Soccer is a fantastic sport for sharpening footwork, agility, vision, reaction time and conditioning. That's exactly why football coaches like Mike Leach and Jim Harbaugh deliberately seek out recruits with a soccer background.
"I've had great luck with soccer players, to the point where, in recruiting, it's a plus if the guy played soccer. They're coordinated on both sides of their body, both feet are coordinated, and they're good at making cuts on both sides of their body. They tend to be explosive on both sides of their cuts," Leach, the head football coach at Washington State University, said on the CY Interview podcast. "It's a huge benefit."
Harbaugh echoes those sentiments. "I don't think there is (a) better game for running and eye-foot coordination, there's really no other game like it," Harbaugh, the head football coach at the University of Michigan, recently told reporters. "I always encourage youngsters in America to play soccer. I think every American boy should play soccer until the eighth grade, then they should play football—American football."
A surprising number of NFL stars followed a roadmap similar to what Harbaugh suggests. In their minds, there's no doubt playing youth soccer helped them become superior athletes and ultimately better football players. When you consider that kids who start playing tackle football before the age of 12 have been found to have more behavioral and cognitive problems later in life than kids who start playing tackle football after they turn 12, Harbaugh's suggestion seems even more logical. Considering the factors involved, we could see a massive influx in soccer-turned-football players in the years ahead. If that does indeed happen, they'll be following in the footsteps of these established stars.
1. Ndamukong Suh
Ndamukong Suh was born to play football. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound defensive tackle looks like he was built in a lab specifically for the purpose of punishing people on the gridiron. However, Suh's first love was soccer.
"Anywhere and anything, I'd always have a soccer ball with me," Suh told STACK.
He grew up idolizing Thierry Henry, a striker who scored 174 goals for Premier League club Arsenal. Suh's father was so encouraged by his son's soccer talents he debated sending him to a European boarding school so he'd have a better shot at a pro career, though Suh's mother shot that idea down. Suh only gave up soccer after he had a massive growth spurt in the eighth grade, making his body better suited for football. He believes the footwork and agility he honed on the soccer pitch are a big reason he's such a handful on the football field. "(Soccer) helped me so much," Suh told the Wall Street Journal.
2. Odell Beckham Jr.
Odell Beckham Jr. is one of the most thrilling players in the NFL. His sharp route running and marvelous athleticism make him nearly impossible to stop. But before OBJ was embarrassing cornerbacks, he had a chance to become America's next soccer star.
"I started [playing soccer] when I was 3 years old and played until I was about 14," Beckham told NJ.com. "My coach was pushing to try and get me on the national team and try out. At that age, you're 13, 14 years old, you know that to make it big in soccer you are probably going to have to go overseas. Obviously that would be a goal and that would be the dream. At that age it would have been hard for me to leave my family and just go."
Though Beckham eventually shifted his focus to football, there's little doubt his soccer days helped him become a more impressive athlete. "I think (soccer) just helps you with your footwork and conditioning," Beckham told the Wall Street Journal. "Soccer is a sport where you are running back and forth every part of the game."
3. Chad Johnson
Chad Johnson isn't shy about his love for soccer. The four-time All-Pro receiver is an avid fan of La Liga club Real Madrid and is known to take on all comers in FIFA. Johnson played many different sports during his childhood, but soccer was his favorite.
"(What) most parents should do when your child is young, put the child in as many sports as possible. And whatever that child clings on to, that's probably the one (they) like the most. For me, it was soccer. And as I got older (and) into high school, my grandma sat me down and we thought about longevity and a professional career, then the right sport would be football. So I switched over and focused on football," Johnson told STACK. Johnson attributes much of his fantastic route-running skills to his strong soccer background.
— Chad Johnson (@ochocinco) February 7, 2014
4. Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck spent much of his childhood abroad, living in soccer-obsessed countries like England and Germany. Soccer was the first organized sport Luck participated in, and he remains a passionate fan of the game today. He even played intramural soccer at Stanford! Not only did the sport help Luck build the nimble feet he uses to navigate the pocket, but it also introduced him to the concept of passing lanes. "Throwing the ball is all about angles. To see the angles and the advantage of the angles. Soccer is great for that," Oliver Luck, Andrew's father and a former NFL quarterback himself, told the Wall Street Journal.
5. Wes Welker
Wes Welker was one of the greatest slot receivers in NFL history. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker led the league in receptions on three separate occasions. His lethal route-running skills helped him consistently get open in tight spaces. Ask Welker how he was able to have so much success despite being significantly undersized for an NFL receiver, and he's quick to point to soccer. Welker started playing the sport when he was 4 years old, and he once scored 16 goals in a single game. He was an all-state soccer player at Heritage Hall High School (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma). When he made it to the NFL, Welker continued to integrate soccer drills into his training to keep his footwork sharp and spry.
"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."
6. Karl Joseph
Karl Joseph is a rising star. The Oakland Raiders drafted him with the 14th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, and he's quickly made an impact. Pro Football Focus currently has Joseph as the second-highest graded safety in the league. How did he develop his awesome range and incredible athleticism? Soccer. Joseph grew up in Haiti, where soccer reigns king.
"(Joseph) grew up in Haiti. We all know you're not going to be playing football in Haiti. Haiti is a country where you can throw a ball out there, but it's going to be a soccer ball," Dana Holgorsen, who was Joseph's head coach at West Virginia, told 95.7 The Game. "He played soccer his whole life. The only other guy I've had who has as good as feet as (Joseph) was Wes Welker. Wes Welker was a soccer player growing up as well. It gives you a good background." Holgorsen served as Welker's wide receiver coach when the latter played at Texas Tech.
7. Marcus Mariota
Marcus Mariota is one of the best athletes in the NFL. The Tennessee Titans quarterback is lethal with both his arm and his feet, making him a nightmare for opposing defenses. Mariota credits much of his athleticism to his long soccer career. He began playing club soccer as a 7-year-old in his native Hawaii. He went on to become an all-state defender in high school.
"Soccer provided me with the athletic fundamentals that allowed me to be the (football) player that I am today," Mariota told TitansOnline.com. "For me, it helped me in terms of seeing the field playing football. In soccer, you have to be able to know how the game is flowing, you have to be able to know what your next move is when you have the ball. So I learned a lot about seeing the field, and making a quick and decisive decision."
8. Jay Ajayi
Jay Ajayi, the Miami Dolphins running back who had the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL last season, is one of the most elusive runners in football. Soccer helped him build that slipperiness. Ajayi spent much of his childhood in England and he naturally gravitated toward the country's most popular sport. When his family moved to Texas, Ajayi continued playing soccer. It was only during his junior year of high school that he reluctantly gave up the sport, largely due to scheduling conflicts with football. All those years of soccer helped Ajayi learn how to be light on his feet. "I definitely credit my quick feet and coordination to my soccer background," Ajayi told the Los Angeles Times. "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."
9. Jake Butt
OK, so Jake Butt isn't technically an NFL star—not yet, at least. The Denver Broncos rookie tight end has been sidelined for the first part of the season as he continues to rehab from an ACL injury, but he's eligible to return soon. Considering that Butt won the 2016 John Mackey Award as college football's top tight end, there's certainly reason to believe he can be an elite NFL player. However, that wasn't Butt's dream when he was in grade school. He envisioned himself becoming a star MLS midfielder. Butt's father eventually convinced him to transition to football, but the athleticism he built through soccer undoubtedly contributed to his success on the gridiron. "I guarantee he's such a great tight end because of soccer. He worked on his footwork almost exclusively from Kindergarten through sixth grade," Meg Lally, Butt's mother, wrote in a 2016 Sports Illustrated article.
Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images, Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
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