Game not over: Mountaineer athletes discover international opportunities to play on

Appalachian State University has long benefited from a commitment to global learning. Students have extended the traditional campus learning environment through exposure to different cultures and locations. Many of the university’s colleges have robust international programs, helping provide Appalachian a proven track record of placing graduates in thriving opportunities around the globe.

Student-athletes at Appalachian have enjoyed a similar pipeline that allows for professional experiences outside the borders of the United States. While the dream of playing in the NFL or the NBA might not always be realistic, numerous countries around the world have thriving professional leagues, and former Mountaineers have benefited from extending their careers while also gaining a variety of cultural experiences.

Football player Wayne Smith was an All-Southern Conference performer for the Mountaineers from 1998-2001. He signed with the Washington Redskins as an undrafted free agent following his senior season. Shortly after inking a free agent deal with the Denver Broncos the following year, Smith’s career hit a crossroads.

“I signed with the Broncos in December of 2002. They wanted to send me to NFL Europe to get some experience playing center since I was a tackle in college,” Smith said. “During the NFL Europe physical, the doctors found an issue with my neck and I was released. I sent film and a bio to a few of the Canadian Football League teams.” Smith was born in Toronto and was considered legal to enter in the CFL draft – a lucrative development in Smith’s budding professional football career. He was drafted as the top overall selection in the 2004 CFL draft by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Smith has since been one of the most consistent and productive offensive linemen in the league and is entering his 12th season of play north of the border. Smith recently signed a contract extension with the Toronto Argonauts that will keep him with the club through the 2017 season.

“The move back to Canada has been amazing,” said Smith, who was born in Canada but grew up in Florida. “I’ve had the opportunity to travel all across the country and experience some pretty amazing things. The transition to living in Canada wasn’t very difficult… so many similarities to living in the U.S. There are also enough cultural differences that give you so many opportunities to learn.”

Armanti Edwards ’09 and Will Corbin ’14 also play in the CFL.

Edwards was drafted in the third-round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Carolina Panthers, where he played for portions of four seasons. After appearing with the Cleveland Browns in 2013, the two-time Walter Payton Award winner was among the final cuts in camp with the Chicago Bears in 2014. Edwards now looks to the CFL as a destination where he can reestablish his football career.

Jamal-Londry Jackson ’13 has expanded the App State Football global footprint even further as he plays for Danube in the Austrian Football League.

Daniel Wilcox ’10 and Frank Leatherwood used their experience with I-AA playoff runs in the late 1990s to gain access to opportunities in NFL Europe. Wilcox saw his time spent abroad serving as a launching point for a lengthy career in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens.

While international opportunities have become more available in the sport of football over the last two decades, Mountaineer basketball alums have used a well-established professional pipeline that has led to lucrative overseas contracts. Head Men’s Basketball Coach Jim Fox sees players quickly warm to the idea of playing internationally after learning more about the lifestyle.

“When a player comes to college, playing pro only equates to one thing – the NBA. After four years, a player has a better understanding of what opportunities are NOT there,” Fox said. “Playing professionally is a realistic goal for many college players. What league, salary and how long depends on what they want. Leagues around the world offer incredible opportunities if they are committed and willing to live abroad.”

Recent graduates have fared well in overseas competition. Donald Sims ’11 and Andre Williamson ’12 won championships with their respective teams in Belgium and Switzerland. Ryann Abraham ’10 returned to his native Puerto Rico and has enjoyed a steady career as a point guard for various franchises.

On the women’s basketball front, Maryah Sydnor ’15 had her international dreams placed on hold after injuring her knee while playing in Finland. Raven Gary Williams ’13 has found success playing with the Yalova Vip club in Turkey.

In all, over 30 former Mountaineer men’s and women’s basketball players have moved on to play professionally overseas.

“There is no doubt playing overseas is an eye-opening experience,” Fox said. “They usually first realize how much they miss their college teammates. They are now playing ‘as a job’ where your teammates are now fellow employees competing against you to make a living. But, they also get out and experience a different culture, different way of life and also experience even more diversity than they have. On their team, they may have a coach from Spain, players from Serbia, Ireland and France. So they build relationships with teammates from all over the world. It is an incredible opportunity and experience.”