The Super Bowl, the annual American professional football championship game, keeps U.S. fans glued to television screens on “Super Bowl Sunday.” In 2015, the game was the most-watched show in U.S. television history. Nowadays, there are plenty of fans outside the U.S. too.
Interest is spurred by organizations such as the International Federation of American Football, founded in 1998, counting members from 71 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. And since 2007, the NFL has hosted the popular International Series at Wembley Stadium in London. The 2016 season will showcase six U.S. teams in three games.
African Americans have long been league stalwarts — today more than 68 percent of its players are black. As the league celebrates the golden anniversary of the Super Bowl — this year’s game will be played on February 7 — it can also celebrate a history of attracting players from many countries and from ethnically diverse backgrounds.
Many of those players have attained the NFL’s Most Valuable Player status and are Super Bowl champions. Roman Gabriel, a 1960s and ’70s football star, was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1969. The son of a Filipino immigrant, Gabriel was the first Asian-American quarterback in the league. Now 75 years old, he still holds most of the Los Angeles Rams’ passing records.
Dat Nguyen, born to Vietnamese refugees in an Arkansas refugee center in 1975, may have been shorter than his teammates, but he was a top linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys until an injury ended his career in 2006.
More recently, offensive lineman Ed Wang made a splash playing college football at Virginia Tech and then joined, sequentially, three NFL teams: the Buffalo Bills, the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles. Wang, born in the United States to Chinese parents, was the NFL’s first Chinese player and now promotes American indoor football in China. “We want to build a professional football league in China. Next year, there will be six professional teams in our league,” he told the South China Morning Post.
The country may be small, but Tonga in the Oceania region looms large in NFL lineups, fielding a score of current players. Tongan American Haloti Ngata distinguished himself as a defensive tackle for nine years with the Baltimore Ravens before moving to the Detroit Lions. Koa Misi, also Tongan-American and a defensive lineman, has played for the Miami Dolphins since 2010. Tonga-born defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was signed by the Carolina Panthers in 2013. Another player from the Southern Hemisphere, Australian Jarryd Hayne, transitioned from rugby to American football and now is a running back for the San Francisco 49ers.
Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, born in Accra, Ghana, grew up playing soccer and excelled in college basketball and track before learning American football at Brigham Young University. His outstanding performance as a defensive lineman led to his NFL career. The list goes on, and includes many standout players from Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Women join coaching staffs
Increasingly, American football’s diversity extends to women. The Buffalo Bills recently appointed longtime staffer Kathryn Smith as the first female full-time coach in the NFL. In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as a training-camp assistant coach.
As an anticipated 180 million people watch the 50th Super Bowl contest — where they will see the Panthers’ Star Lotulelei and Ryan Kalil, and the Broncos’ Von Miller and Aqib Talib — they can cheer the decidedly multicultural teams excelling at one of America’s signature sports.