Making it in the NFL when you’re not from the US is a huge challenge. Many players flirt with the fringes of first-team rosters only to be left floundering in the free-agent wilderness, watching more established college stars are drafted in.
This means that when a foreign player does make it to the pinnacle of the sport, you can be damn sure he has what it takes and then some.
The continent of Africa has been leading the charge in this regard, with a significant cohort of African-born players carving out niches in one of the most demanding sports leagues in the world.
Here are the ones who have made the cut, proving they have what it takes to create an American football legacy, as well as put some serious dollar bills in their bank accounts.
Howard Simon Mwikuta
It would be remiss of us to pen such an article without recognizing the very first African player to ever set foot on an NFL football field.
That honor was bestowed on Howard Simon Mwikuta of Zambia who became a placekicker for the Dallas Cowboys, making his home country fans proud. For one reason or another, he did not ever quite manage to hold down a regular place on the team.
However, Mwikuta did leave a lasting impression on Atlanta where he studied before, and after his short stint with the Cowboys, he got involved with many charity initiatives and community projects, which even meant he got to meet then US president Jimmy Carter.
His life was tragically cut short by a heart attack at the age of 46, but his legacy in the sport will live on forever. He certainly never made anywhere near the levels of money that today’s NFL players receive.
If Mwikuta was something of a wasted talent, whose background kept him from realizing his full potential, the same certainly cannot be said of the Pittsburgh Steeler Okorafor, who went all the way from Nigeria, via Western Michigan College, to become one of the most promising offensive tackles in the game.
Okorafor was drafted 92nd overall and was rewarded with a $3.4 million contract, which came with the added sweetener of an $800K signing on bonus. That’s not bad at all when you are looking to settle down in a new town.
The young player is now locked in a battle with his teammates to see who will warrant a starting berth during the opening NFL games of the season. But one thing is for sure, if Okorafor is picked to start, his presence will only help lower the Steelers’ odds of victory against the Giants in their curtain-raising game.
To his friends and teammates, Ezekiel Ansah is known as Ziggy, a man who came from Ghana to make it big stateside, eventually signing a whopping $18.5 million contract with the Detroit Lions, which included an eye-watering $11.9 million signing on fee.
Since 2013, that sizeable signing fee and contract have ensured he has been a major part of plans in Detroit as well as Seattle where he now plies his trade with the Seahawks.
The Seahawks are among the frontrunners for the Super Bowl this year and Ansah, fresh from having signed a $9 million contract with them for twelve months of work, will be keen to help them realize that dream, although rumors abound that he may land at the 49ers instead.
Not bad for a guy who started out his sporting life playing soccer and basketball and took years to fully learn the rules of American football.
For a young man like Ade Aruna, growing up in Akure, Nigeria, the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip probably seemed light-years away, rather than a short plane journey.
But having just signed a deal to play for the newly relocated Raiders, Aruna will be assured of featuring this upcoming season and of seeing his name involved with things like the NFL’s new video games and other promotional drives.
Having joined the Minnesota Vikings in 2018, Aruna’s career has stuttered before now, but all that could change if his sizeable frame can muster results in the brand spanking new Allegiant Stadium.
There are very few foreign players who ever get the chance to put their hands on the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but that is exactly what Lagos born Emmanuel Ogbah managed with the Kansas City Chiefs last season before the signing a $15 million contract with the Miami Dolphins.
Ogbah certainly should not expect the same level of success in Miami as he had in Kansas, but his giant frame and presence on the field should be enough to ensure he is an NFL mainstay for the foreseeable future.
As is the case with so many African born players, they have to go that extra mile to make it to the big time, and Ogbah was no exception. Having graduated in Nigeria he found out that his degree was worthless in the eyes of the American educational system, meaning he had to start all over again.
He is a consistent sacker of quarterbacks and his rangy arms enable him to clear out an offensive line in double-quick time. These are skills no degree will ever teach him.
Yet another Nigerian – and this time one who played a full part in a Super Bowl game – Samson Ebukam registered an impressive four tackles against the New England Patriots in the 2018 showcase event, only for his Los Angeles Rams to come up short.
However, the game meant his stock rose and the $3 million rookie contract he signed with the Rams back in 2017 will no doubt be significantly increased when it runs out at the end of this year, as he is viewed as one of the best young linebackers in the game today.
These are the most prominent African NFL players playing in the big leagues today, but we only have to wait to see more talent coming from Africa to compete in the US.