NAIA Football Stars

NAIA Football Stars Who Made it to the NFL

Amidst Division I programs, an impressive 29% of Super Bowl participants from the past decade have roots in non-FBS schools, highlighting the diverse talent pool in professional football. Within these ranks, NAIA Football Players in the NFL have made a mark that belies the small size of their college programs.

The journey from NAIA fields to NFL glory is not just possible; it’s a storied part of football history. NAIA football alumni in the NFL, like the legendary Walter Payton, have often defied the odds, transitioning from NAIA NFL draft picks to household names in professional sports.

While dominating NCAA teams receive the lion’s share of media attention during the draft season, NAIA’s 96 football programs have honed raw talents who flourished under the radar. These programs offer student-athletes the chance to excel in a more flexible space—with fewer restrictions and a wider recruitment period—often leading lesser-known players to emerge as star professionals.

Key Takeaways

  • Non-FBS schools are a significant contributor to NFL rosters, challenging the perception of talent pools in professional football.
  • NAIA football players have successfully navigated the path from relatively obscure programs to NFL prominence.
  • NAIA circuits provide unique opportunities for player development, often cultivating unforeseen NFL prospects.
  • The NAIA has been a stepping stone for legendary athletes who have left indelible marks on the NFL.
  • Despite their often-overlooked status, NAIA alumni like Walter Payton have achieved the pinnacle of football success, including Super Bowl championships and Hall of Fame inductions.

The Hidden Gems of College Football: NAIA Alumni Success in the NFL

While the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) often dominates the spotlight in college football, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) has quietly been the breeding ground for some remarkable professional football talents.

Lacking the broad coverage of their NCAA counterparts, NAIA football success stories often fly under the radar. However, the contributions NAIA football players have made to professional football are significant and deserve acknowledgment.

College Football


One such story is that of Jackie Slater, a name that resonates with both NAIA and NFL fans. Slater’s football career began in the NAIA, where his raw talent was sharpened, propelling him into a professional career that stands out for its longevity and excellence. Jackie Slater is just one example of how NAIA football players can make a substantial impact in professional football.

Through opportunity and the cultivation of skill, the NAIA has seen many of its players transcend expectations and embark on successful NFL careers. Below is a table highlighting notable NAIA alumni who have found success in the NFL, showcasing the breadth and caliber of talent that NAIA football programs have to offer.

NAIA Alumni NFL Team(s) Achievements
Jackie Slater Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams Pro Football Hall of Fame, 7× Pro Bowl, 3× First-team All-Pro
Matthew Slater New England Patriots 3× Super Bowl Champion, 9× Pro Bowl, 5× First-team All-Pro (Special Teams)
Fred Jackson Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks NFL record for most rushing yards by an undrafted player in franchise history (Bills)
Kurt Warner St. Louis Rams, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals Super Bowl Champion (XXXIV), NFL MVP (1999, 2001), Pro Football Hall of Fame
Tony Romo Dallas Cowboys 4× Pro Bowl, Dallas Cowboys all-time leader in passing touchdowns and passing yards

The NAIA may not possess the same level of visibility or resources as the NCAA, but its contribution to professional football is undeniable. These NAIA football players in professional football not only succeeded but often exceeded expectations, carving out their legacies in a sport dominated by larger college programs. Their journeys affirm that with dedication and passion, NAIA athletes can rise to the highest echelons of football success.

These players stand as testament to the pro football potential found within NAIA’s ranks, reminding us that greatness can be born in the most unexpected places.

Walter Payton: The NAIA Legend and NFL Icon

Amongst the NAIA players who made the leap to the NFL, Walter Payton stands as an exemplary figure whose story of resolute perseverance towers over the landscape of professional football. Despite a collegiate career spent away from the traditional NCAA powerhouse programs, Payton’s exceptional record at Jackson State University—a gem among NAIA football alumni—ushered him into the NFL, where he left an indelible mark.

From Jackson State to the NFL: Walter Payton’s Journey

Walter Payton's Journey


After being sidelined by the spotlight of SEC colleges, Walter Payton’s relentless determination saw him achieve an astonishing 65 career rushing touchdowns at Jackson State, a testament to the talent brimming in NAIA’s NFL draft picks. His transition to the NFL as a running back was nothing short of phenomenal, quickly establishing him as a force to be reckoned by adversaries and a treasure to fans.

Payton’s endeavors reflect the journey many NAIA football players in the NFL embark upon—a testament to the league’s caliber and potential to nurture NFL prospects. Facing giants in the game, these athletes translate perseverance into performance, carving out storied careers reminiscent of Payton’s rise to fame.

The Legacy of “Sweetness”: Awards and Honors

Walter Payton’s stellar NFL journey is strewn with accolades and veneration. Epitomized by his nickname “Sweetness,” he became an embodiment of excellence and sportsmanship. His accomplishments are marked by laurels such as the Super Bowl Championship and his enshrinement in both the Hall of Fames dedicated to college and professional football—honors that celebrate NAIA football alumni in the NFL.

Impact Beyond the Field: The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award

The spirit of “Sweetness” transcends the chalk lines and goalposts of the gridiron through the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. This prestigious accolade not only honors Walter Payton’s own substantial contributions but also recognizes those among NAIA NFL draft picks and forthcoming prospects who echo his unwavering commitment to philanthropy and community betterment.

Like many NAIA football players in the NFL, the legacy of those like Walter Payton demonstrates a profound impact both on and off the field. Their journey from underappreciated talents at small colleges to revered figures in professional football mirrors the transformative path carved by Payton—a path of resilience, community service, and unparalleled athletic prowess.

Jackie Slater: A Blocker for the Greats

The legacy of NAIA football is deeply enriched by the success stories of its alumni, and among the most illustrious is Jackie Slater. As an offensive lineman, Slater’s role in shaping the outcome of any given game was pivotal, a dynamic NAIA NFL prospect whose performance on the field demonstrated the profound impact of NAIA talent in the National Football League. Jackie Slater’s journey from the NAIA to a revered career in the NFL highlights the multitude of pathways that dedicated athletes can traverse toward achieving professional success.

Known for his tenure with the Los Angeles Rams, Slater’s career spanned over two decades, during which he safeguarded quarterbacks and cleared routes for running backs like Eric Dickerson. As the cornerstone of the offensive line, he played a critical role in the offensive scheme, battling in the trenches against the league’s fiercest competitors.

Slater’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is not only a personal accolade but also a beacon for NAIA football, signaling the caliber of excellence that NAIA prospects are capable of reaching.

Notable Achievement Description
Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Recognition of Jackie Slater’s exceptional skill and dedication throughout his NFL career.
20 Seasons with Los Angeles Rams A testament to his longevity and consistency in performance as an offensive lineman.
Mentorship and Legacy Inspiring future generations, including his son Matthew Slater, who continues to excel in the NFL as an All-Pro player.
Representation of NAIA Exemplifies the potential for NAIA athletes to achieve professional greatness and contribute significantly to the NFL.

The story of Jackie Slater is not just one of individual triumph but a collective NAIA football success story, reaffirming the institution’s status as a breeding ground for NFL talent. His career sheds light on the possibilities that lie within the NAIA framework, encouraging current and future NAIA football athletes to forge their paths to success with determination and prowess reminiscent of Slater’s legacy.

NAIA Football Players in the NFL: The Complete List

The narrative of NAIA football success stories extends deep into the annals of the NFL, spotlighting a roster of players who have made the unlikely journey from small colleges to the big league. These individuals have not only managed to secure a spot on professional rosters but have also made significant impacts on the field. From undrafted free agents to notable NFL draft picks, the stories of these NAIA alumni echo a theme of determination and resilience.

Damon Harrison: The Underdog Story of “Snacks”

Damon Harrison’s rise from NAIA ranks to becoming an All-Pro talent is a quintessential NAIA NFL success story. Overcoming early setbacks, Harrison used his senior year in high school to carve a path that would lead him to William Penn University, and subsequently to the NFL, where his dominance as a run-stopper earned him the nickname “Snacks”.

Harlon Hill: The Receiver Who Paved the Way

Harlon Hill NAIA player


Harlon Hill’s legacy is not just captured in his personal accolades but also in the trophy named after him. His journey from Florence State Teachers College to securing prestigious titles like Rookie of the Year and NFL MVP is a testament to the potential of NAIA football players carving out a significant presence as NFL draft picks.

Robert Brazile and the Domination on Defense

Sharing the collegiate field with Walter Payton, Robert Brazile transitioned roles, going from tight end to linebacker where he earned All-American honors. His sixth overall selection by the Houston Oilers in the 1975 NFL draft led to a decorated career, punctuated by his eventual enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

NAIA Athlete NAIA College NFL Team Position Highlights
Damon Harrison William Penn University Various Teams Defensive Tackle All-Pro Selection
Harlon Hill University of North Alabama Chicago Bears Wide Receiver NFL MVP, Rookie of the Year
Robert Brazile Jackson State University Houston Oilers Linebacker 7x Pro Bowl, Hall of Fame

Unconventional Routes: The NAIA to NFL Journey for Star


The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) stands as a testament to the notion that talent can thrive across all levels of college football. The NAIA has carved out a niche for fostering determined athletes who are often missed by the larger NCAA recruitment net.

These individuals, characterized by their resilience and dedication, have defied the odds and paved their own pathways to professional football’s highest echelon. In this section, we explore the inspirational journeys of NAIA football alumni in the NFL, celebrating their transitions from underrated prospects to professional football achievers.

Contrary to common belief, numerous football players have transitioned from NAIA programs into the NFL, demonstrating that determination and talent can eclipse the scale of the school’s sports program.

These players navigated their routes from less heralded pastures onto NFL turf, embodying the spirit of underdogs triumphing against the odds. Below is an illustrative account of notable NAIA alumni who have made it to the NFL, showcasing the diverse range of players and the positions they’ve mastered.

NAIA Alumnus NAIA Institution NFL Team(s) Position
Fred Jackson Coé College Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks Running Back
Michael Roos Eastern Oregon University Tennessee Titans Offensive Tackle
Brandon Carr Grand Valley State University Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens Cornerback
Roderick Green Central Missouri State University Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers Linebacker
Danny Woodhead Chadron State College New York Jets, New England Patriots, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens Running Back

The unfolding narratives of these NAIA football alumni in the NFL reflect an inherent triumph of ambition and skill over the constraints of lesser-known sporting programs. They serve as a source of inspiration and a reminder to current and future NAIA football players that the professional football dreams within reach, transcended by the calibre of one’s talent and heart.

NAIA NFL Draft Picks: Defying Expectations Year After Year

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) has consistently proven its ability to nurture athletes who make their indelible mark in professional football. Despite the commonly held perceptions of college football dominance by NCAA, NAIA NFL draft picks and prospects have defiantly shattered expectations, transforming into prominent figures in the NFL.

Lem Barney: A Hall of Fame Career

A Jackson State University alumnus, Lem Barney epitomizes the NAIA’s contribution to the NFL. His fantastic career, marked by electrifying plays, landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where he is revered as one of the league’s great cornerbacks. Barney’s journey from the NAIA to the pinnacle of professional football remains an inspiration for NAIA NFL prospects aspiring to etch their names in NFL history.

Celebrating NAIA Players Who Excelled in Professional Football

While recognition often eludes them, numerous NAIA football alumni have made significant impacts in the NFL. Players like Darrell Green and Gene Upshaw made waves in professional football, laying a foundation upon which current and future NAIA NFL draft picks can build their dreams. They demonstrate the elevated level of skill and perseverance that characterizes NAIA football players in the NFL.

Carved Paths: From NAIA NFL Prospects to Household Names

The ascension from NAIA fields to NFL stadiums is a transition marked by drive, resilience, and unyielding pursuit of excellence. It is a narrative familiar to NAIA alumni like Derrick Ward and Patrick Crayton, whose names resonate in households as testament to the fact that talent thrives at every level. Their successful professional journeys reflect the caliber of NAIA players in professional football and underscore the league’s role in cultivating top-tier athletic talent.

NAIA Football Success Stories: Thriving Against the Odds

Unearthing the chapters of NAIA football success, one finds a narrative steeped in resilience, determination, and the relentless pursuit to make it big. The journey of NAIA football players in the NFL serves as a beacon of inspiration for athletes across the nation. Their stories defy conventional paths, showcasing that the route to the NFL is not a straight line dominated by traditional powerhouses.

The often untold tales of NAIA athletes who climb to the pinnacle of professional football bear witness to the depth and breadth of talent that exists within this collegiate league. NAIA football talents are not merely outliers; they are exemplars of the adage that hard work, more than the badge of one’s college, determines one’s fate in the annals of NAIA football success stories.

NAIA Football Stories


It’s not just the individual training, on-the-field tenacity, and stats that take these players from NAIA to the national stage—it’s also their unyielding spirit. Their success is not just measured by the contracts they sign or the touchdowns they make, but by the hurdles they have overcome. This narrative is as much about the human spirit as it is about athleticism.

  • Emerging from smaller schools, NAIA athletes often cultivate a unique set of skills, undistracted by the massive fanfare surrounding NCAA programs.
  • They prove time and again that excellence isn’t an exclusive prerogative of the NCAA; it can be carved out on any field, against any odds.
  • NAIA’s spotlight on personal growth, close-knit community, and a balanced approach to sports and education shapes well-rounded individuals ready for challenges beyond the gridiron.

Each year, these players write new chapters in the chronicle of NAIA football success stories, extending a powerful legacy that continues to feed the dreams of next-generation athletes—those who look onward to their own battles, in leagues both big and small, beneath the Friday night lights or the Sunday afternoon glare of an NFL stadium.

The Future of NAIA Football and Its NFL Potential

As the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) evolves, it maintains a critical role in shaping players bound for the National Football League (NFL). NAIA’s commitment to cultivating football talent surfaces through an alternative approach, creating a reservoir of adept athletes who, despite being often overshadowed by NCAA counterparts, emerge as legitimate NFL prospects.

Fostering NFL Prospects: NAIA’s Unique Approach to Talent Development

The distinction of NAIA football lies in its malleability and expansive recruitment capabilities. Unlike their NCAA contemporaries, NAIA coaches can engage in recruitment throughout the year, offering more young football players the chance to pursue their athletic ambitions and enhance crucial skills that catch NFL recruiters’ eyes.

Why NAIA Players May Be Overlooked But Should Not Be Underestimated

The gargantuan shadow cast by NCAA programs often leaves NAIA athletes in relative obscurity. However, the impressive track record of NAIA football players in professional football, including numerous NAIA football alumni in the NFL, firmly contests the notion that NAIA athletes lack the merit for professional play. With a blend of nimbleness, aptitude, and conviction, an NAIA underdog may well find themselves basking in the limelight of the NFL arena.


The journey of NAIA athletes to the zenith of professional football is a narrative steeped in determination and the relentless pursuit of excellence. Echoing the words of Vince Lombardi, ‘It’s not whether you get knocked down; it’s whether you get up,’ the NAIA has cultivated an environment where the underdog spirit thrives, inherently becoming a breeding ground for NFL prospects.

Over the years, the NAIA has demonstrated its capacity to groom skillful athletes who have carved niches for themselves and solidified their legacies within the NFL. NAIA football success stories continue to inspire, underscoring the possibility of reaching professional football’s highest echelons regardless of college football’s hierarchy, much like how Pele once stated, ‘Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.’

Embracing the Underdog: NAIA’s Role in NFL Stardom

The stories of NAIA alumni transitioning to professional football encompass a mosaic of relentless effort, unyielding ambition, and strategic prowess. As Tom Landry put it, ‘Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.’ These narratives are beacons of hope for many, epitomizing the notion that success is boundless, even for those who commence their journey far from the limelight.

This landscape where NAIA NFL draft picks and NAIA football players in professional football emerge, reiterates the depth and quality of talent within the NAIA framework, fortifying its reputation as an instrumental arena for developing future NFL stars. It’s a testament to Bear Bryant’s belief that ‘It’s not the will to win that matters—everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.’


Who are some of the most prominent NAIA Football Players to make it in the NFL?

Several prominent NFL players have come from NAIA programs, including Walter Payton of Jackson State University, Jackie Slater of Jackson State University, Gene Upshaw of Texas A&M University–Kingsville, and Lem Barney of Jackson State University, to name a few.

Can NAIA football players be drafted into the NFL?

Yes, NAIA football players are eligible for the NFL Draft, and over the years many have been selected and have gone on to have successful professional careers.

What is Walter Payton’s legacy in relation to NAIA football?

Walter Payton, an NAIA alumni from Jackson State University, is one of the most celebrated NFL athletes. His legacy includes so much more than his NFL career; it encompasses the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, which honors players for their excellence in community service and philanthropy.

Have there been any successful offensive linemen from the NAIA in the NFL?

Yes, one of the most notable is Jackie Slater, who played for 20 seasons with the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, making him one of the most successful offensive linemen in NFL history to have emerged from an NAIA program.

What is the NAIA’s role in developing NFL prospects?

The NAIA provides opportunities for players to hone their skills and showcase their talents, often resulting in successful transitions to the NFL. NAIA coaches have the flexibility to recruit year-round, which can benefit late-bloomers or overlooked athletes.

Are NAIA football programs overlooked by major media outlets?

NAIA football programs often receive less media coverage than their NCAA counterparts, which can result in less visibility for their players. However, numerous NAIA alumni have demonstrated that talent from these programs can make a significant impact in the NFL.

How does the talent level in NAIA football compare to that of NCAA football?

While NCAA football programs generally attract more highly recruited high school players, NAIA football programs have consistently demonstrated that they can produce NFL-caliber talent. The difference in exposure does not necessarily reflect the level of talent in NAIA programs.

What challenges do NAIA football players face in their journey to the NFL?

NAIA football players often face challenges such as limited exposure, stigma of playing at smaller schools, and fewer resources compared to their NCAA counterparts. However, those who excel often overcome these challenges through their drive, determination, and on-field performance.

Who are some NAIA football success stories to watch in the NFL?

Aside from past legends, current and recent NFL players who began in NAIA programs include Damon Harrison, known as “Snacks,” and players like Aldrick Rosas, both of whom have demonstrated that NAIA athletes can achieve professional success.

What advice is there for aspiring NAIA football players aiming for the NFL?

Aspiring NAIA football players should focus on their development, seize every opportunity presented, and work hard to demonstrate their skills and potential. The success of NAIA alumni in the NFL shows that with determination and talent, a professional football career is attainable.