American football and the sport we call soccer in this country have very little in common beyond the fact that the sports sometimes share stadiums and each allow the same number of players on the field at the same time.
The one consistent thread between the two sports - and the only thing that explains why a game that would more accurately be called throwball can even justify its name - is that there is a position for someone whose only job is to kick the ball.
This position, the much-maligned placekicker (see Scott Norwood for Exhibit A), is one that for generations has given soccer players a chance for the kind of glory that’s proved fleeting for soccer in this country.
Penn State kicker Joey Julius is a popular recent example of the phenomenon of converted soccer players moving to the gridiron, though his size and ability to block and lay out return men on kick-offs has gained him next level notoriety in the Happy Valley.
A former Union youth prospect who represented the club in the 2012 Generation adidas Cup, Julius passed on a scholarship at SIU Edwardsville to walk on with the Nittany Lions. Julius isn’t the only former Union Academy player to also kick the ball through the uprights.
Former Union Academy goalkeeper Everett Minchew (a member of the U18 team in 2014-15), was a kicker and punter for the junior varsity team at Wagner College in 2015 after kicking in high school at Camden Catholic.
Connor Maloney, who was a teammate of Julius’ on that title-winning Generation adidas Cup team, set a state record as a kicker for Bishop McDevitt with 328 points over the course of his high school career. Unlike Julius, Maloney went on to star for the Penn State soccer team instead and was recently drafted by the Columbus Crew.
Still another former Union Academy player with placekicking experience was Kyle Morton, who did the kicking for the football team at West Chester Henderson before going on to a successful college career as a goalkeeper at James Madison.
Other examples outside the Union organization aren’t hard to find.
Just recently, former Louisville soccer player Jonathan Brown was given another shot with the Cincinnati Bengals, signing a reserve/future contract with the team after he was injured last preseason and released.
Chargers kicker Josh Lambo can say he’s been a pro in both sports. The former first round draft pick of FC Dallas is perhaps best known in soccer for keeping a clean sheet as a U.S. U17 goalkeeper against a Belgium youth team featuring a teenage Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke in the 2007 U17 World Cup.
But his soccer career never materialized and after playing sparingly beyond MLS Reserve matches, Lambo retired from the sport at 21 and joined the Texas A&M football team as a placekicker. After going undrafted in 2015, he signed with the Chargers as a free agent and has been the team’s starter the last two years (he’s made 52 of 64 field goal attempts over that span).
Veteran NFL kicker Josh Scobee, who most recently played for the New Orleans Saints and started his career with Jacksonville in 2004, purportedly gave up the sport of soccer as a youth after playing with Clint Dempsey.
Dozens more examples exist - heck, even my own high school in South Jersey had a soccer player convert to kicker our senior year (if you’re reading this, hope you’re doing well, Mike Wilkinson).
Much more famous than anyone I went to high school with, however, was when USMNT goalkeeper Tony Meola, fresh off the World Cup and the unprecedented fame it brought him and his U.S. teammates, tried out for the New York Jets. He didn’t make the team, of course, and that may not have been the point in the first place but I didn’t even have to use Google to remind me that it happened so it may have been a successful mission regardless.
A former international who did make it in the NFL was goalkeeper Anton Fritsch, who had nine caps with the Austrian national team before becoming the most successful European to make the switch from soccer to football. The former SK Rapid Wien keeper was signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 1971 after being discovered by team scouts during a European tour and went on to play for three other NFL teams before ending his career in the USFL with the Houston Gamblers in 1985.
Interestingly enough, his success didn’t start a wave of other European pros coming to the states, though some Europeans who played soccer in their youth did find success like Morten Andersen, the all-time leader in games played in the NFL with 382 and former Polish youth international Sebastian Janikowski, who has been with the Raiders since 2000.
While placekicker or punter are the most obvious positions for former soccer players to play, plenty of other NFL stars have gone from the soccer field to the gridiron in other ways. Big name players like Andrew Luck, Ndamukong Suh, Pierre Garçon and Odell Beckham Jr. all played soccer and of course former NFL wide receiver Chad Johnson, who had a four-day trial with Sporting Kansas City during the 2011 NFL Lockout.
The list goes on from there and should Julius, who has found more success as a kickoff specialist than he has with field goals and extra points, find his way onto an NFL roster in a couple years he’ll certainly be in good company.