***This is the first in a series of three blog posts written by VOA intern Alex Hodge.
With the National Football League (NFL) kicking off a new season in September, let’s take a look at the African influence on the popular American sports league.
Thirty of the 32 teams currently have a native born or first generation African player on their roster. African players in the NFL isn’t something new.
Many fans remember Christian Okoye, nicknamed “The Nigerian Nightmare,” who burst into the NFL in the late 1980s and became the first big African star. And I do mean big. At 6’1” and 260 pounds, Okoye was a powerful, bruising fullback who also had excellent speed.
The two-time Pro Bowl player turned to American-style football after not being selected for Nigeria’s Olympic track and field team.
Former NFL defensive lineman and first generation Nigerian Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila says Okoye was an inspiration.
“I remember looking at Christian Okoye,” says Gbaja-Biamila.“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].”
Okoye played six seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, and he’s now recognized as a pioneer, helping pave the way for other African players.
Eighteen African countries are represented in the NFL today, ranging from the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, to one of its smallest, The Gambia.
South Africa has reason to be proud of Gary Anderson, one of the top placekickers in NFL history.
Anderson grew up in South Africa’s coastal city of Durban, the son of a South African mother and an English father who was a former professional soccer player.
Anderson was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1982. He would go on to play 23 seasons in the NFL with a total of six teams.
His most noteworthy season came in 1998 with the Minnesota Vikings. Anderson broke the record for most points scored in a season without scoring a touchdown (164 points – the record was broken in 2011 by David Akers, who tallied 166 points).
With 2,434 points, Gary Anderson is currently in third-place all-time, behind two more placekickers: Adam Vinatieri (2,487 points) and Danish player Morten Andersen (2,544 points).
Gary Anderson and Christian Okoye inspired other African players to follow in their footsteps in the NFL. In my next blog post, I’ll examine the mindset of African players in the NFL.