US: Falcons linebacker’s unlikely journey from Zimbabwe to the NFL and maybe the Pro Bowl
UNITED STATES: When Nate Landman looks at the fan voting for this year’s Pro Bowl, he assumes there must be computers working overtime in Colorado and Zimbabwe.
“It has to be, right? Or my family,” the Atlanta Falcons’ second-year linebacker said.
Who else, he figures, could have noticed that an undrafted free agent out of the University of Colorado thrust into the starting lineup in Week 4 because of injury is playing so well? However it has happened, Landman is third in fan voting at inside linebacker behind San Francisco’s Fred Warner and Baltimore’s Roquan Smith.
Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen may be the only person not surprised by this development.
“No, look at the body of work,” Nielsen said. “The guy is all over the place, plays the game how it should be played, smart, tough, violent, good tackler, great leader.”
Fan voting counts for a third of the final Pro Bowl tally with coaches and player votes making up the other two-thirds. Only two inside linebackers will make the initial Pro Bowl roster, so Landman still has a significant hurdle to cross before making the team, but Nielsen is rooting for him.
“This is pretty cool,” Nielsen said. “That would be great for Nate.”
Landman is the Falcons’ third-leading tackler with 94 stops. He is tied for eighth in the NFL in run stuffs (run plays stopped at the line of scrimmage), according to TruMedia, along with much more well-known names like Demario Davis of the Saints, Maxx Crosby of the Raiders and Khalil Mack of the Chargers.
“I’m just grateful to be on a team with these guys. They allow me to make plays,” Landman said. “Every one of these plays that I’ve made I haven’t made alone. I’m just grateful for the opportunity, for the coaches putting me out there and believing in me and playing with these guys. It’s cool that it’s happening. Yeah, it’s cool.”
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The Falcons signed Landman in 2022 after he went undrafted despite being a two-time Pac-12 selection and racking up 409 career tackles at Colorado. When he made the team out of training camp, he became the second Zimbabwean to play in the NFL. The first, defensive end Stansly Maponga, also played for the Falcons, in 2013 and 2014.
Landman’s African heritage is not immediately evident. His family moved to the United States when he was 4, and he speaks with an American accent.
“Most people don’t believe me,” Landman said. “I either have someone vouch for me or they have to Google it.”
His tattoo work gives his personal history lesson. He has large tattoos of an elephant and a lion on his arms and the outline of Africa on his chest with the Zimbabwean borders outlined.
“It’s just a sense of pride in knowing where I came from,” said Landman, who became a U.S. citizen in his second year of college.
Landman’s father, Shaun, played professional rugby in Zimbabwe, and he and Landman’s mother, Molly, moved the family to California before Nate started school, so the linebacker’s memories of his home country were mostly second-hand before he took a family trip back in April.
“We’re generational down there for a long time,” Landman said. “All my roots are still down there.”
Landman already is the most accomplished Zimbabwean NFL player of all time. Maponga had only eight tackles in a three-year professional career and didn’t start a game. Landman will start his 13th game Sunday when the Falcons play the Bears in Chicago.
He is playing well enough that it’s no guarantee that Troy Andersen, Atlanta’s second-round pick in 2022, will step back into the starting lineup when he returns from the pectoral tear that ended his season. Landman chose to sign with the Falcons because he thought he would get a fair shot, and he thought if he got that, he could make an NFL roster.
“I have a lot of self-belief, he said. “I always knew that if you worked hard enough and stayed in it long enough, you tend to get your opportunity. You have to make yourself lucky. You have to work hard enough to put yourself in position to get lucky. Once that happens, you have to be ready for that moment. I think that’s the secret, just work hard and keep yourself in that spot to get lucky.”
Landman played in seven games and had one tackle as a rookie, but Atlanta coaches noticed him right away when OTAs began in the spring.
“This is a guy who is punching the ball out, is always around the ball, stayed in the right mindset,” Nielsen said. “This was happening then. You were seeing a guy make plays and be in the right spot. He anticipates very well. Love how he plays, the violence, the physicality, the tackling. It’s a great story.”
Landman isn’t making any predictions about the outcome of the Pro Bowl vote, but he does predict this season won’t be the highlight of his career.
“I’ve got a long way to go to be the player I want to be,” he said. “That’s a credit to the people I have played with and the staff putting me in position to make those plays.”