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International players have made mark in NFL draft

Tamba Hali, who moved to the United States from Liberia when he was 10 years old, has been a five-time Pro Bowler for the Chiefs. 

The NFL draft kicks off Thursday, and teams will be looking to maximize their value with each selection. Sometimes, that means taking a chance on foreign-born players, many of whom didn’t begin playing the game until years after many of their peers.

The gold standard of international draftees in recent years is Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali, who fled war-torn Liberia for the United States at age 10. He became a star pass-rusher at Teaneck High School in New Jersey and earned a scholarship to Penn State, where he was an All-American. The Chiefs selected him No. 20 overall in the first round of the 2006 draft, and he’s gone on to be named to five Pro Bowls in 11 professional seasons.

Two London-born players, University of Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, are names to watch in this year’s draft. With that in mind, we recall 10 notable international NFL draftees of the past decade (in alphabetical order):

Birthplace: Lagos, Nigeria

Drafted: First round, No. 20 overall, by Philadelphia Eagles in 2015

Position: Wide receiver

When Agholor was 5 years old, he and his family emigrated from Nigeria, where his father had been a top-level soccer player. They moved to the United States and settled in Tampa, Florida, where Nelson went on to become a star running back, wide receiver and safety in high school. He was recruited by most of the top college programs but opted to attend Southern California, the first school to extend an offer. As a junior, Agholor recorded 104 receptions and 12 touchdown catches to raise his draft stock. In his first two NFL seasons, he totaled 59 receptions and three touchdowns.

Birthplace: London

Drafted: Fifth round, No. 149 overall, by Miami Dolphins in 2015

Position: Running back

English by birth and Nigerian by heritage, Ajayi’s family moved to the United States when he was 7 and eventually settled in Frisco, Texas. He’s an Arsenal fan and played soccer until his junior year in high school, when he decided to focus solely on football. He attended Boise State and rushed for 3,796 yards in three seasons, leading the nation with 347 carries and 32 touchdowns as a junior. Ajayi burst into the spotlight last season as a second-year pro, joining O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams as the only NFL players to record back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. He ultimately ranked fourth in the league with 1,272 rushing yards and earned a Pro Bowl berth.

Birthplace: Accra, Ghana

Drafted: First round, No. 5 overall, by Detroit Lions in 2013

Position: Defensive end

Ansah grew up playing soccer and basketball in his home country and was encouraged to attend Brigham Young University by a Mormon missionary. He unsuccessfully tried out for the Cougars basketball team twice but was later advised to try football because of his size and athletic talent. He knew almost nothing about the sport, yet he made the team and improbably became a high draft pick within three years. He became the second Ghana-born player to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft, following defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, who was picked No. 20 overall in 1999 by the Dallas Cowboys.

Gosder Cherilus

Birthplace: Desdunes, Haiti

Drafted: First round, No. 17 overall, by Detroit Lions in 2008

Position: Offensive tackle

Cherilus moved to the United States at age 14 and attended high school in Somerville, Massachusetts. He played soccer as a youth but was steered to football in high school. He then earned a scholarship to Boston College, where he started 51 consecutive games. As a senior, he served as offensive co-captain alongside star quarterback Matt Ryan. Cherilus would play nine NFL seasons with the Lions, Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before announcing his retirement last month. He remains active in charitable causes in both Haiti and the U.S.

Birthplace: Melbourne, Australia

Drafted: Second round, No. 63 overall, by Denver Broncos in 2016

Position: Defensive tackle

Gotsis, who also played Australian rules football and basketball while growing up, joined an American football club in Melbourne at age 13. A coach from Sydney, Paul Manera, recommended Gotsis to Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, for whom Manera had played at the University of Hawaii. Gotsis was a member of the world team that played against a team of Americans at USA Football’s International Bowl in 2012 and became a three-year starter at Georgia Tech. Despite suffering a torn knee ligament as a senior, the Broncos still made him the highest-drafted Australian in NFL history. He was active for all 16 games as a rookie last season, recording 14 total tackles.

Birthplace: Lagos, Nigeria

Drafted: Second round, No. 32 overall, by Cleveland Browns in 2016

Position: Defensive end Ogbah and his family moved to the United States and settled in the Houston area when he was 9 years old, and he started playing football in seventh grade. He earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he recorded 133 tackles and 28 sacks in three seasons and was named the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a junior. He started all 16 games for the Browns as a rookie, recording 5½ sacks and 53 tackles.

Amobi Okoye

Birthplace: Anambra, Nigeria

Drafted: First round, No. 10 overall, by Houston Texans in 2007

Position: Defensive tackle Okoye came to the United States and moved to Huntsville, Alabama, when he was 12. He was recruited to play football because of his large build, even though he was two years younger than his classmates. He graduated high school ahead of schedule and began playing for Louisville at age 16. Okoye graduated from college and became the youngest first-round pick in NFL history pick at age 19. He was a starter for four years with the Texans and then joined the Chicago Bears for two seasons. Unfortunately, he developed a devastating case of encephalitis in 2013. He recovered from the potentially fatal disease, but a comeback attempt with the Dallas Cowboys was unsuccessful.

Sebastian Vollmer

Birthplace: Duesseldorf, Germany

Drafted: Second round, No. 58 overall, by New England Patriots in 2009

Position: Offensive tackle

Playing in the NFL wasn’t Vollmer’s goal as a kid in Germany, where he competed in soccer and swimming. He began playing football at age 14 and a few years later competed in the 2003 NFL Global Junior Championship in San Diego, where he caught the attention of NCAA coaches. Though he spoke little English, he received a scholarship from the University of Houston, where he started at tight end before shifting to tackle. After spending eight years with New England, where he became the first player born and raised in Germany to win a Super Bowl, he was released by the Patriots last month.

Bjoern Werner

Birthplace: Berlin, Germany

Drafted: First round, No. 24 overall, by Indianapolis Colts in 2013

Position: Defensive end

Werner competed for Berlin Adler American Football Club and played one year at Salisbury School in Connecticut as an exchange student but returned to Germany because he missed his girlfriend. After a year back home, he returned to Salisbury and earned a scholarship to Florida State. He married his girlfriend in 2010 and earned All-America honors in 2012 with 13 sacks as a junior. The Colts made him the first German ever selected in the opening round of the draft. After three seasons with the Colts, Werner signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars last year but was cut during the preseason. He announced his retirement earlier this year, citing knee problems.

Birthplace: Manchester, England

Drafted: Second round, No. 42 overall, by Oakland Raiders in 2013

Position: Offensive tackle

Growing up in England, Watson dreamed of playing in the Premier League. A broken ankle ended his soccer dreams, but he played basketball well enough to earn a spot at an academy in the Canary Islands. He played one season of college hoops at Marist College, but after deciding pro basketball was not a likely career path, he was connected with the football program at Saddleback College in Southern California. Watson transformed himself into one of the top junior college offensive linemen in the nation and transferred to Florida State. He spent his first four NFL seasons with Oakland and recently signed a three-year deal with the Denver Broncos.

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