Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt and 10 NFL legends who love the other football

Comments()
Stacy Revere
A host of NFL stars credit soccer with helping them develop their skills, while others just fell in love with the game

Much of the sporting world and most of America will be keeping a close eye on the Super Bowl on Sunday, but more than a few NFL legends may spend the earlier hours of the day taking in Liverpool's clash with Tottenham or Barcelona's derby match against Espanyol.

There is a great deal of respect for the footballing world in the NFL, even if those involved do call it soccer

“There is really no other game like it,” former NFL quarterback and coach Jim Harbaugh told The Wall Street Journal after his Michigan Wolverines practiced with the Italian Serie A club AS Roma back in August. “I always encourage youngsters in America to play soccer.”

And Harbaugh is not alone.

Numerous current and former NFL stars got their athletic starts on a football pitch, while others fell in love with the sport as spectators later in life. 

Here's a look at the top 10 NFLers who have a confirmed affinity for the football that isn't played with primarily with hands. 

  1. Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery

    #1 Ndamukong Suh

    The Miami Dolphins defensive tackle has spoken openly about his love for soccer. 

    A mammoth human, standing 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing in at over 300 pounds, it's hard to imagine Suh running around a pitch these days, but the defensive lineman grew up playing the game and idolizing Thierry Henry. 

    Like many NFL stars who grew up playing soccer, Suh credits the game with helping him develop as an athlete. 

    "(Soccer) helped me so much," Suh told the Wall Street Journal in 2014

  2. Justin K. Aller

    #2 Odell Beckham Jr.

    The New York Giants superstar wide receiver is a noted soccer fan who claimed the game was his first love, and even told NJ.com that he had a chance to tryout for the U.S. youth national team when he was younger, but balked at the thought of having to go to Europe to make it big. 

    He shifted his focus to American football and, let's be honest, it worked out pretty well for him. 

    Beckham did travel to Germany to hang out with Bayern Munich and his friend David Alaba, and has flashed his skill with a soccer ball on more than a few occasions. 

  3. Jonathan Bachman

    #3 Dwight Freeney

    The long-time NFL defensive end earned a varsity letter in soccer as a freshman in high school, but played just one year. 

    "If it wasn't for Jack Cochran, I wouldn't be playing football," Freeney told ThePostGame. "He pulled me off of a soccer field after my freshman year. I got 30 kicks at me a game, 40 kicks at me a game. I would save 35, but the score would still be 5-0. We had no defense, absolutely nothing. He said, 'Why don't you give this other football a chance?' I did. And he pushed me. And here I am today."

    It all worked out for Freeney, who has racked up over 125 sacks through his storied NFL career. 

  4. Stacy Revere

    #4 Andrew Luck

    The Indianapolis Colts quarterback spent his youth in Europe, where his father Oliver was the general manager of the Frankfurt Galaxy and, later, the Rhein Fire. 

    Oliver Luck was also the president of the Houston Dynamo for a time, so it should come as no shock that his son has an affinity for the sport. 

    "That’s when my passion for the game rekindled, when he was working for the Houston Dynamo in Major League Soccer," luck told GQ in 2014.  "Me and my high school buddies would go to 20 or 25 games a year."

    The younger Luck made the trip to Brazil in 2014 to support the U.S. at the World Cup and has found time to travel to watch matches in Europe over the years as well. 

  5. Joe Robbins

    #5 Chad Johnson

    Johnson has not been shy about his love for soccer and is among the NFL players who credit the game with helping him on the field. 

    One of the most entertaining players in NFL history, he even took on kicking duties in the NFL preseason a couple of times. 

    After his NFL career ended, Johnson worked out with Sporting Kansas City in 2017, even playing in a reserve match for the MLS club.  

  6. Bob Levey

    #6 J.J. Watt

    The Houston Texans defensive end has a public history with soccer. 

    He's been on hand for U.S. national team games in Houston and snapped photos with Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Jurgen Klinsmann. The former Wisconsin Badgers star has also had a penalty shootout with Manchester City star Sergio Aguero and trained with a women's youth soccer team in Houston. 

    To top it all off, his current girlfriend, Kealia Ohai, plays for the Houston Dash and has been capped by the USWNT. 

  7. Tim Warner

    #7 DeAndre Hopkins

    Another Houston Texan, DeAndre Hopkins apparently has a good bit of love for soccer, claiming on social media that if he could make it big in any sport aside from American football it would be the beautiful game. 

    And if that's not enough to make a believer out of you, he recently made a trip to Paris to take in a PSG match and snap a couple shots with superstar Neymar. 

     

    Witnessed greatness today 4 goals wow!!!

    A post shared by @ deandrehopkins on

    Hopkins made the right call going to the NFL. His 13 touchdown catches lead the NFL during the 2017 season. 

  8. Thearon W. Henderson

    #8 Wes Welker

    The former New England Patriot and Denver Broncos pass catcher claims soccer helped him grow as a player, with the footwork required to run precise routes boosted by his time on the pitch. 

    "I really feel that (soccer has) helped with my footwork, getting in and out of breaks, and it seems like I can take a bunch of little steps in a very quick amount of time," Welker told Boston.com in 2009. "Your feet get put in some awkward positions in football, but I'm sort of used to that from playing soccer, from moving the ball around. I definitely think that's a big part of what has made me successful in the NFL."

    Welker also made use of his skills with his feet in the NFL, having kicked extra points for both the Dolphins and Patriots in his time in the league. 

  9. Mitchell Leff

    #9 Jay Ajayi

    A noted Arsenal supporter, Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi will be playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday. 

    Having grown up in England before moving to Texas and taking up American football, Ajayi credits his time on the pitch with helping make him hard to tackle. 

    "I definitely credit my quick feet and coordination to my soccer background," Ajayi told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. "I think it's helped me to be agile and have good balance. Those are things you need to have playing the game of soccer. I definitely think it's translated well."

    Even during Super Bowl week Ajayi couldn't keep the other football off his mind, taking time to welcome Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to his beloved Gunners. 

  10. Peter G. Aiken

    #10 Marcus Mariota

    Add Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota to the list of players who credit soccer with helping in their development on the gridiron. 

    "I think soccer is a great fundamental sport - I think it built a foundation for me as an athlete," Mariota told 104.5 The Zone in 2015. "Whether that's my footwork now, or relative to just kind of seeing the field and instincts."

    Mariota believes the ability to see the field is a crucial skill that soccer helps develop, but it certainly didn't hurt the quick feet of one of the best running quarterbacks in NFL history.