The 2020 NFL Draft was held April 23-25 in the US. The annual promotion of collegiate gridiron’s most promising talent to the professional league is a favorite event among American football watchers.
Teams expect big things from players selected in the Draft’s top rounds. A drafted player who performs well in his rookie season contributes a major upside to an NFL franchise. This includes elevating the team to the playoffs, raising prospects in American football betting odds–sports betting is a common practice among fans in the US–and enticing ticket sales.
Players with connections to Africa have long had an impact on the Draft. By 2018, 30 of the 32 NFL teams included players who were either native-born Africans or one generation removed from the continent.
Here is a look back at five of the greatest African-born players selected in the Draft.
Ariri’s path to kicking in the NFL began the way many Africans transition to gridiron football–through soccer. He thrived as a non-gridiron football star in his native town of Owerri, Nigeria.
Ariri was recruited to play college soccer at Clemson University in South Carolina in 1977 but soon found himself on the school’s football team as a desperately needed kicker. He would complete four seasons on the Clemson gridiron team as the Tigers’ field goal and extra point specialist.
The Baltimore Colts took notice of Ariri’s talent and offered him a ticket into the NFL in the seventh round (178th overall pick) of the 1981 Draft. Baltimore ultimately cut him from the team several days prior to the start of the season, however, the Nigerian found a pro home kicking with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Redskins before retiring in 1987.
Ariri was inducted into the Clemson sports Hall of Fame in 1998.
Anderson wrote the book on kicking excellence during his 23-year NFL career.
Before becoming a gridiron star, the future Pro Bowler played soccer and rugby in Durban, South Africa. He eventually emigrated to the US and tried his hand at kicking footballs at a local gridiron field in Pennsylvania.
Anderson found a role kicking on the football team for Syracuse University where he set school records for most field goals in a season and highest season percentage of field goals made, both in 1981.
The Buffalo Bills plucked Anderson in the seventh round (171st overall pick) of the 1982 Draft. Like Ariri, Anderson was cut by Buffalo before appearing in a regular season game. Undeterred, he landed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and quickly established himself as one of football’s premier kickers.
Anderson wrapped his career in 2004 after playing for six different NFL squads. His pro football resume includes four Pro Bowl nods, the Golden Toe Award as the NFL’s top kicker (1998), and berths on the NFL 1980s and 1990s All-Decade teams.
Any discussion about Africans dominating in the NFL is incomplete without a mention of Christian Okoye. The “Nigerian Nightmare” arrived at Azusa Pacific University in California in 1983 on a track and field scholarship.
Noting his rare combination of size and speed, friends convinced Okoye to audition for the university’s football team. The 6-foot-1-inch, 260-pound athlete quickly proved a menacing force on the gridiron as a fullback for the Azusa Pacific Cougars and was twice named a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics first-team All-American.
The Kansas City Chiefs selected Okoye in the second round (35th overall pick) of the 1987 Draft. In six years in the pro league, he won an AFC Offensive Player of the Year award (1989) and was selected for two Pro Bowl games (1989 and 1991). Okoye was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2000.
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Born in Gbarnga, Liberia, Hali emigrated to the US in 1993 to escape the turmoil in his home country. He made a name for himself on the scholastic gridirons of New Jersey as a powerful linebacker before receiving an offer to play college football for the Penn State Nittany Lions.
Hali enjoyed a stellar college career at Penn State from 2002 to 2005, a span that saw “The TambaHawk” win honors as the 2005 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year (2005) and Senior Bowl Defensive MVP (2006).
Like Okoye, the Chiefs answered Hali’s pro football ambitions by selecting him in the first round (20th overall pick) of the 2005 Draft. The linebacker made an immediate impact in his first season in 2006, a campaign that earned him the Mack Lee Hill Award as the Chiefs top rookie.
Hali went on to play his entire 12-year career in Kansas City. Along the way, he was named to six consecutive Pro Bowls (2010-2015) and a nod as one of the NFL’s top 100 players in 2011.
Williams, who hails from Freetown, Sierra Leone, received his first exposure to gridiron football after moving to Maryland as a student. His speed and defensive intelligence made him a natural fit at free safety, the position that carried him through a noted college career at Towson University and the University of Maryland.
The Cincinnati Bengals took a shine to Williams and selected him in the second round (56th overall pick) of the 2004 Draft. He spent nine seasons in the NFL as one of the sport’s outstanding safeties in stints with the Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, and Washington Redskins.
Williams Won the NF’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2010 in recognition of his off-field charity work.