Football is an increasingly global sport, with more and more international players making the jump to the United States’ most popular game. The International Player Pathway Program makes it easier for clubs to identify promising global talent.
International players have been a part of the NFL since its first season in 1920.
That year, the American Professional Football Association — renamed the National Football League in 1922 — featured several prominent players born overseas. The list included German-born John and Phil Nesser, the eldest of seven Nesser brothers to play in the NFL. It also included Irishman Bob Nash, the first player credited with a fumble recovery touchdown, the first player to be traded and the first captain of the New York Giants.
Nine players who were born outside the U.S. have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
Inducted into HOF
Chicago Bears (1930–37, 1943)
Steve Van Buren
Philadelphia Eagles (1944–51)
San Francisco 49ers (1950–63)
Pittsburgh Steelers (1950–63)
Los Angeles Rams (1948–56)
New York Giants (1950–53)
Baltimore Colts (1969–73) Green Bay Packers (1974) Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders (1975–83)
Kansas City Chiefs (1967–79) Green Bay Packers (1980–83) Minnesota Vikings (1984–85)
New Orleans Saints (1982–94) Atlanta Falcons (1995–2000) New York Giants (2001) Kansas City Chiefs (2002–03) Minnesota Vikings (2004) Atlanta Falcons (2006–07)
In 2021, there were 85 foreign-born NFL players, an all-time high. NFL rosters feature players hailing from more than 25 foreign countries, including players from Canada, Australia, Nigeria, Germany, Jamaica, Austria, England, Scotland, Mexico, and Tonga.
Notable Foreign-Born Players
Chase Claypool (WR, Canada): A native of Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada, Claypool worked hard to catch the attention of American college recruiters, eventually earning a scholarship to Notre Dame. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
Danielle Hunter (DE, Jamaica): Hunter moved to the U.S. from Jamaica when he was eight years old where he picked up football in the Houston suburbs. The two-time Pro Bowler was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft. (AP/Steve Luciano)
Younghoe Koo (K, South Korea): Born in South Korea, Koo immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 12. He played college football at Georgia Southern University and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017. Koo earned Pro Bowl honors with the Atlanta Falcons in 2020. (AP/Joshua Bessex)
Star Lotulelei (DT, Tonga): Lotulelei is one of 15 Tongan-born players in NFL history. After moving to Utah with his family when he was nine years old, he played the majority of his college career at the University of Utah and was selected by the Carolina Panthers with the 14th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. (AP/Gary McCullough)
Cairo Santos (K, Brazil): Santos is the first Brazilian-born player in NFL history. The veteran kicker came to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student when he was 15 years old. Santos played his college football at Tulane University and was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014. (AP/Gary McCullough)
Mitch Wishnowsky (P, Australia): Wishnowsky played Australian rules football outside of Perth before injuries ended his career. He discovered American football and immigrated to the U.S. to pursue a college career as a punter. Wishnowsky won the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best collegiate punter in 2016 and was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. (AP Tony Avelar)
The International Player Pathway Program helps foreign-born football players reach the NFL.
Since its inception in 2017, the program has provided elite international athletes with an opportunity to compete at the NFL level, improve their skills, and potentially earn a spot on an NFL roster.
“The International Player Pathway Program provides athletes with a viable route to the NFL and an opportunity to further develop their skills,” said Damani Leech, Chief Operating Officer of NFL International.
The NFL has specific roster rules for players that sign through the IPP. Each season, an NFL division is selected at random to participate in the IPP program. Designated teams are allowed an extra offseason roster spot for the IPP player that is assigned to that team.
At the end of training camp, IPP players can either be signed to their assigned club’s 53-man roster or waived. Players who clear waivers may be signed to their assigned team’s practice squad using an IPP exemption that allows for an extra practice squad spot. IPP players signed to a practice squad using the exemption may not be signed to any team’s active roster that season; however, players signed to a practice squad without the exemption are treated in the same way as other practice squad players for roster purposes.
As of 2020, more than half of NFL teams have signed international players to their offseason/practice squad rosters as a direct result of the IPP program, with several players making active rosters. Since the IPP was instituted in 2017, more than 50 players from 18 countries have trained in the U.S. through the IPP program.
Three players whose careers started in the IPP program — Efe Obada, Jordan Mailata, and Jakob Johnson— have recorded over 1,000 career NFL snaps.
The NFL International Combine
The NFL’s International Combine allows clubs to identify candidates for the IPP program. The invitational scouting showcase, mirrored after the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, is designed to discover and evaluate potential NFL talent from around the globe for a potential spot in the IPP.
The NFL has hosted combines in Australia (2018), Germany (2019) and London (2021).
Players who meet specific performance standards and display the potential to play in the NFL will be invited to train in the U.S. for three months as part of the IPP program. The number of participants will be reduced following training camp and a select number will be allocated to designated NFL clubs for the upcoming season.
NFL Football Operations’ mission is to establish a culture of clarity, consistency and credibility in all aspects of the greatest game. Football is an essential piece of America’s fabric, uniting fans, players and communities with a simple yet powerful bond. We honor the game’s history while continuing to innovate and preserve the sport for future generations of fans, players, coaches, teams and officials.