Baseball may still call itself America's pastime, but there's no question football currently eclipses baseball in terms of popularity in America. Professional football is also the only major sport dominated by U.S. players, while the others all have more of an international flair. It's no longer rare to see an elite Japanese pitcher on a Major League mound or a top-flight European basketball player on an NBA court. Football, it seems, is our nation's last remaining native sporting pursuit.
But if you venture to Austin, Texas, this week you'll see just how far the game of football is beginning to reach around the globe. Football players from as far away as Sweden and Japan and as close as Canada and Mexico have descended on the capital of Texas for the International Bowl on Wednesday. The game pits some of the best under-19 players from the U.S. against the best the world has to offer.
On the biggest day in American high school football -- national signing day -- 45 football players from nine countries will come together as the World Team to take on Team USA in a unique exhibition of the sport. We talked to members of both teams to find out what the event is all about.
High school: Hueytown (Ala.)
College commitment: Florida State
ESPNU 150 rank: 14 (No. 1 QB)
411: Attending the event, but not playing due to a shoulder injury … Also a Top 100 baseball recruit … MVP of Under Armour All-America Game … 2011 Gatorade Alabama Football Player of the Year & ESPNHS All-American … co-MVP of the 2011 Elite 11 … 2,424 passing yards, 1,063 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns as a senior.
Winston says: "These guys who traveled here from France and Japan and from all over the world aren't here to just have fun. They are here to compete and beat us. The interesting part for me is that you don't get to meet many different backgrounds in football like you might in other sports that have more international reach, and this game just shows how far the game can go. But it has been made clear that this isn't just another All-Star event, but a game where we represent our country and protect our claim to football."
High school: Centerville (Ohio)
College commitment: Northwestern
ESPNU 150 rank: 51 (No. 6 defensive end)
411: Under Armour All-American … Chose Northwestern over Notre Dame, Ohio State and Stanford … ESPNHS All-American as a senior after recording 43 tackles, 7.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Odenigbo says: "I wanted to meet different people from all over the world and make friends that I would never have been able to if I didn't participate in this game, if I instead just took the traditional signing day route. It's important to be around your family, team and friends for that moment, but I just saw this as a rare opportunity to play football for my country. When else can a football player do that outside of this game? I'm here to represent American football and at the same time open up my horizons to new people who I would have never met otherwise."
High school: Briar Woods (Ashburn, Va.)
College commitment: Stanford
ESPNU 150 rank: 111 (No. 11 athlete)
411: 2011 Gatorade Virginia Football Player of the Year … Won 2011 Virginia Group AA, Division 4 state title … Intercepted four passes and accounted for more than 1,000 yards of total offense and 11 TDs as a senior.
Carter says: "I got to meet guys from France, Japan and Australia already. To see that they love and understand the game just as much as we do is really great. To have this common bond that you would have never imagined is special. They love the game and it just shows where the game could go even if people don't realize it. Instead of staying home for signing day, I'm getting to experience this event and I don't think I'll ever forget it."
High school: Lake Forest Academy (Lake Forest, Ill.)
College commitment: Iowa
ESPNU 150 rank: N/A (No. 27 defensive end)
411: Born to Nigerian immigrants and raised in Brampton, Ontario … Didn't begin playing football until the seventh grade … Chose Iowa over Oregon, Georgia Tech, Northwestern and Boston College … 56 tackles, 11 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries as a senior.
Ekakitie says: "It's more than just an All-Star game. It's a really competitive climate down here and there is a meaning behind this game because of the international angle. It's an eye-opener to see guys from all over the world who love and understand the game. But it's also a chance for people to see that interest in the game outside of the States isn't just a novelty."
High school: Red Lion (Bear, Del.)
College commitment: UCLA
ESPNU 150 rank: N/A (No. 157 defensive end)
411: Born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario … Grew up playing soccer before taking up football as a freshman … Transferred to Red Lion for his senior season … 12 sacks and 3 forced fumbles as a senior.
Ankou says: "It's less and less surprising to me that more Canadian guys are making an impact in the game. It's a game that is only going to grow as more guys from each of these countries outside of the States do well and show the younger players in those places that there is potential to do something with the sport. Basketball flourished that way, it seems. This game just shows that we all have one thing in common, and that's love and passion for the game of football."