ANDERSON, Ind. — Walk around Colts training camp, and it’s like taking a trip around the world.
“You were born in Japan, too?” offensive lineman Emmett Cleary asked receiver Rodrick Rumble after one recent practice.
“Yeah, man,” Rumble said as the two undrafted rookies walked into the locker room together.
Rumble didn’t last long. He was one of two players cut Thursday morning.
But there are nearly a dozen others around with international connections.
Linebacker Bjoern Werner, Indy’s top draft pick, first came to the U.S. as an exchange student from Germany, Kenya’s Daniel Adongo is trying to make the transition from rugby player to linebacker, right tackle Gosder Cherilus lived in Haiti until he was 12. Linebacker C.O. Prime is a Quebec native. Cleary was born in Tokyo and Rumble on an American military base in Yokosuka before moving to Washington state.
The parents of defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois and fullback Stanley Havili moved to the U.S. after living in Haiti and Tonga.
And then there are the world travelers. Andrew Luck spent part of his childhood living in London and Germany where his father, Oliver, worked, and linebacker Jerrell Freeman starred in the CFL before setting a Colts record with 203 tackles in 2012. Before becoming the best clutch kicker in NFL history, Adam Vinatieri was making field goals for Amsterdam in the World League of American Football, and defensive lineman Aubrayo Franklin took his first professional snaps in Frankfurt, Germany.
It makes for some interesting conversations on the Anderson University campus.
“I think in five years, you won’t be calling me when you have 30 players from Europe playing,” said Tommy Wiking, president of the International Federation of American Football. “That will be the norm.”
For a league that has trailed the NHL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer in worldwide appeal, this season could be the breakthrough Wiking and others have waited for.
Players who were born or reared in Australia, England, Estonia, Ghana, Germany, Jamaica, Japan, Liberia and Tonga were among the 333 invitees to this year’s annual NFL scouting combine. That list included Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, Star Lotulelei and Werner — all among the top 25 picks.
Werner, who was called The Berlin Wall and The Germanator at Florida State, is the first graduate from USA Football’s International Student Program to reach the NFL. With foreign players already closing the gap on the U.S. in this uniquely American sport, Wiking said Werner’s success is bound to add more athletes to the mix.
“His success is really important in Germany, getting the German kids to participate on the world team,” Wiking said. “It’s huge for recruitment in Germany.”
Cherilus and Jean Francois, whose parents lived in Haiti, have provided assistance to the poor island country as it continues to recover from the deadly 2010 earthquake. Adongo is still getting acclimated to a helmet and pads, and Havili, who the Colts got in a trade with Philadelphia, just wants to make his parents proud.
“You’re representing the whole island every time you pull that jersey on, you’re representing your mom and dad,” Havili said, explaining that’s a traditional part of Polynesian culture. “My dad provided for eight kids by driving a bus, and he still drives a bus, and I think about that every time I come out here on the field. It motivates me.”
Not everyone knows the stories, though, as the meet-and-greet between Cleary and Rumble attests.
“My father works in the financial industry so he took a job in Tokyo, and then we lived in Germany briefly, too,” Cleary explained. “My dad thought he met Andrew’s dad at some party over there (in Germany).”
The big question now is which of these players will still be around for Indy’s season opener, Sept. 8 against Oakland.
Cherilus, Freeman, Luck and Vinatieri are all entrenched starters. Jean Francois and Franklin are expected to play key roles in Indy’s revamped defense. Havili is trying to become the first true fullback to make the Colts roster in years, and the Colts are being patient as Werner makes the transition from college defensive end to NFL linebacker.
That leaves Adongo, Cleary and Prime fighting for roster spots in a football world that seems to be expanding by the year.
“Football is getting more and more global,” Cleary said.