‘Bigger than me’: African-born Vikings part of growing NFL wave

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Rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah’s Ghanaian heritage is at the forefront of every step he takes in Vikings training.

An outline of Africa is printed on his custom thigh pads, a symbol visible through his thin white training pants that not only represents his Ghana-born parents and many family members there, but also a growing number of NFL players who are African immigrants or whose parents emigrated from African countries.

“I put everything on display,” said Asamoah, a third-round pick. “It means everything, just to carry on a tradition and a legacy. I feel like it’s bigger than me. It’s for all the children in Africa, especially in Ghana, to see that I have got me out of it, and they can do the same thing too.”

Asamoah and at least five other Vikings players — receiver Bisi Johnson, running back Kene Nwangwu, tackle Oli Udoh, defensive end Esezi Otomewo and linebacker William Kwenkeu — were born in Africa or were first-generation born in the United States. They are among more than 100 players in the league in this growing demographic who had at least 10 players in this year’s draft class. The NFL took notice and held its first official marketing events in Africa in June.

The Vikings’ Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is one of seven black NFL general managers, but the only one whose parents emigrated from Africa. A bracelet of red, yellow and green beads around her left wrist recalls her Ghanaian heritage. The same goes for his interviews with Asamoah in Twi, a dialect of a language widely spoken in the West African nation of 31 million.

“It’s crazy. I felt like God lined us up together for a reason,” Asamoah said. “Whenever I talk to Kwesi he always says it’s meant to be. That’s how I see it, it was really meant to be.”

“Connect instantly”

When Adofo-Mensah phoned Asamoah to say the Vikings were drafting the Oklahoma product with the 66th overall pick this spring, Adofo-Mensah said, “You know this one hits different, right?” Asamoah replied, “One Ghanaian to another Ghanaian, let’s do it, man.”

The Vikings have four Nigerian-born players in Johnson, Udoh, Nwangwu and Otomewo; one of Ghanaian origin in Asamoah; and Kwenkeu, born in Cameroon. From the locker room to the CEO’s office, cultural bonds are formed around shared passions such as African music, football and food.

Debates begin when the talks turn to jollof rice, a West African dish in a broth infused with tomatoes, curry and spices that has unique twists across borders.

“The first time I met [Adofo-Mensah]”, said Johnson, whose father was born in Nigeria, “I had to come here … and say that Nigerian jollof rice is obviously better. This battle will never end. It will last forever.”

Nwangwu, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria, agrees: “My mother, I will take this every day.”

“I really think it’s Senegalese,” said Kwenkeu, who lived in Cameroon until he was 14. “They have the original.”

Kwenkeu “spoke like a man who knew something I didn’t,” Adofo-Mensah conceded, adding that the debate was “all love.” In 1969, Adofo-Mensah’s parents emigrated from Ghana to New Jersey, where he was born in 1981.

“It’s a great icebreaker when you see a certain name and know where it came from,” Adofo-Mensah wrote in an email. “Like most of these debates, it is not about the thing but the emotional attachment to the thing. college, or growing up wanting to eat the burnt part at the bottom of the pot like my father.”

Shared experiences are also found in African educations. Sports are often secondary to education, which is seen as a “badge of honor” by parents pushing for high-level professions such as medicine or engineering, said NFL Network reporter Jeffri Chadiha, a former University of Wyoming football player whose father emigrated from Uganda.

No matter the job, there’s a sense of pride in representing the family name, said Otomewo, a fifth-round pick and former Gophers defenseman. He saw that in his friend and college teammate Boye Mafe, whose family is also from Nigeria, and Otomewo again sees the cultural pride in some of his new Vikings teammates.

“Whenever I see a Nigerian or an African in the dressing room, I instantly feel like I know how they grew up,” Otomewo said. “It’s kind of a special feeling because we connect instantly.”

A family-centered culture can help African immigrants and their children make the most of opportunities in America, Chadiha said.

“African culture is so big on discipline, so big on pride, so big on family,” Chadiha said. “If you’re someone who’s going to go out and make a fool of yourself, not work hard, not appreciate your opportunity, you’ll have a hard time functioning with your family.”

Kwenkeu, an undrafted linebacker from Temple, is the only African-born player on the Vikings roster. Family is her motivation, playing to earn enough so that her mother, Martine, can quit working three jobs to support herself and her family in Cameroon.

She came to America in 2010 and two years later brought Kwenkeu, who had never heard of American football when he arrived in Maryland from a Catholic boarding school in Cameroon. His English was limited when he was recruited by students to try out for the football team in his second year. Football helped him make American friends and learn the language. Two years later, soft-spoken Kwenkeu was a game-barking team captain.

“Through football, I was able to find a voice,” Kwenkeu said.

A long-term vision

In his hometown of Douala, Cameroon, Kwenkeu said he saw people randomly wearing NFL jerseys, but very few people knew much about the teams or players.

The NFL is trying to change that. In June, the league held its first official events in Ghana, where seven current and former NFL players, including Kwity Paye of the Colts (Liberian) and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of the Browns (Ghanaian), joined to organize a week of events, including a talent identification camp, a flag football clinic and a fan meet-and-greet.

NFL International Chief Operating Officer Damani Leech led the contingent in Ghana dubbed “NFL Africa: The Touchdown”. The league has relied on former Giants striker Osi Umenyiora, who is of Nigerian descent and founded the Uprise, a football development program which has camps in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. Players from Umenyiora’s camps were invited to the NFL talent camp.

“The live reactions have been amazing,” Leech said. “[NFL players] were surprised at some fan events by the length of the queues of fans waiting to meet them, take pictures, get autographs.”

While the NFL hosts games in Mexico and England each year, league officials see Africa as another opportunity to develop fandom and pathways for future players, coaches, executives or referees. Leech highlighted “population growth, technology adoption and infrastructure” in Africa.

“This signal really in the next 30+ years there’s going to be a lot going on there,” Leech said. “So if we can continue to identify talent and also position ourselves by increasing the number of fans, we will be well placed.”

The NFL wants to hold annual events in Ghana while exploring other markets in Africa, Leech said. Some current NFL players have reached out after the events of this summer, offering their help in the years to come. One such player is Asamoah, who said he was looking forward to returning to Africa for the first time since he was 10 to expand the game’s reach.

“Make it bigger and global,” Asamoah said. “So the guys in Africa or Ghana in particular can have the opportunity, just like me, to show their abilities and play American football. I’m excited and I think this is just the beginning of Something.”


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