For these foreign-born players, Super Bowl was out of this world

ByThomas Neumann ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Super Bowl has long been an indelible cultural icon of the United States. But each year, America's biggest game sparks more and more international interest as well. Sunday's Super Bowl LI in Houston will be televised in more than 170 nations around the world in more than 20 languages. With that in mind, we tapped four retired NFL players with international backgrounds to share their Super Bowl experiences.

Osi Umenyiora, Super Bowls XLII and XLVI

Umenyiora was born in London and lived there until age 7, when his family moved to his father's native Nigeria. Umenyiora was completely unfamiliar with American football until moving to the U.S. to attend school at age 14, when he joined the team at Auburn High in Alabama. He learned quickly and earned a scholarship to play at Troy University, where he developed highly coveted pass-rushing skills.

The Giants picked the 6-foot-3, 280-pound defensive end in the second round of the 2003 NFL draft, and he achieved All-Pro honors by his third season. In his fifth season, the Giants made a magical run to Super Bowl XLII, where they were prohibitive underdogs against the undefeated New England Patriots.

The game featured one of the most famous plays in NFL history, when Giants quarterback Eli Manning narrowly eluded the Patriots pass rush and lobbed the ball to wide receiver David Tyree, who somehow caught the ball by pressing it against his helmet with one hand while being tackled. Unfortunately for Umenyiora, he didn't see the result of the inexplicable play as it transpired.

"I saw them grab Eli, and I knew that we couldn't take a sack," Umenyiora said. "So as soon as I saw them grab him, I put my head down, like, 'Man it's over.' All of the sudden, I heard everyone go crazy. So I looked up and saw Tyree come up with the ball. I thought, 'He must have caught the ball.' I didn't know what happened until I saw the replay, and that's when I went crazy."

Moments later, after the Giants secured the 17-14 victory, Umenyiora was overwhelmed by the team's accomplishment.

"I find it really difficult to even explain, because it's something that you see on TV, you hear about," Umenyiora said. "Then all of the sudden, you're there, and it's happening to you. It's almost like a dream. I remember my first Super Bowl, for like an hour, and I'm not even exaggerating, I was in a trance. I didn't know what had happened. I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know where I was. It was almost as if I was watching this happen to somebody else. It was a surreal experience."

Umenyiora, whose Giants upset the Patriots again at Super Bowl XLVI, now lives in London and works in an ambassador's role for the NFL. He also serves as an American football analyst for the BBC.

Ben Graham, Super Bowl XLIII

During a 12-year career in Australian rules football with the Geelong Cats, Graham cultivated contacts in the world of American football.

He retired from the AFL in 2004 and traveled to the U.S. in hopes of landing a job as an NFL punter. He signed with the New York Jets in 2005 and became, at age 31, the oldest rookie to start the season on an active NFL roster, breaking the record of Vince Papale, whose 1976 debut with the Philadelphia Eagles was chronicled in the movie "Invincible."

After spending his first three NFL seasons with the Jets, the 2008 campaign turned out to be a dizzying ride. He was released twice by the Jets and once by the New Orleans Saints before catching on with the playoff-bound Arizona Cardinals in Week 13.

Those Cardinals rode the offensive firepower of Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to the franchise's first Super Bowl berth. Graham, the first Australian to reach the big game, was picked as one of the 10 players to get his own booth at media day. Graham found the selection somewhat baffling, but he enjoyed the opportunity to share his story.

When game day arrived, Graham said he was awestruck while running out of the tunnel into the stadium in Tampa.

"It was the most surreal moment that I've had," he said. "The second-most surreal moment that I've had was running out of the tunnel at halftime, trying to warm up on the field before the second half, and running into the Bruce Springsteen concert. I got a front-row seat for that."

The game turned out to be one of the most exciting in the Super Bowl history, but the Cardinals fell short in a 27-23 thriller.

"I've said it 100 times, and I'll say it until the day I die -- given the journey that I've been through, the result of that game didn't really matter," Graham said. "The fact that we won the NFC Championship Game the week before, that was like its own Super Bowl, because Arizona had never experienced anything like that before. Yes, I was disappointed that day, but I certainly don't harbor any disappointment or grief or anything about losing because it was just such a special year and special day."

It hadn't been Graham's first appearance, or setback, in a big-time professional championship game. In 1995, his third AFL season, his Geelong club was the losing side in the Grand Final.

"Everything about it [the Grand Final] is fantastic. ... But you do appreciate that America is a much bigger country," he said. "There are twice as many teams. There is a truckload more money, and the TV audience is astronomical. So to compare them, they are both the pinnacle of their sports, but based on the magnitude of the two countries and the two sports, the Super Bowl, as an event, blows it away. I say that with all respect for the AFL Grand Final, because it's what I grew up playing and still love it."

Today, Graham works in football operations for the AFL-champion Western Bulldogs and still follows the NFL closely. He participates in four NFL fantasy leagues as watches as many games as possible to keep up with the exploits of former teammates.

Martin Gramatica, Super Bowl XXXVII

A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Gramatica was 9 when his family moved to La Belle, Florida. He was so passionate about soccer that he didn't even consider playing American football until he was a senior in high school. He played on club soccer teams in the Fort Myers area and reluctantly accepted an invitation to kick for the La Belle High varsity team in his senior season.

"I didn't even know the rules," Gramatica said. "After my first extra point, I went and sat down. Someone said, 'You know you have a kickoff now.' I had no idea that I had to kick off after the extra point."

Gramatica had a good enough leg, however, to earn a scholarship from Kansas State. He went on to be selected in the third round of the 1999 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay, a perennial playoff team in those days, broke through to the league's championship game in Gramatica's fourth season. As the Bucs' team bus pulled up to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on game day, Gramatica saw Super Bowl XXXVII logos everywhere and began to realize the gravity of the moment. Then, when the Buccaneers took the field for warm-ups, anxiety really kicked in.

"I had probably the worst warmup of my career," he said. "I just couldn't hit the ball, and I couldn't believe it. I'm thinking, 'This could not be happening right now that I can't hit the ball on the biggest day of my career.' Luckily, everything worked out in the game. I got all my bad kicks out of the way in the pregame."

Indeed, Gramatica played flawlessly. He made both of his field goal attempts and all six of his extra point tries as Tampa Bay routed the Raiders 48-21. Gramatica savors his memories of that championship season, but he said the week of the big game was a massive whirlwind that is somewhat difficult to grasp in retrospect.

"When people ask me what I remember about the Super Bowl, it just happened so fast," Gramatica said. "It's like a blur. I don't remember that much. But I remember the journey, all the games, the whole season -- how close, how tight that team was."

Gramatica, whose NFL career lasted until 2008, now lives in Tampa and directs a charitable foundation that builds homes for combat-wounded veterans. He also coaches his three children in youth soccer.

Raul Allegre, Super Bowl XXI

Allegre grew up playing soccer in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico. He was aware of American football but didn't watch it until he came to Shelton, Washington, as an exchange student in high school. Shelton High didn't have a soccer team in 1977, so Allegre looked into football -- before realizing he didn't have the size or understanding of the game to play most of the positions.

But when Allegre saw a lineman struggling with field goals, he asked for a tryout, even though he had never kicked a regulation football before. He made every kick, including a 55-yarder. Needless to say, he made the team. He went on to earn a scholarship to the University of Montana and later transferred to the University of Texas, where he became known to NFL scouts.

Allegre made his pro debut in 1983 with the Baltimore Colts and played two more seasons with the team after it relocated to Indianapolis. He led the Colts in scoring all three seasons but was released on the eve of the 1986 season. It was probably the best thing that could've happened. He signed with the New York Giants and earned a trip to the Super Bowl XXI in his first season with the club. When the Giants and Denver Broncos met with the media at the Rose Bowl on the Tuesday before the game, the event was a far cry from the circus now known as "Super Bowl Opening Night."

"Back then, it was called photo day," Allegre said. "We would be there in our uniforms and take a team picture in front of the stadium. I remember that [Giants tight end] Mark Bavaro didn't like speaking to the media, and he refused to talk. He said, 'They told me it was a photo day. They didn't say it was a media day.'"

Allegre recalls playing a round of golf with teammates Lawrence Taylor and Jeff Rutledge a few days before the game, which the Giants would win 39-20. But that relaxed vibe changed significantly for Allegre when he took the field for pregame warmups.

"I was so intense, I was almost hyperventilating," Allegre said. "I couldn't kick an extra point; that's how wound up I was."

The adrenaline started pumping again when Allegre led the team onto the field and handled the opening kickoff.

"I was the first player out of that tunnel," he said. "Just the roar of the crowd -- because it was a New York Giants crowd there in Pasadena -- it was amazing. I felt like I was floating in the air, and it was an unbelievable experience. ... The moment that I raised my hand to signal to the ref that I was ready, the whole stadium erupted. There was a huge roar, and I was thinking, 'Just don't shank the ball.' It was an unbelievable experience, just to know you have so many eyes focused on you."

Allegre currently lives in Austin, Texas, and has worked as a broadcaster for ESPN since 2002. He will be part of the network's Spanish-language international broadcast of Super Bowl LI.