American football joins other sporting codes at Kenyan varsities

American football, commonly recognised by many as the NFL or National Football League, as well as baseball, are among the top five most lucrative sports played – but are, unfortunately for those who may want to participate in these codes, almost exclusively practised in the United States, Central and South America.

This norm, however, may just be changing with higher education institutions such as the University of Nairobi and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) choosing to adopt them into their sports programmes.

With the first-ever American football match having been played by two college teams, Princeton and Rutgers, in 1869, it was only fitting that a university, the University of Nairobi, be the one to pioneer it in Kenya. American football, ‘gridiron’, is considered one of the most popular sporting codes in the US, where the majority of players are usually picked straight from colleges to join professional teams.

According to estimates, about 9, 000 college students play football, making it an attractive source of employment for graduates who choose to pursue sport as a career. In the US, top-players like Patrick Mahomes and Joey Bosa are among the highest-paid NFL players earning about US$45 million annually.

Growing interest

“American football was first introduced in Kenya in 2012 with the help of former NFL players and coaches, and the University of Nairobi was more than willing to be the institution that pioneers it,” said George Alwanga, the chairperson of the Kenya Federation of American Football (KFAF). “I loved the sport and, having the opportunity to play it for my own institution was a dream come true,” he added.

According to Alwanga, the university and its players were given basic training and the team also received donations that included equipment such as balls, helmets, uniforms and shoulder pads that they could start out with. He started playing for the university as a running back and was named the best player in that position at the 2012 inaugural East African Championship. After graduation, Alwanga was called back to help coach the team and later on was selected to chair the KFAF.

“Initially we were the only school that knew and played the sport and most of the time we just played against each other. However, over time, other institutions started to take an interest in it and it was not long before they also came on board,” Alwanga explained.

“Today, American football is being practised in some of the top universities in Kenya which include JKUAT, Maseno University, the United States International University Africa and the Technical University of Kenya,” he said.

Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, the football federation had received invites from universities in the Rift valley and central Kenya that also wanted a chance to introduce the sport on their campuses.

Baseball introduced

The story is somewhat similar for baseball, which is gradually being integrated into JKUAT’s sports programme. Once successful, the university will become the first to host the sport in Kenya.

Maurice Odeng, the sports director at JKUAT, has been part of the process.

“A second-year student approached the department and requested the school to open up a slot for baseball which was the sport he was interested in,” said Odeng. “Being an institution that greatly appreciates sports, we agreed to give it a go and see how it worked out. We have started out by buying a couple of [pieces of] equipment for the players though we are yet to get someone who knows the sport well and can assist with the coaching,” he added.

The students (about 20) are currently coaching themselves with the help of YouTube, said Odeng.

For Jeff Abuya, a student at JKUAT, the introduction of the sport came at an opportune time. “I have always been a fan of baseball, and given our limitations back in high school, I felt that a university or college would be better suited to consider my request to start a baseball team,” said Abuya.

“I feel that there are some [other] sports activities out there that we can also be very good at but that we have not had the opportunity to explore yet. Kenya’s national cricket team is already making its mark in the global scene, yet it is a sport that is still alien to most of us,” he added. Abuya believes Kenya has enough talent to produce professional players who can compete in global events.

Sport offers lucrative opportunities

Daniel Adongo put Kenya on the map by becoming the first Kenyan ever to play in the NFL, a reality that Alwanga says has helped open people’s eyes to the possibilities of making it big in sport.

Kenya is already known as a dominant force in the field of rugby, in particular fast-paced Sevens rugby, which has some similar characteristics to American Football, and Alwanga believes they can be equally good at it.

“Adongo was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to study abroad (University of Pretoria), which gave him the head start that he needed in American football,” said Alwanga. Now, thanks to the University of Nairobi’s initiative, the sport has been brought right to our doorstep.

Alwanga told University World News that some students have already been selected to join recruitment camps in the US where they are expected to develop into elite players and also get settled into various colleges and universities through sports scholarships.

“Mohamed Ali is one example of a former student who was scouted from the University of Nairobi and given a chance to join the Iowa State University on a football scholarship. Another student is Lee Gullu who now lives and studies in New Jersey,” said Alwanga.

Both Alwanga and Odeng believe that, for talented students, sports offer lucrative career opportunities, in particular to those who are able to compete internationally.