the nation’s three largest ethnic groups, long noted for a deeply ingrained reverence for education.
“African parents always, always support education,” Okoye added. “They want you to finish your degree. Football is not forever. You never know how long you will play. You can play for more than 10 years; you can also play for one. African parents are right.”
Chadiha argues that the pride many native-born African and first-generation immigrant players have gives them a built-in advantage.
“There are a lot of kids in America, black kids, who deal with insecurities of dealing with the legacy of slavery,” said Chadiha. “They deal with the feelings of inferiority in the society. With the Africans, it’s different. They’re a different people from another country. They have a different sense of pride.”
Baldinger expects the number of native-born and first-generation Africans will only increase in the future.
“Ziggy Ansah is a big star with Detroit,” said Baldinger. “He’s from Ghana. You look at all the Nigerians that are coming in. I’m tracking it. A lot of them are coming into the clinics and the scouting combines with ability and great talent. I think we’re going to see more of it. It’s a global sport now. You can get NFL games streaming on Twitter or Amazon all around the world.”
Despite the influx of talent, there is one position that native-born and first-generation African players in the NFL have yet to fill – quarterback.
Will a native-born or first-generation African ever line up behind center as quarterback for an NFL team? Eric Allen, a former Pro Bowl cornerback, said it’s a possibility.
“You need to look at the colleges first,” Allen said. “I wouldn’t be surprised, with the run-pass option, that we’ll see one developed into a pocket passer. They have the athleticism, but a lot of that depends on getting into a youth program, first. It has to start at 8 or 9. They play soccer year-round; they play until they get involved in football. It’ll be different, because they have to learn new skills.”
Mayock, for one, agreed. He argued that the requirements for playing the position have changed.
“You look at what we’re getting – not just the big pocket passers anymore,” said Mayock. “What we’re getting more and more of is the spread offenses, guys who work out of the shotgun or the pistol, who have a big arm and run well. They have to learn how to play on the next level. There’s less of a learning curve than there used to be.”
Growing the game in Africa has been done on a small, piecemeal fashion. For several years, many NFL stars have returned to Africa to conduct clinics to teach the game in their native lands. Okoye, who used to hold clinics in California, and Hawaii, is now running a flag football program in Nigeria. He urged the NFL to increase its involvement in Africa.
“The world is becoming smaller and smaller,” added Okoye. “I receive letters almost every day from Nigeria, with parents asking me how to get their children involved in football. I’ve met with the commissioner and the league officials several times, asking them to get the league more involved in Africa. They’re watching the games and they are interested in the games.”
The growth in the talent pool for professional sports, as well as new markets, is overseas. The NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL have followed the NFL in staging games overseas.
The NFL stages four regular-season games each season in London. The league has played exhibition games in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia and Sweden. The short-lived NFL Europe had franchises in Scotland, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. A game for China has been in the planning stages for about 10 years, but the league has been unable to surmount the logistical challenges. Will the NFL ever play a game in Africa?
“I hope so,” said Chadiha. “I know it’s a business. London is more appealing than Nigeria to play football, but just think for the sake of growing the game. I think it should happen. They’re already following the game on satellite television. It’s exciting. The numbers are going up so quickly. When they talk about the game going global, they forget to talk about Africa, sometimes.”