Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria has been quietly developing an American football team since 2009. Unlike soccer, American football is not very popular in this West African country. Isa Sa’idu of Nigeria’s The Daily Trust newspaper, spoke with the head coach of the team, Amadi Chukwuemeka, and discovered that not only has the game been growing here but also that players from Nigeria have headed off to the United States on college football scholarships.
Published March 12, 2016 in The Daily Trust.
Before Saturday, March 5, 2016, even members of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) community were not familiar with ABU Titans. But they are now popular, not only on campus but across the country, courtesy their victory against the Lagos Marines under the tutelage of a German.
Made up of local players, mostly students and staff of the university, ABU Titans is the first American football team in West Africa. In Africa at large, only about five countries have American football teams.
Within the last seven years of ABU Titans’ existence, some of its pioneer players had moved abroad. These strides made the coaches and administrators of the team believe that the future is bright, saying that Nigerian youths have another opportunity to grasp and eke out a living.
Mr. Amadi Chukwuemeka is Head Coach of ABU Titans, as well as founder and pioneer coach. He said the team started from scratch when he had his first contact with two Americans who were in Nigeria in search of talents that would be taken to the United States.
“Before 2009, when we started this team, I was a Rugby player. Rugby and American football are similar, yet distinct. Therefore, when I met Ricardo Dickerson and Daryl Hayes who were in Nigeria for a camp, I developed interest. While they took some talents to US, they introduced me to the rudiments of football. The people they took were given scholarship and enrolled in some American football teams in the US.
“Immediately, I brought some kids together and started grooming them. We were doing all these activities silently. For the past seven years, we have been teaching the kids we selected the rudiments of the game. To strengthen our position, we go to camp at different places. In a nutshell, ABU Titans are the first team in Nigeria and West Africa. The Lagos Marines that we played with on Saturday came on board about two years ago under Dominic Muller, their German coach,” Chukwuemeka said.
He said the recent match between ABU Titans and Lagos Marines was the first of its kind, not only in Nigeria but West Africa. Prior to the match, the ABU team was only playing in-house matches.
In the whole of Africa, according to Chukwuemeka, only Kenya, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt have American football teams.
“This is why I believed that we have an opportunity. Our youths can use this game for a living. I believe it would also help in addressing our security challenges because the game has the capacity to take many youths off the streets,” Chukwuemeka said.
On the game between ABU Titans and Lagos Marines, the coach said ABU emerged the winner with a score of 26 to 14 largely because of hard work and determination of his players. He said despite the Lagos team being under the tutelage of a German coach, the Titans showed more experience and understanding of the game.
“Don’t forget I was trained by Americans and I augment my knowledge of football on a daily basis through the internet. Therefore, with due respect to the Marines, they found us very tough,” Chukwuemeka intimated and added that there are about 200 players in his team, but those that attend training regularly are about a hundred.
He also revealed that to enrol in an American football team, the best age bracket is between eight and 30. The coach said the ABU team is open to those that may be interested, stressing that it is not restricted to students or staff of the university.
Explaining the rudiments of the game
Giving a brief insight on how the game is played, Chukwuemeka said each team goes into a match with a squad of 53 players, but 11 players are fielded for each team at a time. In a bigger field, a squad can contain up to 108 players because in American football there is what is known as outer players and those on the roster.
In an offensive team, there is the centre, who is usually huge and stoutly. His function is to hold the ball. There are two guards flanking the centre and two tackles. Tight end, two wide receivers, quarterback, fullback and running back are other important players.
For the defensive team, there is the nose tackle who stays in front of the centre man. There are two defensive ends flanking the nose tackle. Behind them, there are the linebackers; inner, outer, left and right linebackers, depending on the formation that a coach wants to play. Behind the linebackers, there are the cornerbacks who check the wide receivers that are responsible for passes in the offensive team. Behind the cornerbacks are the safeties.
In general, there is the quarterback, who is the brain box of American football’s offensive team, because he calls the play, makes the passes and holds the ball. In American football, the whole 11 players in a team can be substituted, unlike soccer where only three players can be substituted from a team during a match.
On the future plans for ABU Titans, the Assistant Coach of the team, Ako Emmanuel Okewo, said the team would go to Lagos in April to honour a return leg with the Lagos Marines.
“We are planning to form a national team to represent Nigeria in an African tournament being organised by International Amateur American Football League in Rabat, Morocco. We are also planning to start a Diploma programme on American football in ABU, among many others. American football is now big business and we want ABU and Nigeria to be involved and tap from it,” Okewo said.
Mr. Oliver B. Johnson was born in the US and has played the sport from the age of eight to 15. In his 40 years stay in Nigeria, he has been the coach of Nigerian National Basketball team for about 14 years. He is presently the Technical Adviser of the ABU basketball team and American football.
In a chat with our correspondent, Mr. Johnson called for the development of American football at the grassroots levels, as the game has the capacity to do what soccer is not doing for Nigeria.
Some of the players of ABU Titans expressed their happiness on their victory over the Lagos Marines. Ashonon Aziki, a safety player, said he is devoting his time to the game because it is new and has the potential of changing his life. He said the game of soccer did not earn its popularity overnight, therefore in the nearest future American football would overtake soccer in Nigeria, Africa and the world.
Robert Ezewa Obara is a graduate of ABU’s Faculty of Medicine. Having studied Human Physiology, he doubles as the doctor of the team. He urged the government and other stakeholders to assist the development of American football.
For the administrators, American football is there to stay in ABU and they are ready to make the game achieve laurels for the university, Nigeria and Africa, the Chief Protocol Officer of the game between ABU Titans and Lagos Marines, Mr Edward Okoye said.
As the ABU Titans nurse the ambition of promoting American football to outshine soccer in Nigeria and Africa, there may come a time when Nigerians would troop to different stadia and pay to watch American football or install satellite dishes with monthly subscription just to watch its championship.