8,397 miles from Iowa, and quite literally a world away from the lockout that troubles the National Football League, nine-year-old Charles caught a football for the first time on Thursday.
An orphan from Arusha in Tanzania, Charles had no last name and certainly no cleats – or shoes for that matter – as he took a handoff from Reggie Brooks, the former Notre Dame running back and 1992 Heisman Trophy candidate, and charged barefoot until told to stop.
One of 500 school-aged Africans being coached in the game they were told is called “American football” – to avoid confusion with the game of soccer that they understand – Charles beamed an infectious smile.
“It is fun,” he said quite simply of his first time on a makeshift gridiron. “I want to thank the Americans and Mexicans for bringing this game to our country.”
Those pioneers taking the game to a continent that has no appreciation whatsoever for an interception or a touchdown, are the Drake University Bulldogs from Iowa and the CONADEIP All-Stars selected from eight private Mexican universities. Brooks is along as an enthusiastic volunteer member of the clinic coaching staff.
On Saturday the two teams will play the first-ever game of college football on African soil at the ramshackle yet strangely welcoming Sheik Amri Abeid Memorial Stadium in Arusha in the Global Kilimanjaro Bowl. The venue holds 20,000 and word of the unique game is spreading like wildfire. General admission is $2 in a country where the median annual family income is a paltry $600, so pleas for a free ticket are often met with a complimentary pass.
In stark contrast to their millionaire peers who continue to squabble in the courts, the players of Drake University raised sufficient funds to pay the $4,000 it cost per person to make the trip – a staggering total of more than $300,000. And just for good measure, they personally carried between them in their baggage the mini footballs that were given to the local youth taking part in the football clinic.
Once they have showcased football to the curious Tanzanians, the players will undertake an arduous series of 11 separate service projects in three days that will build an entire dormitory wing, refurbish buildings and establish sports facilities in the nearby town of Moshi.
And if they are not too tired, they will attempt a six-day climb of the imposing and spectacular Mount Kilimanjaro before flying home to Iowa and Mexico.
“It is literally a dream come true for me and for our program to be here and experience this,” said Drake head coach Chris Creighton, who conceived the idea of a game in Africa that was made a reality by Texas-based organizer Patrick Steenberge of Global Football. “This is stripping football down to its purest form, teaching youngsters who have no knowledge of the game and no inhibitions when it comes to trying something new. We are excited to play in the game, but these clinics are a moving experience.”
There is no live webcast of the game, that kicks off at 6 a.m. US EDT, because Tanzania does not have the infrastructure to support such a venture. The country’s largest broadcaster ITV will beam the game live to two thirds of a continent likely to be bemused by a first down or a field goal if channel flicking on Saturday. So social media has come to the rescue with facebook.com/globalkilibowl and Twitter @GlobalSportsGuy keeping those curious, at least in the Midwest, abreast of developments.
When African rookie Charles was told that the professionals who play the fun new game he has discovered are on strike, just as taxi cab drivers and meat traders have been this month in Arusha over pay, he was bemused.
“You can play this game as a job?” he asked. “Then I want to do this as my job. I would not strike. I catch touchdown!”
If only it were that simple.