Daniel Adongo is not the first athlete from Africa to make it to the highest level of American football; however his dogged determination, relentless grit and unwavering faith could make him the top African athlete the National Football League (NFL).
Weighing more than 120 kilograms and towering at six foot five inches, the linebacker with the Indianapolis Colts has come a long way from Nairobi, where he was born and learned to play a completely different sport, rugby.
The Colts, whose team mantra is build the monster, is quietly building a monster in Adongo. Not surprising as his grandfather, Odiek Chilo, nicknamed him Liech, a Kenyan word for elephant, because he was a big baby.
“From what my mom tells me, I was huge baby and I have been growing ever since!” says Adongo, laughing at his not-so-average stature.
Sport was far from Adongo when he was growing up. Born and raised in a middle-class family in Nairobi, his dad, Joseph was a mid-level executive whose career took the family to London and back to Kenya.
“I had a really great childhood in Nairobi. Even though my parents come from humble beginnings, we were also fortunate enough as a family to be afforded the opportunity to live in Europe,” he says.
He was a typical boy-next-door with an unquenchable curiosity about the world. Even though it never occurred to him that sport would play an enormous role in his life, he says he was very competitive from the age of five.
In London, at the age of six, Adongo insisted on participating in a 15-kilometer charity walk with his parents on a hot summer’s day. Despite objections from his parents and to his father’s amazement, Adongo completed the walk.
“I am happy that I took the opportunity and obligated myself to the discipline and rigor of athletics from a young age.”
It was in primary school that Adongo and his older brother, Leon, discovered their love for sport, particularly rugby.
“I looked up to my older brother and followed him in whatever sports he played. I wanted to emulate everything he did on the field.”
It was former Kenya Rugby Sevens coach, Benjamin Ayimba, who spotted the brothers and their athletic prowess early. At that time, the older Adongo was a student at Makini School and the younger at Strathmore School, both schools in Nairobi.
“People talk about him [Daniel] as a rugby person but he is an all-round sportsman. While at Strathmore School, he was the best at both track and field events. He set a record in high jump and was a greater sprinter. He also played basketball, football and rugby,” says Joseph.
Adongo enjoyed rugby the most and he excelled so much that he was crowned Sportsman of the Year.
His trajectory in sport rose after he joined the junior team at Harlequins, a rugby club in Kenya. It was from there that he was spotted by South African scouts at the 2006 Safari Sevens tournament, playing in the schools category. In 2007, he was scouted by the academy of the Sharks, a rugby team in KwaZulu Natal on South Africa’s east coast.
Within a short space of time, Adongo left Kenya to play professionally in South Africa.
“Before, there was no Kenyan who had been signed to the Sharks Academy with a junior contract at the end of their first year. I achieved that,” he says with pride.
Change was a constant feature in his life and after the 2011 season, Adongo moved north to play for the Blue Bulls in Pretoria. He then decided to play for Counties Manukau in New Zealand in 2012.
“I had established myself in South Africa, but I wanted a change of pace. The decision to move from playing rugby in South Africa to playing in New Zealand was a tough one.”
Adongo took a salary cut, accepting the New Zealand’s minimum 12-week pay of $12,300 including bonuses. Rugby is part of the fabric of New Zealand life. He was willing to sacrifice money for the vital experience.
“The experience in New Zealand was a different style of play. Rugby players in New Zealand employ more skill, tact, power, guile and speed to defeat their opponents. South African players are aggressive and big and they want to hurt you; your manhood is tested when you are playing against South Africans.”
The move to New Zealand paid off; South Africa’s Eastern Province Kings offered Adongo a one-year contract to play for them in Super Rugby. This was a major feat for Adongo; he is the first Kenyan to play professional rugby at the highest level in New Zealand and the first to compete in Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere’s premier club rugby tournament.
“I had to prove to myself that I can excel and excel at the highest level.”
The United States (US) offered him another chance to prove his ability. The Indianapolis Colts showed an interest when Adongo’s manager, Johnny Gbenda-Charles, a former rugby player and Hong-Kong based sports agent, contacted them.
“The Colts were looking for professional athletes from other sporting backgrounds who could transfer their skills to American football,” says Adongo.
The 24-year-old Kenyan had no idea about American football, let alone how to put on cleats, padded armor and helmets.
“Rugby and American football are night and day in terms of technical aspects of the game, even though both sports use extreme levels of physical aggression. American football is much more of a contact sport between the two. It was crazy at first, but I was determined to master the game,” says Adongo, laughing about his early days in the US.
Despite his limited knowledge of the sport, his style of play, which he describes as brutish, aggressive and very physical, but as nimble as a deer, is what probably caught the attention of the Colts’ General Manager, Ryan Grigson, and the coaching team.
Adongo signed a one-year contract and is expected to develop into a vital member of their defensive line-up as an intimidating rush linebacker. This makes him the first black African and first Kenyan to transition from rugby to American football. While the learning curve is steep for Adongo, he continues to push the limits for himself. He made his debut against the Cincinnati Bengals in Ohio.
“I practiced in shorts and t-shirts to force myself to adapt to the extreme weather conditions I was going to be playing in.”
That particular December week, there had been severe snow storms and below-zero temperatures in the Midwest. Adongo’s dedication was noticed and he was promoted from the practice squad to the playing roster.
Adongo, who is deeply religious, says sport is a small part of his life. Bigger is his purpose to inspire the imagination of young Africans to dream big and work hard. After all, that is what he did on his way to becoming a professional NFL player, made in Nairobi.