You don’t need to go to college to play in the NFL. This might seem counterintuitive, because the majority of the players in the NFL come from an NCAA team, and typically very prestigious Division I NCAA teams at that, but there’s actually nothing in the league’s eligibility rules that exclusively specify any amount of college education. It is true that if an athlete goes to college, there are certain rules and regulations that must be abided by, but the idea that higher education is mandatory for NFL players simply isn’t correct.
What these players are, though, is extraordinarily uncommon — NFL scouts love college resumes and game tape, after all. For every Jarryd Hayne, or the guy who toiled away in the CFL or other pro leagues that are a step or two removed from the biggest sports league in America, there are legions of athletes who proudly call out their alma mater during the prerecorded pregame introductions. This is not about those guys. This is about the five best NFL players that avoided the NCAA entirely.
1. Ray Seals
Pictured above laying into Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, Seals is one of the most well known NFL players to have skipped college in league history. Indeed, as a starting defensive end on a Super Bowl team (in this case, the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX), Seals reached the apex of his position, even though the Steelers would end up losing that contest. Seals made his way to the NFL by stints with minor league football franchises, and would ultimately spend eight seasons playing at the highest level of professional football, playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Carolina Panthers as well as the aforementioned Steelers.
2. Eric Swann
One of the reasons that the NCAA provides such a dependable tunnel for professional caliber talent in the world of football is the lack of a universally recognizable second tier. In other words, there’s the NFL, and then there’s everything else — and for players like Eric Swann, who was ruled academically ineligible to play for North Carolina State and wound up playing for the now-defunct Bay State Titans, described as “a bunch of nobodies in Massachusetts,” being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals without playing a single second of college football must have been indescribable.
It’s worth noting here that Swann did briefly attend Wake Forest Technical College before dropping out to play with the Titans, but he’s included here because his collegiate tenure was brief enough that he’s listed as having “No College” on his official NFL page.
3. Sav Rocca
Easily the best name on the entire list, Sav Rocca was a latecomer to the NFL — he didn’t play in the league proper until the age of 36, when he caught on with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2006, becoming the oldest rookie in league history. What was he doing before his debut? Playing Australian football, which is not the same as American football, or rugby, for that matter.
4. Michael Lewis
All hail the Beer Guy! Michael Lewis, former Budweiser truck driver, finally caught on in the NFL after a decade of slogging through indoor and arena football leagues after graduating high school in 1990. The New Orleans native finally got his break on football’s biggest stage when his hometown team, the New Orleans Saints, signed him. The eventual All-Pro, who came into the league with the mostly-modest goal to “play in one NFL game,” would eventually carve out a six-year career that started when he was 30 years old.
5. Lawrence Okoye
All of these athletes bypassed the NCAA and the traditional college experience for one reason or another, but only Lawrence Okoye has a spot waiting for him whenever he wants it, as the third-year defensive lineman for the New York Jets. Okoye has a distinguished career as an Olympic athlete, and a place to study law at Oxford waiting for him whenever his sports career starts to wind down. He’s also a rugby player, and became the first of two such athletes on the franchise’s active roster once they signed Jarryd Hayne.
Did we miss any famous faces? Let us know. In the meantime, all stats come from Pro Football Reference.