Celebrating Native American football players throughout NFL history
In honor of Native American Heritage month, we celebrate ten of the best Native American football players.
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Native Americans have a rich football history that dates back to the early days of the NFL in the early 1900s. One of the players on our list would change the way the game of football was viewed with his dazzling talents, but he was not alone.
In 1922, the Oorang Indians were born and would participate in the NFL as the league's very first Native American team. Players came together from the Cherokee, Mohawk, Chippewa, Blackfeet, Winnebago, Mission, Caddo, Sac and Fox, Seneca and Penobscot tribes to form the team based in LaRue, Ohio.
The team was created by Walter Lingo to promote his Oorang Dog Kennels, and was dissolved after just two seasons when Lingo stopped financially supporting the team.
When is Native American Heritage Month?
Native American Heritage Month is every November. We recognize and celebrate the history and culture of the Native Americans who have made countless contributions to the nation and how it stands today.
America celebrates its first people and honors their rich history, cultural backgrounds and continues to work to raise awareness to that history year after year.
Let's take a look at a few football players who celebrate their heritage and Native American background.
Are There Any Native American Football Players?
There certainly are! There are some names on this list that you will recognize, and you might even be surprised to see them! Some are well-known names from the more recent days of the NFL who you might not know came from Native American backgrounds, while others stand amongst those who laid the foundations for the league to blossom in its early years.
Current Native American Football Players
There are a few names scattered around the league who come from Native American backgrounds. James Winchester, long snapper for the Kansas City Chiefs, a certain LA Chargers wide receiver we’ll all know and a linebacker made famous in Detroit by the TV series Hard Knocks in 2022 all feature on this list.
Quarterback Russell Wilson is also said to have Native American heritage but the tribe he belongs to has never been confirmed, so we’ll give him a special mention here, but he won’t feature on our top 10.
Famous Native American Football Players
When you think of Native American football players, the first name that should come to mind as a NFL fan is Jim Thorpe. Thorpe changed the game, and while we’ll talk about him a little more later on the list, his celebrity status as the face of the Native American football community deserves a special mention. Thorpe is the most famous of all Native American football players, despite the fact that he played 100 years ago.
Celebrating 10 Native American Football Players Throughout the History of the NFL
Years Active: 2013-2021
Teams: Kansas City Chiefs, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers
Tyler Bray was a four-year starter at the University of Tennessee before declaring for the NFL Draft in 2013. He went undrafted but spent five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs before spending another three with the Chicago Bears. Bray was a practice squad designate for the 49ers for a short while in 2021, but was never called up to the active roster.
The former Vols quarterback embraced his role as a minority in the NFL. He extends from family heritage belonging to the Potawatomi tribe.
Position: Wide Receiver
Years Active: 2013-present
Teams: San Diego/LA Chargers
Keenan Allen has developed into one of the most impressive route runners the NFL has ever seen. His crisp route running and ability to get open are regularly commended by his peers and analysts, and his 8,600 career receiving yards and 49 touchdowns (and counting) only support that further.
Allen is proud of his Native American bloodlines, belonging to the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina, where he was born.
The star wide receiver played college football at the University of California, and was drafted by the Chargers in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Allen had over 1,000 receiving yards and scored eight touchdowns in his rookie year, and has been a difference-maker for the Chargers franchise ever since. Now 30 years old, the veteran playmaker appears to have plenty left in the tank.
Years Active: 2015-2018
Teams: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins
Bryce Petty is a member of the Chickasaw Nation tribe. He played college football at Baylor from 2010-2014 and was drafted by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
While at Baylor, Petty was named the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2013 after leading the Bears to their first conference title in his first season as the teams starting quarterback. Petty went on to spend time with the Jets and Dolphins during a four-year career in the NFL. He threw four touchdowns and 10 interceptions during his career, serving largely as injury relief for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Position: Long Snapper
Years Active: 2013-present
Teams: Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs
James Winchester signed with the Eagles as an undrafted free agent in 2013, but was released during roster cuts before the season began. Eighteen months later he found a new home with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he has been ever since.
As previously mentioned, Winchester played for the Chiefs during the Super Bowl season in 2019 that saw Kansas City beat the 49ers in the big game. Winchester played in the game and proudly lifted the Lombardi trophy on behalf of Choctaw Nation.
Years Active: 2022-present
Teams: Detroit Lions
Malcolm Rodriguez was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. He played college football at Oklahoma State, where he converted from safety to linebacker.
During the 2022 Hard Knocks series, Rodriguez emerged as one of the fan favorites and a main character in the popular show. As a sixth round draft pick, he had his work cut out to make the roster, but outperformed his peers and defied the odds, earning a spot on the final 53-man roster.
Rodriguez is now a regular feature for the Detroit Lions defense, and could go on to have a strong career in the NFL as a hard-hitting downhill linebacker who excels in stuffing the run.
Position: Offensive Guard
Years Active: 2018-present
Teams: Cleveland Browns, LA Rams, Carolina Panthers
Austin Corbett played a pivotal role on the offensive line with the LA Rams during their Super Bowl run in 2021. Corbett played in all 17 regular season games and every playoff game, including the Super Bowl.
Corbett was traded to the Rams in 2019 before he really made his mark as a strong guard in the NFL. Following the Super Bowl-winning season, Corbett signed a three-year deal with the Carolina Panthers.
Position: Wide Receiver
Years Active: 2004-2015
Teams: San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, St Louis Rams
Wes Welker is one of the most decorated players to feature on this list. Welker is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and therefore a member of the group of NFL players to descend from Native American Heritage.
Welker was a two-time First Team All Pro during his playing career, a five-time Pro Bowler, and the three-time NFL receptions leader in 2007, 2009 and 2011, whilst playing with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. He holds the tied NFL record for the longest receiving touchdown at 99 yards, which of course can’t technically be broken.
Welker finished his career with 50 receiving touchdowns, and is now the wide receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins.
Years Active: 2010-2018
Teams: St Louis Rams, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals
Sam Bradford, just like Wes Welker, is also a member of the Cherokee Nation. He warrants a special place amongst Native American history in the NFL after being picked with the No. 1 selection in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Bradford played college football at the University of Oklahoma, the city he was born in. Bradford would win the Heisman Trophy for his performance as the starting quarterback in 2008, as well as numerous other awards presented to college football's best player each season.
The Rams selected him first overall, and Bradford would spend the following five years quarterbacking the franchise in St Louis. Multiple knee injuries knocked his career off course, and Bradford then spent time with the Eagles, Vikings and Cardinals before he was released in 2018.
Bradford retired with 103 passing touchdowns in the NFL and some of the best quarterback play that the University of Oklahoma and all of college football has seen.
Joseph Napoleon “Big Chief” Guyon
Years Active: 1919-1927
Teams: Canton Bulldogs, Washington Senators, Union Quakers of Philadelphia, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, Kansas City Cowboys, New York Giants
Joe Guyon was a bit of an all-rounder who played alongside Jim Thorpe for multiple teams in the early 1920s. He was one of the Native American players who influenced the game the most during that time.
Guyon won the College Football National Championship with Georgia Tech in 1917, before signing to play pro football with the Canton Bulldogs in 1919. He could run, pass and kick the football effectively, and went on to win the NFL Championship with the New York Giants in 1927, having played a major role in the team.
“Big Chief” Guyon was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966. He was a member of the Chippewa Tribe.
Position: Running Back
Years Active: 1915-1928
Teams: Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Oorang Indians, Rock Island Independents, New York Giants, Tampa Cardinals, Chicago Cardinals
Jim Thorpe is the most famous name among all Native American NFL athletes. He belonged to the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma.
The standout star is a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is widely recognized for his role in changing the perception of football with his talent and running style.
Thorpe played and coached for the Canton Bulldogs to begin his career, with the team claiming unofficial titles in 1916, 1917 and 1919.
He did everything. He was an outstanding runner, but could pass, catch and even kick 50-yard field goals, which he’d often do at half time just for entertainment. Oh, and he played defense too.
Jim Thorpe was an excellent all-round athlete, also playing six seasons of Major League Baseball and winning two Olympic gold medals at the 1912 Olympic Games in the Decathlon and Pentathlon events.
Thorpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
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