‘They Can’t Stop You’
CINCINNATI — The ball flew straight up, spinning end over end, destined to land in the lap of the guy who had never before played a regular season football game in his life. In the third quarter of Sunday’s matchup against the Colts, Bengals kicker Mike Nugent launched a pop-up at Daniel Adongo, the former rugby player who became a linebacker just four months ago. Adongo’s first thought as he waited in the first row of returners: jump.
In rugby, which Adongo has played since his he was a boy in Kenya, and later professionally in South Africa and New Zealand, players aren’t allowed to hit a competitor while he’s in the air receiving a kickoff. So the receiver typically jumps, one knee up to protect against the eventual blow upon landing. It’s a universal practice, taught at the earliest ages of competition.
It would take a veritable brainwashing to make a pro like Adongo suppress that instinct, but he did.
“I did think about jumping,” he says, “but I remembered in football you can get hit in the air, so I didn’t leave my feet.”
It’s not hypnosis or brainwashing; Colts general manager Ryan Grigson swears it. It’s just that Adongo’s fervent quest to see the field this season—an unlikely proposition back in training camp—was finally rewarded in a battle of two division leaders. The 24-year-old played more than a dozen snaps on special teams in a 42-28 loss to the Bengals: kickoff, kickoff return and punt return. He shoved blockers to the ground, dove at loose balls and fielded one kick, falling on the ball after it slipped through his arms.
Adongo has work to do when it comes to catching, but Grigson never felt that signing him fresh off a flight from South Africa back in July was a risky move. He was sent to the practice squad with the idea that he’d be able to contribute next season. But Adongo spent Tuesdays (his weekly day off) at the practice facility, watching film and working out while teammates rested. He spent his Friday nights there, too, working with defensive quality control coach Brad White to master the game as quickly as possible.
“Adongo is one of the first five people in the building and the last five to leave,” wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers says.
And while the Colts were loading up his tablet with highlight reels of pass rushers to emulate—the latest being the Patriots’ Chandler Jones—Adongo was packing on new layers of muscle. Since his rugby agent shopped him to the Colts and he showed up wearing rugby cleats for a summer tryout, the 6-foot-5 Adongo has put on 33 pounds, getting him up to 270.
Last Monday, Adongo and Colts linebacker Kelvin Sheppard were chatting in the trainers room when Adongo said something that stuck with Sheppard in the coming days. “He said, ‘Shep, my time will come. I’ve just got to keep working,’” Sheppard says. “The next day he was activated … the transition he’s made to actually step onto that field is amazing. He’s selfless, humble, honest; a good dude. All the linebackers give him any advice that he wants.”
This was not part of Grigson’s plan. Adongo didn’t know the rules of the game four months ago. He didn’t even know how to put on the pads. Play-action threw him for a loop. He was slow off the ball. He didn’t know players in the air weren’t protected in football. But after two special teamers went down in the same week, coaches turned to Adongo, believing he knew enough to keep himself safe and to make an impact.
“It’s remarkable,” said teammate Weslye Saunders. “Kind of ridiculous.”
I was nervous,” Adongo says, “but I subdued that because I had an obligation to the team and my brothers here to perform.
Armed with an opportunity, Adongo, as always, started planning. He looked up the weather report for the weekend in Cincinnati, which called for single-digit temperatures. He opted for sleeveless shirts under his pads all week in practice, even as a snowstorm passed through Indianapolis. It was the coldest weather he’d ever experienced.
“I was trying to climatize my body,” he says. “So I could get used to what was to come.”
On Saturday, the team arrived in Cincinnati at 4:30 p.m. and settled in at a downtown hotel five minutes from the stadium. Rogers, who was signed to the practice squad and recently elevated to the 53 after being release by the Bills, found Adongo for a pep talk.
“We was just talking about both starting off on the practice squad, finally getting our first taste,” Rogers said. “I told him, you do this every day in practice. Go play hard, play fast, and they can’t stop you. Simple as that.”
Adongo woke up Sunday morning after a full night’s rest and took the first shuttle to the stadium at 9:30, found his place in the locker room and cranked the music on his headphones. Like a pitcher late in a perfect game, teammates left him alone.
“You don’t want to over-talk a guy like that because he’s probably got a million thoughts in his head,” Saunders said. “I don’t know what he was listening to, but it was getting him hyped.”
It was 3 Doors Down, the Mississippi-born alt rock band formed in 1996, one of his favorite acts. After warm-ups, Adongo took the field at Paul Brown Stadium at noon. At 1 p.m. the stadium paused for a moment of silence for Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who died on Dec. 5 and was being remember for ending apartheid. If not for the social gains made during Mandela’s presidency, Adongo might not have left Kenya to play rugby in South Africa as a teenager, and likely wouldn’t have wound up here, in Ohio, wearing an NFL uniform.
This was not lost on Adongo, who has a way of saying things absolutely, as he did last week when asked about Mandela’s passing.
“He galvanized and inspired us all, brought us together,” Adongo said. “He was the father of a nation. We all drew inspiration from his acts of patience and humility and forgiveness, especially. Just the love that he exuded for everybody and what he meant to those who actually understood his struggle. It’s a loss for us all.”
After the moment of silence, Adongo’s day went without much of a splash. The Colts could’ve used his athleticism on the defensive line, as Indy failed to sack Dalton. On one special teams play, Adongo met Bengals linebacker Vincent Rey, who had been following his story. “I knew he was out there,” Rey said. “I had to make sure I didn’t get wrecked. He seemed as good as anybody else out there, and he’s huge. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Adongo asked for pointers on the sideline from fellow Colts special teamers, and commented that the game was way faster than practice. Veterans said he didn’t seem nervous for the circumstances, as if he had played in big games before. The rugby veteran of the Eastern Province Kings, the Pretoria Blue Bulls and the Counties Steelers of New Zealand certainly has, but never in front of 60,000 people.
“I was nervous,” Adongo says, “but I subdued that because I had an obligation to the team and my brothers here to perform whatever task or duty asked of me on the special teams to the greatest of my abilities.”
When it was over, he showered, pulled on Colts sweats and slipped into brown shoes that looked like moccasins. He didn’t jump for that kickoff, but he seemed to be floating on air as he walked to the team bus. He had recovered a kick, thrown a blocker or two effortlessly to the ground, and entered the record book as an NFL player. The flames inside him were sufficiently fanned.