The FIFA World Cup is well underway, and that means people all over the globe — from the U.S. to Brazil, Italy to Germany and Iran to China — have been feverishly tuning in to this worldwide phenomenon that has drawn record numbers in 2014. While World Cup hysteria may be new for some Americans, for a number of NFL players, it’s like revisiting a first love. And in many cases, their stellar football skills (and we’re talking beyond punters and kickers here) came from their earlier days of playing futbol.
Lions DT Ndamukong Suh – Suh’s actually been in Brazil for the World Cup, cheering on Team USA and Cameroon, his father’s home country and where his older sister Odette Lennon Ngum Suh is currently a midfielder on the women’s national team. Michael also played semi-pro soccer in Germany, so the Suh family has deep roots in the sport. Ndamukong grew up playing soccer in Oregon and played nearly every position — forward, sweeper, defender and goalkeeper.
Lions DE Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah – Another Detroit Lion with futbol in his blood, Ansah was a multi-sport athlete in his native Ghana, playing soccer, basketball and running track. His dreams of playing in the NBA eroded and he failed to make BYU’s track team, with his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame far too large for a sprinter, although he was indeed fast. Football seemed like a viable option, though. He walked onto BYU’s team as a sophomore and the rest is history.
Chargers OLB Dwight Freeney – Freeney’s spent 13 seasons in the league and has become a household name, playing both a 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker. But Freeney’s versatility far exceeds the football field. He was a four-sport letterman at Bloomfield High School in Connecticut, playing basketball and baseball for four years, football for three years and serving as the goalkeeper for one year, when he was a freshman.
Giants WR Odell Beckham, Jr. – It’s no secret that the former LSU wide receiver, a first-round pick by the Giants this year, has some serious speed. But you may be surprised to learn what helped cultivate it — soccer! And Beckham, Jr. was pretty darn good too. He played competitively until age 13 or 14 and was asked to try out for the U.S. national team as a youngster. But he wasn’t ready to make that type of commitment at such a young age.
“It’s just so much for a young kid to have to decide that. You’d have to leave your family. But I always played in the premiere leagues. I was 11 playing U-14, stuff like that. I was always playing up,” Beckham, Jr, told the Star-Ledger. “Soccer was my first love so whenever I think back on those moments, I think of what could have been. If it wasn’t in God’s plans, it wasn’t in God’s plans.”
Colts QB Andrew Luck – Believe it or not, Luck may be the biggest soccer fan in all the NFL. His father, Oliver Luck, was the general manager of the Frankfurt Galaxy, an American football team in Germany, where Luck spent the majority of the first 10 years of his life. He also lived in London, playing in both places and attending Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham games. When he and his family moved to the U.S., Oliver ran the MLS Houston Dynamo before becoming the athletic director at West Virginia. And even though he maintains a very busy schedule as a signal-caller preparing for NFL games, he still makes time to watch the English Premier League, even if it’s all by himself in the Colts training room.
Colts OT Gosder Cherilus – Cherilus grew up playing soccer in Haiti. Despite the fact that he was much larger than most soccer players, he continued with the sport until moving to the U.S. at 14. That was when his mother sent him to America to make a better life for himself and for their family. Little did either of them know just how much the move would impact their lives. As a 6 foot 5, 220-pound sophomore in high school, he was quickly recruited to play on the football team, eventually earning All-State and All-America honors, earning a scholarship to play at Boston College and becoming the 17th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft (talk about a better life!) He largely credits his outstanding footwork and agility with his development as an offensive tackle.
Redskins WR Pierre Garçon – Also of Haitian descent, Garçon played soccer growing up in the South Florida town of Greenacres. He was part of numerous travel teams and played in tournaments throughout Florida and the U.S., always celebrating goals with a signature infamous backflip. As a junior in high school, he helped John I. Leonard advance to the state soccer playoffs. Against the Giants last December, Garçon kicked the ball about 20 rows into the stands after he and RGIII failed to connect in the end zone. The move drew a five-yard delay-of-game penalty, but he showed he’s still got a pretty good leg.