That’s the Colts’ motto—and also the theme of their great experiment for 2013: to take a budding Kenyan rugby star and turn him into an NFL pass-rushing beast. With Daniel Adongo, the learning curve is steep, but the payoff may be huge
INDIANAPOLIS — On his second day in America, in late July, the 23-year old NFL hopeful showed up to Colts training camp wearing what looked like soccer cleats—yellow with orange highlights and a flap over the laces. Coaches and scouts didn’t know what to do with him; he’d never swatted a blocking pad or assumed a three-point stance. He could hardly catch a football, and he couldn’t throw one without eliciting snickers or winces.
“You couldn’t even bear to watch,” general manager Ryan Grigson recalls.
Daniel Adongo had flown 17 hours from Johannesburg, South Africa, to be here at noon the day before. He had insisted, after six hours of medical evaluation at an Indianapolis hospital, to go to the team’s training facility and meet his coaches and walk through the drills they would perform the next day. The following morning nearly a dozen members of the Colts brain trust showed up to see this international oddity; the young man who quoted Churchill in email correspondences with a scout and played the foreign game of rugby with a degree of violence described by one of the sport’s legends as unparalleled.
The Colts staff put him through the most basic scouting test: the broad jump, something Adongo had never done before. On his first attempt he cleared 11 feet, a mark that would have put him in the top 10 among performers at the 2013 combine. They moved on to the hoop drill, requiring the athlete to sprint in both directions around a circular hoop, leaning into the turn. When he was done, coach Chuck Pagano looked back at the second-year G.M. with saucer eyes. “Everybody couldn’t wait to get hands on this guy,” Grigson says.
Daniel Adongo was no longer a rugby player. He was a newly minted NFL rush linebacker.
* * *
Grigson’s instructions to pro scout Jon Shaw several months earlier were simple: Cast a wide net. Shaw had taken on international scouting as something of a hobby at first. In a search for linemen who could contribute right away, he and his colleagues on the Indy staff had exhausted the CFL, a pool of street free agents and half a dozen North American leagues. Now they wanted a project—either a rugby player or a track-and-field stud who, given the proper tutelage, could play along the offensive or defensive line.
Around the same time, a young rugby agent based in Hong Kong began putting out one very specific feeler: Did the Colts want a crack at any of his international talent? Johnny Gbenda-Charles, a former rugby pro, had a list of more than a dozen players he thought could play in the NFL, but he was interested in only one team. The Colts met four criteria: They were successful, based in the rural American Midwest, hadn’t signed a tremendously raw import in recent history and, he says, “I’ll admit it’s a little silly, but Peyton Manning [had] played there.” Shaw got back to Gbenda-Charles, and the two swapped notes and film and began the elimination process, candidate by candidate.
Too old. Too slow. Too small. Not enough body control. Not enough burst.
Then came Adongo. Online images showed a man shaped like a Minotaur lugging 135-pound free-weights in each hand across a rugby pitch, with arms taut like pulsing fire hoses. The agent explained to Shaw the definition of a rugby ruck. Essentially, it’s what football coaches might describe as blocking, but after the tackle in order to retain or win possession. On film Shaw and Grigson saw the 6-5, 240-pound Adongo burst into frame after frame, throwing a crushing shoulder into a pile or grabbing a ball-carrier and jerking him to the ground. When Adongo had the ball himself, he threw Adrian Peterson-esque stiff arms and did not allow the first tackler to bring him down.
Shaw and Grigson agreed: They wanted this guy in pads.
* * *
Everyone who knows Adongo has a story that follows one of two themes: Daniel doing something extraordinary, or Daniel trying extraordinarily hard to do something.
When he was a year old and living in Nairobi, his parents say, he refused strollers outright. “He would get off his push chair and push it himself, instead of being pushed,” says his father, Joseph. “His brother did the same. They felt like they are the ones who should be pushing. They thought it was fun.”
At 6, Daniel lived in London, where his father worked as an area manager for an airline. Daniel insisted on joining his parents for a 15-kilometer charity walk on a hot summer day. Joseph was opposed, thinking he’d have to carry the boy. Daniel finished on pace.
“I’ve always felt like when you make a decision, you stick to it,” Adongo says. “You never second guess it. You never look back.”
At 15 he picked up rugby in school in Nairobi. Soon the Kenyan national sevens team was begging him to join, but Daniel set his sights on playing internationally for New Zealand’s All Blacks or South Africa’s Springboks, two of the sport’s top national teams. (He would have had to switch his national allegiance to do so.) The prestigious rugby academy of the Natal Sharks in South Africa spotted him when he was 17 and made the unusual decision to accept the novice Kenyan to its feeder system, considered among the best in the world.
That year he met Sharks center Howard Mnisi, who would become one of his best friends. Mnisi juggled things in sets of three—tennis balls, fruits, anything on hand—to improve his hand-eye coordination. Adongo wanted to learn, so Mnisi showed him the basics. “He struggled at first,” Mnisi remembers. “Then I’d wake up at 3 a.m. to find a sweaty Daniel in the lounge trying to get it right.”
Adongo recalls the story with a laugh: “There are heaps of tales like that.”
On the field, his body and his game were morphing. He put on muscle and quickly grew larger than his older brother, Leon, who plays for the Kenyan national team. Daniel had gone from a back to a bulky forward, and after the 2011 season he signed with the Blue Bulls, of Pretoria. Then in 2012 the Counties Steelers of New Zealand caught wind of his exploits. Coach Tana Umaga was looking for an athletic forward and reached out to Gbenda-Charles and several other agents. Gbenda-Charles sent back footage of Adongo moving piles and mushing faces in South Africa.
He brought an intensity and physicality that we haven’t seen before,” says New Zealand legend Tana Umaga. “And he was never hurt. He was always willing to play with a few knocks and niggles.
Umaga was cautiously optimistic, having only seen the forward on film. In the rugby world Umaga is an up-and-coming coach second, and a legend of the game first. In 2007 former England captain Will Carling, writing in Britain’s Telegraph, listed Umaga—himself a longtime captain of New Zealand’s All Blacks—as the 35th greatest player in the history of the game. (For the sake of comparison, NFL Network recently tabbed Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik as football’s 35th greatest player of all time.) In the coaching pecking order, Umaga is still a novice. His Steelers are a step below the Blue Bulls in the level of play, but their games are televised in New Zealand, the epicenter of the rugby universe. Umaga says Adongo took a pay cut, accepting the league minimum 12-week salary ($12,300 U.S., including bonuses) in exchange for gaining experience in a culture raised on rugby.
“He was a strong player with all the physical attributes to do anything,” Umaga says. “But in this country, rugby is a bit like baseball in the States. Boys are born into it. He probably lacked the game sense.
“But when he hit a ruck, the ruck moved, and the ball always came out on our side. He brought that intensity and physicality to that aspect of the game that we probably haven’t seen before in this country. And he was never hurt. He was always willing to play with a few knocks and niggles.”
Adongo’s success in New Zealand paid off: The Super 15 Eastern Province Kings, based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, offered him a one-year deal for 2013. Super 15 (or Super Rugby, as it’s officially known) is the premier club competition in the Southern Hemisphere, involving five teams each from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, the level of play a step below international rugby. Adongo, after being the first Kenyan to ever play professionally in New Zealand at ITM Cup level, was the first Kenyan ever to compete in Super Rugby. And the move back to South Africa would put him on a path to fulfilling the residency requirement to qualify to play for the Springboks. But he was playing sparingly for Kings in the season that ran from February to July. So in April when he got a question from Gbenda-Charles—how would you like to play in the NFL?—he began to entertain the idea.
* * *
Turns out Adongo already had the itch. He’d become a fan of the sport through late-night ESPN broadcasts in Nairobi and grew well-versed in Madden from his days in South Africa, toying with the video game and thrashing friends like Mnisi. But he didn’t know much about the language of the sport, and he knew next to nothing about defense. “I practiced, and I was just killing the boys,” he says of his Madden exploits. “I didn’t know much of the defensive coverage I was like, okay, cross blitz, fire blitz, okay, put that in. Whatever happens, happens.”
At one point Adongo mused that he could play American football for real. Mnisi laughed. Adongo’s response: “C’mon. You know me…”
Adongo loved rugby but found it tough to to crack the starting lineup in Super 15s as a rookie. With its continuous play and large playing surface (about 109 by 77 yards), rugby is a game of instinct—a marriage of the physicality of football, the creativity of soccer and the pace of ice hockey. The knowledge of where to be on the field at particular moments grows with time served. That’s not to say Adongo believed he had reached his ceiling, but he was open to a new challenge.
The reaction in the rugby world to his decision to try the NFL was mixed. Some believed he’d made a mistake, abandoning a sport in which his only obstacle was experience. Others celebrated the decision, hoping that if Adongo succeeded, it would open up more opportunities for rugby players in American football, and get more American eyes on their sport. Adongo’s agents entertained offers from franchises in France, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, some with long-term deals and conditional terms of Adongo’s choosing. Sticking with rugby would have been the safe bet, financially speaking. As Gbenda-Charles explains, “The contract you sign in the NFL, people sign six-year deals and getting cut a year later, that’s really unique. In rugby, once you sign it’s time to go to the beach.”
But Adongo was determined, and he got the go-ahead from his parents. (His father’s advice: “Go for it!”) Before he embarked on the flight that took him from South Africa to Atlanta to Indianapolis, Gbenda-Charles offered a pep talk: “I said, ‘Dan, this is pretty massive, but there’s no pressure at all. I want you to have fun and enjoy it.’ And he said, ‘Johnny, I just need an opportunity and I’ll become one of the best outside linebackers in the game.’ ”
Shortly after that first workout with the Colts, Adongo signed a one-year, $400,000 deal. Both Adongo and the Colts were in for an education. For the team’s annual conditioning test, player development coordinator David Thornton gave Adongo a rundown of a series of sprints mixed with brief rest periods; Adongo didn’t get it. “He couldn’t understand the idea of stopping and resting,” Grigson says. “He didn’t understand the concept of that.”
The Colts wanted him to bulk up from 240 pounds, but Adongo was slow to gain weight. The team discovered that he was running 300-meter sprints at night when no one was watching, and his diet consisted largely of fruits and nuts.
How does one grow to be 6-5, 240, on a diet of fruit?
“I have no clue,” Adongo says.
Coaches had him dress for preseason games, with equipment managers strapping up Adongo’s shoulder pads, but they ultimately decided it would be too dangerous to let him play real snaps without a firm enough grasp of the sport. He did get to see two new American cities on road trips to play the Giants and Bengals. What did he think of East Rutherford, N.J.?
“I feel like New Jersey is a big city,” he says, “because it’s so close to New York.”
After one training camp practice, linebacker Pat Angerer motioned Adongo over to introduce him to his infant daughter. “Come meet my little monster,” Angerer said. Replied Adongo: “But she’s so cute. Why do you call her a monster?”
Cultural and geographical misunderstandings aside, Adongo blew away coaches with his intelligence and won over teammates with his outgoing personality. Says defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, “People love the crap out of him around here.”
Adongo can trace his tribal heritage back six generations and aspires to locate a happening poetry bar in Indianapolis. Asked to identify a favorite line in his favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s If—, he says, “to pick one would be doing injustice to the poem.”
His tweets read like poems themselves. One of them caught the eye of Grigson’s assistant. She forwarded it to the general manager, who texted it to Pagano, who read it aloud to the team after a September practice: “Working tirelessly and relentlessly on my craft to unearth the diamond to be. The preparation determines the outcome. BTM.” (The Colts’ motto this season: Building The Monster).
They don’t know me from a bar of soap," Adongo says of his teammates, "but they took me in as one of their own.
There was never any real chance Adongo would make the 53-man roster this season. But he was an obvious fit for the practice squad, where he can work during the week with the full team, learning the overall game and the specifics of pass rusher’s job. In practice Adongo mimics the actions of Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis. In one August training camp drill, Mathis performed a visually astounding spin-dip-and-rip around tackle Anthony Castonzo, to the delight of Adongo and the defensive linemen. Inspired, Adongo worked on the move for weeks and finally broke it out in September. “He almost got it,” says Manusky. “He kind of tripped up a little bit at the end, but he had him. He set him up. Everybody was like, You’re almost there.”
As a scout team player, Adongo—who has bulked to 261 pounds by “eating a lot more meat than I ever have”—plays against the offensive starters during the week and has quickly become a somewhat welcome annoyance. While simple play-action can fool him—“He might be out on 56th Street before he realizes the ball went another direction,” Grigson says—Adongo chases down running plays from the backside with a rare zealousness, earning the ire of offensive linemen who take every opportunity to blow him up.
“He’s always around the ball, and he gives a lot of effort, sometimes a little bit more than the offensive line would like,” says tackle Jeff Linkenbach. “It does get a little chippy at times, but right after that little chippiness everything’s cool and he’s just smiling and we’re smiling back.”
To help Adongo catch up on all the football knowledge he’s missed, the staff compiled a highlight reel of pass rushers in his mold and loaded it to his tablet. They chose, in Grigson’s words, “Your more gangly, long, twitchy, bendy, Gumby-like pass rushers,” including Barkevious Mingo, DeMarcus Ware, Aldon Smith and Chris Clemons. They also bought an Xbox so Adongo could play Madden in his hotel room as he searches for an apartment, and players such as Mathis, tackle Gosder Cherilus and fellow outside linebacker Bjoern Werner have befriended Adongo and tutored him in the sport. The German-born Werner, who moved to the U.S. in high school, invited Adongo to his home for dinner with his wife. “I know how it is when you’re coming from a new country,” Werner says. “People have families they go home to. I know what he’s going through so I just try to be there for him.”
Says Adongo: “They don’t know me from a bar of soap, but they took me in as one of their own.”
To help Adongo learn his role, Colts staff compiled a highlight reel of players in his mold—in Grigson’s words, ‘Your more gangly, long, twitchy, bendy, Gumby-like pass rushers.’
Adongo was shocked recently by the news of the September 18 terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall that killed 61 people and wounded scores of others. Adongo’s parents frequent the mall but were not there when the attack occurred. He says two of his friends escaped safely but he declined to go into detail.
Grigson texted Adongo to express his concern. “It’s his countrymen,” Grigson says. “He was sad and concerned. I feel like this kid one day is going to go back to that country and do something special.”
Adongo texted back: “Thank you. BTM.”
* * *
The Colts would like to see Adongo stay and develop into a starting edge rusher, but there’s no guarantee that the Kenyan lasts beyond this season. He’s on Grigson’s clock, and he needs to learn the sport quickly enough to justify taking up one of 53 precious roster spots next season.
Grigson laments that Adongo gets very little experience in padded practices because of CBA rules, and precisely zero game experience. In the past Adongo would have been a prime candidate for allocation to NFL Europa, the league’s developmental European arm, which folded in 2007. Coaches are encouraged by Adongo’s progress but will have very little idea of his potential in the NFL until he plays in a real game. “There’s always that intangible,” Manusky says. “How are you going to respond? I’d love to see it.”
Adongo acknowledges that his mind could change, but at this stage he’s committed to football. “Everyone can question why I left rugby or why I wont do the same thing with football,” he says, “but I’m determined to do something here. I’m in this for the long haul. That’s how I feel.”
Coaches are encouraged by Adongo’s progress but will have very little idea of his potential until he plays in a real game.
Grigson shoots down any suggestion of the signing as a gimmick, citing Bill Walsh’s success with track-and-field standouts in the ’80s. Notably, Walsh converted American shot put champion Jeff Stover into a seven-year pro defensive end. The Colts G.M. believes he can build on that precedent by exploring untapped or underused markets. He trades information with CFL scouts and coaches while many teams all but ignore the Canadian game, and his staff scours the arena leagues and the NAIA ranks, all of which makes it no surprise he’s flown an Kenyan rubgy player halfway across the globe to make him a linebacker.
“You look at how the game is going global and you think about the technology,” Grigson says. “Some kid in a village in Africa could look at laptop and see someone from his country playing Monday Night Football. It captures the imagination.