The NFL is considered a largely American game, with football being referred to as American football by sports fans around the world. But nomenclature aside, the game is growing around the world and has been contributed to by plenty of players outside of North America. These five players in particular have been standouts, despite coming from outside of North America, offering some of the very best that the league has seen at their respective positions.
5. Morten Andersen
Longevity is so important to success in the NFL and there may not be a player who embodies that better than Morten Andersen. From Denmark originally, Andersen earned the nickname The Great Dane for his exemplary kicking abilities. He was able to utilize those kicking abilities across multiple decades, putting in 382 total games in his 25 years in the league.
That level of longevity also helped Andersen become the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NFL when he retired in the 1990s. Patriots and Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri eventually broke that record in 2018. Playing on teams led by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will do wonders for scoring output, after all. But Andersen will always be remembered for being one of the best international players in NFL history.
4. Osi Umenyiora
The defensive line is one of the most important positions on an NFL field in the pass-happy era of the NFL. And one of the biggest examples of that came from Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora was born in England to parents of Nigerian descent and he made quite the name for himself in America thanks to his ability to get to the quarterback.
Umenyiora played on Giants teams that won two Super Bowls, both of which came against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The key to both of those games was the Giants' ability to get after the quarterback and Umenyiora played a huge role in the team by keeping Brady uncomfortable for the entirety of those games.
In his career, Osi racked up 85 sacks and forced 35 fumbles. He even managed to get into the end zone on four different occasions. Umenyiora has since retired and gone back to England, where he serves as a football commentator, helping to grow the game internationally.
3. Sebastian Janikowski
When people think of impact players, they don't normally think of kickers. But it is a fact that many of the best players in the NFL to come from outside of North America have been kickers. Whether it is because athletes get used to kicking at an earlier age due to the love of soccer in other countries or another reason, foreign-born kickers have had tons of success in the NFL. And there may be no better example of that than Polish kicker Sebastian Janikowski.
Affectionately called Seabass by fans of the sport, Janikowski was known for having one of the biggest legs in the history of the NFL. He made a 63-yard field goal in a game during his career, which at the time put him in a tie for the longest successful kick in the history of the league. He was so powerful, that he was brought on to attempt a field goal from 76 yards out, which would have smashed the record for the longest field goal in league history had it been successful.
Janikowski recently retired from the NFL, after having spent time with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. He will be remembered as one of the kickers that helped evolve his position, with longer distance kicking becoming commonplace thanks in part to his Herculean efforts.
2. Christian Okoye
Nicknamed "The Nigerian Nightmare", Christian Okoye was an impact player for the Kansas City Chiefs during his relatively short career in the NFL. Okoye was a member of the Chiefs for six seasons, playing the entirety of his time in the league with that team. When at his best, Okoye lived up to his nickname by being a nightmare for defenders to deal with. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in two of his six seasons, with the 1989 season being his most impressive.
In 1989, Okoye carried the ball a whopping 370 times, a total that would be seldom seen in today's NFL. And in those 370 carries, Okoye gained 1,480 yards and 12 touchdowns. In 1991, he put up over 1,000 yards again on only 225 carries. In that season, his yards-per-carry average was better than his famous 1989 campaign. But regardless of which season was seen as better, Okoye was a Chiefs legend, earning his way into the team's ring of honor at Arrowhead Stadium.
What was so impressive about Okoye was the fact that he played in an era where everyone knew teams were going to run the ball. And yet he still had success combining his power and speed to make life difficult for anyone who tried to get in his way.
1. Hines Ward
Hines Ward was born in South Korea and made quite the impact as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers during his time as a wide receiver there. Ward caught exactly 1,000 passes in his career, with 85 of those catches resulting in touchdowns. Ward averaged over 12 yards per catch during his career, with his ability to both stretch the field and break tackles making him a unique talent. He won two Super Bowls as a member of the Steelers, with the first of those titles earning him Super Bowl XL MVP honors.
Ward was known for his ability to catch the ball, of course, but was also remembered for his ability to block for the running game. He often threw vicious blocks that would send defensive backs to the ground, attempting to open up running space on the outside for backs to navigate. That kind of hard-nosed attitude embodied what the Steelers have been all about historically, and was one of the things that got Ward inducted into the Steelers' all-time team.