How many African stars have played in the NFL?

Dec 31, 2017; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) salutes the crowd after the game against the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It is well known that the four major North American sports leagues are famous around the world. The LA Lakers, New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys and Montreal Canadians jerseys can be found on fans from any of the seven continents. It is also becoming more obvious that each of the four major league sports are looking to expand their fan base, exposure and potentially some sort of international expansion or partnership with other countries.

For the past few seasons, the NFL has scheduled exhibitions or regular season games in Canada, England and Mexico. One continent that is chomping at the bit for some NFL action is Africa. While the NBA currently holds down the popularity title due to the number of professional players and the league’s offseason tours and programs, the increase in NFL players from Africa may one day help put the homeland of many Africans on the schedule.

In 1970, the Dallas Cowboys roster featured the first African born player to sign with a NFL club. Zambian placekicker Howard Mwikuta would fall short of cracking the regular season roster, but the Northern Rhodesia born soccer star would be the first African player to suit up for an NFL franchise.

As Mwikuta did a dozen years prior, Gary Anderson, born in Parys, South Africa, exchanged one football career for another as he would crack the regular season roster for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1982. Anderson, the NFL’s third all-time leading scorer, would wind up playing for six teams over his twenty-three-year career, collecting six Pro-Bowl spots along the way.  Last season, 30 of the 32 teams in the NFL featured a native born or first-generation player from one of eighteen African countries on their regular season roster.

Christian Okoye, one of the most popular African born NFL players was famously dubbed the “Nigerian Nightmare” due to his power and speed. During Okoye’s six seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs (1987-92), he was twice named to the Pro Bowl. Although there were others before him, the running back became more of a focal point and inspiration for African born talent to follow their dreams and aspirations of playing professional American football at a position that required more than a solid foot.

Arguably one of the best linebackers to suit up for the Kansas City Chiefs, Tamba Hali finished his twelve-year career holding down second spot on the team’s all-time tackle list, with 591 tackles, 51 behind leader Derrick Thomas. While he won’t be enshrined in the Hall of Fame like Thomas, the Liberian was acknowledged for his efforts with five straight Pro Bowl appearances.

While he may not have the on field accolades that his countrymen may have, Amboi Okoye (no relation to the Chiefs star, but also Nigerian) holds the distinction of being the youngest player ever selected in the NFL’s first round of the amateur draft, leading the NCAAF betting picks, at just 19 years old. Okoye would play in only 87 games over his six-year NFL career before trying to catch on with the CFL’s Saskatchewan Rough Riders.

After being relatively unknown to most fans and experts during his first three years in college, Ghana born Ezekiel Ansah turned heads during his breakout senior season and was drafted with the fifth overall pick in 2013 by the Detroit Lions.  While the defensive end has had his struggles remaining healthy, when he managed to stay off the injured list, he produced a Pro Bowl worthy season, something that the Seattle Seahawks hope he can replicate in 2019-20.

There are currently only a handful of players in the NFL to have a Super Bowl ring on their finger. Just as it does with North American born players, those who are fortunate enough to have reached the pinnacle of NFL success and can proudly bring back to Africa a sign of hope into more youngsters following their footsteps.

Whereas many players from the United States have a neighbourhood betting on their successes, any player from Africa will have an entire country and maybe even a continent applauding their hard work, sacrifice and achievement, hoping that they too one day will be the next star to represent their homelands.