In February 2016, on the opening night of the second season of the Egyptian National Football League, tragedy struck. Omar Khaled, a freshman defensive lineman for the American University of Cairo, died shortly after leaving a game. The university cancelled the rest of its season, sponsors dropped the league, and the press had lots of questions.
It didn’t help that the average Egyptian had little grasp of the sport. The league had six teams and 400 players; attendance was about 100 to 150 a game. “People don’t even know what American Football is,” says Amr Hebbo, the president of the Egyptian Federation of American Football. “People don’t really understand it, and they think it’s violent.” After Khaled’s death, the league went on a press tour to explain what happened to the boy, and what safety rules and regulations were in place. “We don’t use the word ‘violent.’ We try to use the word ‘contact,’” Hebbo says. “We pay very, very close attention to small words that can really make an impression on people. It’s not a violent or dangerous sport. It’s just a sport.” Nevertheless, it was unclear how effective the league’s P.R. campaign would be in the long run.
Coincidentally, the day after Khaled’s death, a group of NFL players arrived in Cairo as part of a trip organized by American Football Without Barriers. AFWB is a non-profit that organizes annual trips to host free football camps in foreign countries, and it was planning to stage its camps on the American University of Cairo field, the same place where the previous day Omar Khaled played his last game. All of the questions about player safety were now directed at AFWB’s ambassadors, and what started as a goodwill trip turned into a fight to save American football in Egypt. “At every media event we were being asked, Why were we encouraging people to play American football—a sport people die playing?” recalls Ahmed Awadallah, a co-founder of AWFB. “It was a constant question, even at the U.S. Embassy.”
These are the types of awkward situations AWFB often stumbles into, simply due to the nature of the organization and its mission. Awadallah, NFL tight end Gary Barndidge and NFL offensive lineman Breno Giacomini—three former Louisville classmates—founded AWFB together in 2011. Their idea was to travel to a new country each year to put on free football camps and do some charity work. They decided they’d target far-flung places that the NFL was ignoring, places where football might be an afterthought. “When the NFL goes to Mexico City or London, they’re only doing it for the viewers,” Barnindge says. “They want people to watch the game. We want people to play the game.” AFWB would go far and wide, preaching the gospel of football. They would act as football missionaries, basically.
In the last six years, AFWB has held camps in China, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Finland and, in 2018, Portugal. Over the years, Barnidge and Giacomini have recruited teammates to join them, which has resulted in an eclectic mix of AFWB staffers from year to year. Among the regulars are a Pro Bowl center (Alex Mack), a “draft bust” (Barkevious Mingo) and a special teams ace (Johnson Bademosi). DeAngelo Williams, Barnidge’s former teammate with the Panthers, has been on every trip and is now the organization’s Director of Development. Jordan Cameron, who played with Barnidge in Cleveland, is the Director of Recruitment. Marshawn Lynch, Giacomini’s onetime teammate in Seattle, has been on four trips and is now perhaps AFWB’s most visible member.
This year, AFWB held four camps in the Algarve region in the south of Portugal, in a soccer stadium that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. They were recruited there by Lance Heron, a former Division II receivers coach who now coaches the Algarve Sharks in the Portuguese league. He convinced AFWB to come in part because he’s trying to get an American football stadium built in the area.
Part of the appeal, for the players, is that the trips double as an offseason vacation. For some players, going on these AFWB camps is their first time traveling abroad on their own, which leads to some interesting moments. In China they had a snowball fight on the Great Wall. In Egypt they climbed the pyramids without asking permission. In Finland they went dogsledding.
One night in Brazil, one of the camp organizers gave them a tip about a party. He gave the bus driver an address, and they got dropped off at a giant, decrepit warehouse at the bottom of a favela. Men with machine guns lined the building, and hundreds of people were partying inside. “We were like, are we at a military party?” Awadallah recalls. “These guys had, like, bazookas outside the party. Are we going into war?” Eventually, they figured it out. “Apparently some druglord hosted [the party],” Awadallah says. “We were like, oh.”
In Egypt in 2016, AFWB actually caused a mini international incident. That year, Barnidge brought his drone along to shoot footage to promote the camp. AFWBers used the drone all week, no problem, until they tried to leave the country. At the airport, Egyptian officials detained the poor camp staffer who happened to be carrying the device. They held him for questioning for several hours, until Awadallah called his mother (who happened to be visiting Cairo) to come help negotiate his release.
“They’re very sensitive about spies, outside interests, especially with the new president there [in Egypt],” Awadallah says. “It doesn’t even matter if you’re not spying [using the drone]. They consider it a way of spying, and therefore you’re considered an international spy.”
Everywhere they go, though, they get questions about football and its safety, especially in the countries where football is still developing and unknown. Parents ask, “Is football safe for my children?” And the coaches want to know, “How do we talk to parents?”
The AFWBers’ response is not exactly scientific. They don’t bring up CTE studies and concussion statistics. They preach the positive aspects of football, how it promotes an active lifestyle and teaches life lessons. They tell parents that, if their children are taught the correct technique, football can be a “safe” sport. And they assure them that they’re teaching the correct technique at their AFWB camps, even though, it should be noted, none of the regular AFWB staffers have coached at a high level. “We just try to teach them that there are ways to make it safer. In every sport, you have injuries,” Barnidge says. He points out that concussions occur in soccer, too, a sport that’s more popular in most of these countries but whose safety is not as scrutinized as American football. “A lot of the negative things are sensationalized because it’s a headline,” he says. “They don’t know, so we’re trying to ease that [fear] in them.”
Going to all these foreign countries, AFWB tries to highlight the bonding power of football. In Turkey, for instance, they made a controversial decision to allow women to compete alongside men. “You’re not really supposed to mix [the genders],” Barnidge says. “We were like, we’re going to put them in the same lines and make them compete against each other.” Soon, the women were outperforming the men. “We called the guys out,” Barnidge says. “We wanted them to know, everybody has an opportunity, everybody can play. Nothing else matters, just work hard.” At the end, they had a relay race, men versus women—and the women won. “They went crazy,” Giacomini recalls. “I’m sure they’ll never forget that.”
AFWB promotes how football can lead to an education, too. At each of its camps, AFWB tries to scout players who may be talented enough to bring back to the States, who could maybe play college football. In China, they say, they invited two players to come back for DeAngelo Williams’ football camp in Memphis. Amidst all that controversy in Egypt, they discovered a 6’4”, 220-pound tight end named Mohamad Keshk. AFWB connected Keshk with college football camps at South Alabama and Western Kentucky, and South Alabama offered him a walk-on spot. “It was a really difficult choice,” Keshk says, because at the time, he was in his third year studying engineering at an Egyptian university and had two more years to go. “[My parents] said I should get my degree first and then see what I can do with football.” After Keshk graduates this year, he plans to find a competitive league somewhere in Europe.
At the Egypt camp, after the sudden death of Omar Khaled, the questions about safety only amplified, especially since the circumstances of the boy’s death were not entirely clear. Amr Hebbo, the president of the Egyptian Feederation of American Football, says that at one point, Khaled, a defensive lineman, was involved in “a normal hit, a normal tackle. But after, he wasn’t able to breathe very well, so he asked to sit out for a couple of plays.” On the sideline, the nurse on duty found that Khaled’s blood pressure was low and sent him to the university clinic, where an emergency care physician examined him and kept him under observation. After about 20 minutes, the university said in a statement, Khaled’s condition “suddenly deteriorated,” and the physician began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Khaled was rushed to a hospital, and somewhere along the way he had a heart attack and died.
Hebbo notes that the cause of death is unclear and that football may not be entirely to blame. “His family chose not to do an autopsy, so I’m not exactly sure what happened,” Hebbo says. “I’m not sure if it’s religious or a cultural thing, but in Egypt we don’t do autopsies. They want to respect the body.” The boy was also heavyset, and Hebbo says that doctors have said that he might have had a pre-existing heart condition, but that, too, is unconfirmed.
Hebbo considers the league fortunate that AFWB arrived the day after Khaled’s death. While the league was taking heat from the media, the players answered questions and alleviated the public’s fear, acting as the authority on all things football. AFWB tried turning the situation into a lesson: that football players need to take care of their bodies. “It was a good opportunity to talk about: one, before anybody plays they should have a physical, and, two, there’s more to football than just putting pads on,” says Todd Buelow, AFWB’s strategy director. “You have to eat right. You have to sleep right. You’ve got to lift.”
In the aftermath, AFWB lost its venue; the American University of Cairo pulled out. But AFWB scrambled, found another location and still had good attendance for its camps. Omar Khaled’s teammates showed up, even though their season had been cancelled. At one point, Marshawn Lynch took them aside, to a remote corner of the field, and gave them an impassioned speech. Mohamad Keshk, the tight end prospect, heard about Lynch’s speech from his friends. “He encouraged them not to quit and to remember [their fallen teammate] and to play for him,” Keshk says. “He said if [Omar] was still alive he would still play.”
“I was worried that this team would never get back on the field again,” Hebbo says. “Seeing one of your teammates die on the field next to you, it’s a very traumatic event.” Khaled’s team took two seasons off before finally returning to the Egyptian league this year. Two years later now, the league is thriving. It has eight men’s teams, eight women’s teams and about 700 players in all. “It helped a lot,” Hebbo says, “having the NFL players here at that time.”
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