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Hali among many African-born players drafted

One of the more underappreciated initiatives during the tenure of commissioner Paul Tagliabue was his aggressive effort to extend the breadth and influence of the NFL beyond the United States, to create more interest in American football abroad, and, in so doing, to plug into untapped foreign revenue streams.

Tagliabue essentially created NFL Europe. He expanded the "American Bowl" preseason game series. Under Tagliabue's stewardship, the NFL in 2005 staged its first regular-season contest beyond this country's borders, the Arizona Cardinals-San Francisco 49ers matchup in October in Mexico City, which drew a league-record 103,467 to Azteca Stadium. The league soon will play a preseason contest in China.

As the Tagliabue Era winds down, the NFL still isn't as global a professional sports entity as, say, the NBA, and might never be. But the advances made in recent years certainly have been encouraging. And as last weekend's draft demonstrated, although the NFL isn't yet a league of nations, a lot more nations are sending players to the league.

In numbers that are impossible to ignore.

"The diversity [of the draft] was really quite remarkable," said Elie Joseph, father of former Oklahoma Sooners offensive lineman and Tampa Bay Buccaneers first-round draft pick Davin Joseph, and a man who emigrated to the United States from Haiti nearly a quarter-century ago.

And why not? This draft, after all, reflected an NFL that is drawing prospects from far-flung corners of the globe, and in increased volume. Diversity, on the other hand, has long been an NFL calling card.

Consider the most memorable moment of Super Bowl XL three months ago: On the touchdown play that secured a fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, a white quarterback born and raised in Middle America and drafted in the first round (Ben Roethlisberger) handed off to a black tailback from a small town in North Carolina who made the roster as a free agent (Willie Parker). He reversed the ball to a player with a Muslim-sounding surname but who was raised in the Pentecostal faith (Antwaan Randle El), who then threw it to a wide receiver born in Seoul, South Korea, (Hines Ward) to parents of mixed races, for a game-clinching 43-yard hookup.

It was, for sure, a kaleidoscope moment for the league. And it was the kind of snippet of diversity that, if the 2006 draft class is any indication, will occur far more frequently in the future as the NFL continues to be further infused and enhanced with players from interesting, intriguing and unusual backgrounds.

"In most places around the world, it's still called 'American football,' but that doesn't mean every player has to come from America, does it?" said former Stanford defensive tackle Babatunde Oshinowo, chosen by the Cleveland Browns in the sixth round on Sunday and one of several players of Nigerian ancestry among the 255 prospects selected.

There was a time when the most exotic locales from which the league gleaned players were Hawaii or American Samoa, but that isn't the case anymore. There were 80 foreign-born players, from venues as disparate as Ghana and Ukraine, in NFL training camps last year. Fueled in part by the 2006 draft, there are likely to be even more this summer.

Last weekend's first round alone brought in players of Tongan (defensive tackle Haloti Ngata of Baltimore), Liberian (defensive end Tamba Hali of Kansas City), Haitian (Joseph) and Ugandan (New York Giants' defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka) descent. Later rounds added players whose roots can be traced to Nigeria, Senegal and the Virgin Islands. Among the undrafted free agents signed this week by teams trying to fill out camp rosters were prospects born in Germany and Finland.

"It's a pretty big world out there," said Green Bay second-round linebacker Abdul Hodge, a former Iowa star born in the Virgin Islands. "I'm sure there are players under a lot of rocks, but the rocks just don't get turned over in some places. But lately, yeah, it seems like that's changed a little."

Indeed, if league officials are seeking a Manhattan venue perhaps even more appropriate than Radio City Music Hall for the 2007 lottery, they might consider the United Nations building. Secretary-General Kofi Annan could enlist the aid of a fellow Ghanaian, former Dallas first-round draft pick Ebenezer Ekuban, now with the Denver Broncos, to help host the event. A suggestion for brilliant Steve Sabol of NFL Films, who really doesn't need our input on such creative matters: Start working on highlight videos titled "Coming to America" and "Out of Africa."

Yeah, we know there have been feature films with the same names, but try acquiring the rights, Steve. The move will pay off, and sooner than you think.

"Good athletes come from all over," said Buffalo Bills third-round cornerback Ashton Youboty, the former Ohio State star who was born in Liberia and moved to Philadelphia when he was 4 years old. "I'm sure there are a lot of world-class athletes in Africa right now, people whose skills would allow them to play in the NFL if they just got the right break. I was lucky. I came [to America] when I was young. I got a chance to learn the game from the time I was just a little boy. How many other African kids do you think there are who could do the same thing if they learned the game? The truth is, a lot, I'm sure."

The truth is, too, that the influx of prospects to the NFL from countries such as Nigeria isn't exactly the way visionary Tagliabue and league owners drew up the game plan. In introducing its game overseas, the NFL focused much more on Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Far East. The goal, particularly in Europe, was to develop interest in the game at the grassroots level and, perhaps in time, to develop a few viable player prospects, as well. The big-picture pursuit, though, in exposing a new part of the world to the NFL product was in marketing.

"You hear about the league taking the game to other countries. Well, I feel like guys with backgrounds like some of the [foreign] players have, we bring something to the league."
Victor Adeyanju, fourth-round pick of the Rams

Open some key European nations to American football, the rationale went, and newly minted fans would open their wallets to buy NFL-licensed paraphernalia. That certainly has been the case in Germany, where five of the six NFL Europe franchises are located, and where the game is popular in part because of the number of American servicemen there. In fact, on Thursday, Tagliabue huddled with Angela Merkel, the country's first female chancellor.

But a strange thing occurred as the NFL unrolled its global blueprint: On the way to the league's striking the potential financial windfall, as it exported its game, a burgeoning number of players born in untraditional places or with unlikely football ancestries were being imported by the league's franchises. And although there probably aren't many kids in Lagos, Nigeria, or Kampala, Uganda, sporting NFL-licensed T-shirts, they might know more about the league as a result of the 2006 draft.

Third World countries probably don't rate high with league souvenirs peddlers, but that hasn't kept some countries where the NFL is still just a curiosity item from churning out first-rate football prospects. Since coaches are more even more preoccupied with fretting about where to locate a pass-rushing defensive end than they are with dollars and cents, the league gains an advantage on the field and off.

"It accelerates the process of introducing our game, and educating people about it when you have players from foreign countries coming into the league," said Pete Abitante, the NFL senior director of international public affairs. "Even in countries where perhaps you don't really have the apparatus in place to build the game from the ground up, the exposure those players give us is beneficial. ... It's a good story."

Few stories leading up to the draft were as riveting as the tales of some of the prospects of African descent.

Hali, the former Penn State star chosen by the Chiefs with the 20th overall selection, spoke many times of leaving war-torn Liberia with his father when he was only 10 years old, escaping the country after rebels attacked his family's village many times. His mother and sister remain behind in Liberia, and Hali, who has filed paperwork to begin the process toward American citizenship, speaks to them weekly by cell phone. He hopes to use part of his signing bonus to bring them to the United States.

"My mother, when I explain to her about football and how it's played, she tells me to be careful, to protect myself," Hali said. "Pretty ironic, huh? I mean, I was old enough to see some [horrible] things. I remember the gunfire, bodies piled up, that kind of stuff. Just coming to [America] was like a dream come true. Then, learning about football, being good enough to earn an education doing something I enjoy, and the chance now to make a good living ... it's pretty mind-boggling."

The final player chosen in the first round, Kiwanuka is the grandson of Uganda's first prime minister, a man assassinated in 1972, long before Mathias was born, by Idi Amin followers. Although born in this country, Kiwanuka has visited Uganda once and hopes to return. He has a tattoo, the Ugandan presidential seal, across his back.

Former University of Indiana defensive end Victor Adeyanju, picked by the St. Louis Rams in the fourth round, is the son of a Nigerian immigrant who has driven a taxi in Chicago for three decades to support his large family. Adeyanju's parents actually sent him and his five siblings to Nigeria for four years because of the poor conditions in which the family lived in Chicago.

"It makes you appreciate," Adeyanju said. "Appreciate a lot. And I think when you've seen really bad conditions, grown up in [adversity], or just heard from your parents about how different things are in other countries, you work a little harder. There's a fear of maybe having to go back to those situations. It makes you hungrier to succeed. The players who come from those unusual backgrounds, you're going to get an honest day's effort from them, I think.

"You hear about the league taking the game to other countries. Well, I feel like guys with backgrounds like some of the [foreign] players have, we bring something to the league."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.