American Football Without Barriers aims to take the sport overseas to countries where it isn't very popular.
written and photographed by Frank Bartscheck
Many grow up dreaming of the day they take the field with their favorite sports hero. That once-in-a-lifetime chance arrived for a group of young Egyptian fans of American football in March.
American football, by far the most popular sport in the United States, is not commonly associated with Egypt. However, that perception is slowly beginning to change. In April, professional NFL players joined hundreds of eager young players on the field at Cairo American College.
Those who made the journey to Egypt included All-Pro NFL players Gary Barnidge, DeAngelo Williams, Johnson Bademosi, Jordan Cameron as well as fan-favorite and media-shy Marshawn Lynch. The professionals taught the proper fundamentals necessary to play the sport safely and effectively. Participants were grouped by position and taken through drills designed for each respective position. Professionals encouraged participants to adopt aggressive, effective and safe techniques. Those within the running back group were privy to the ins-and-outs of Lynch’s “Beast Mode.”[caption id="attachment_502696" align="alignnone" width="620"] Former American footballer Marshawn Lynch talks with the Titans team in Egypt.[/caption]
The free event offered tutelage to all skill levels: junior, beginner and advanced. The overwhelming interest in the camp was a bit surprising: “We were amazed by the number of applications we received - it was remarkable,” stated Amr Hebo, board member for Egyptian Federation of American Football (EFAF), which assisted in organizing the event. The number of applications reached into the thousands days after the camp was announced.
The foundation of American football in Egypt began in 2007. Originally, the sport consisted of just one team that was organized through the Wadi Degla Sporting Club, which discontinued the sport less than two years later. Since that time a tight knit group of dedicated players has continued a collective push to organize the sport. EFAF, the most recent federation, was established in December 2014. Most of the enthusiastic Egyptian players viewed the arrival of so many high profile professional players as a dream come true. “I never thought in a million years that I would have something like this happen to me in Egypt, especially in the Middle East where the game is not very big,” said Yousef “Joey” Tharwat, the quarterback for the American University in Cairo's Titans team.
The three-day event was not directly affiliated with the NFL, but was sponsored by the nonprofit foundation American Football Without Barriers (AFWB), which is the brainchild of NFL players Gary Barnidge and Breno Giacomini. The two former University of Louisville teammates stayed in touch after being drafted to the NFL. Five years ago, Barnidge and Giacomini created AFWB along with another college friend Ahmed Awalladah. The impetus for the foundation sprang from a collective love for the game and a desire to give back.
“We wanted to do something different that we hadn’t seen anybody else do," Barnidge said. "We wanted to bring the sport that we love to play, football, overseas and introduce it to cultures that people don’t think watch it or know anything about it.” Giacomini agreed: “Originally it started out with the thought of us giving something back to the community.”
The professional players did more than just teach football in Egypt. They visited local schools to inspire and encourage young children. On its second day in Cairo, the foundation organized a trip to Cairo’s Children’s Cancer Hospital, one of the premier cancer institutes in the region. During the visit, players could be seen interacting with children and handing out presents. The evening news featured images of Lynch and his big-hearted attempts to elicit laughter and smiles from the children.
AFWB originally set its sights on Egypt five years ago. One of the founders of AFWB, Ahmed Awalladah, is originally from Egypt and felt it was the perfect destination. “I was all about it. I love the Egyptian history and wanted to be an archeologist so I said, let’s do it,” said Barnidge. Unfortunately, the breakout of the 2011 Revolution forced AFWB to set its sights elsewhere. Instead, AFWB introduced American football to Brazil, China and Turkey.[caption id="attachment_502694" align="alignnone" width="620"] American footballer Gary Barnidge (right) of the Cleveland Browns during his visit to Egypt.[/caption]
While AFWB may have provided a head start in other countries, Egyptian players’ strong passion and aptitude for the game has left an impression on the NFL players. “The knowledge of the game, even at a beginner’s level, was really good. Little concepts were explained to them but they got the concepts very quickly," Giacomini said. "In comparison to some other countries, they are definitely a step ahead."
The AFWB camp culminated with a scrimmage at the Egyptian National Olympic Center in Maadi on a sunny wind-swept Saturday afternoon. The camp’s best players were selected to participate by the NFL professionals. The players on the field slapped each others' helmets and shoulder pads during pre-game warm ups in a display of excitement and shouts of exuberance could be heard up in the stands. The once-in-a-lifetime chance had arrived and the players took full advantage once play commenced. Numerous big hits and fantastic plays were made throughout the scrimmage. Those fortunate enough to participate were left with indelible memories. “For me, it was something spectacular and I am going to cherish the moment for the rest of my life,” said Tharwat.
The three-day event proved a success. Many were provided with lifelong memories and stories they will share for years to come. However, the interaction was not a one-way street. NFL players were impressed with Egypt’s passion for the sport. Giacomini said: “It is really a humbling experience.”
Women in Football
The organization of the game into a proper league is a more recent advent. The EFAF, founded in December 2014, has quickly established itself as the premier league in Egypt. EFAF currently touts six teams, with plans to expand in the near future. However, the popularity of the sport has spread quickly and now boasts some unexpected novel participants. In March, the league founded two American flag-football teams for women.
The creation of the female flag-football league was mostly grassroots and not something EFAF had necessarily intended on founding. Once EFAF began, “we kept receiving messages on Facebook asking if there was going to be a female team,” said Hebo. As the number of inquiries continued to increase the league began to explore the idea a bit more seriously. “We started with one team, the Pink Warriors, and the She-Wolves just started two weeks prior to the AFWB camp,” Hebo said.
The general manager for the recently inaugurated Cairo SheWolves, Ziad Gaafar, has roots in the sport that trace back to the original team in Egypt. “Five years ago my friend called me and told me about American football training at Wadi Degla,” said Gaafar. He participated in two practices and was hooked. Unfortunately, the team at Wadi Delga folded shortly after he began training due to a disagreement between the team and the sporting club. Undeterred, some of the players went on to found the Cairo Wolves two years ago, which is a team that currently competes in the EFAF. “We started with about seven players and now have 50 team members and continue to get requests through Facebook to join our team,” said Gaafar. The popularity of the team spread quickly, which extended to a large audience that often showed up to cheer on the Wolves. The starting Defensive Safety for the SheWolves, Menna Osama, was in attendance at many of those games. “I watched many games and I really enjoyed the sport,” Osama said.
The desire to compete in a sport that is unique in Egypt, and within the region, attracted Osama: “I have played numerous other sports. American football is something new and I wanted to try something different”. Once she began training she was hooked. She is a converted wide receiver and now prefers playing on defensive side of the ball. “You have to try and read the play very quickly, which forces your mind to work fast," she says. "I really enjoy it because it is mentally stimulating.”
The overwhelming majority of the team consists of Egyptian nationals but also includes two British ex-pats. Prior to the open tryouts many of the current members of the SheWolves had never previously known each other. However, that did not stop the team from quickly connecting over their shared love of the new sport. “It’s weird, but we bonded very quickly. Some of us are now best friends… We see each other a lot so the bond is important to the team,” said Osama.
There are currently 20 members of the Cairo SheWolves. The team has been practicing twice a week in Mohandeseen at El Aharb club in anticipation of the first organized female game ever in Africa held on May 13th at the Olympic Center in Maadi. Even though the American football league for females has yet to play its first organized match, it has not stopped those involved from thinking big. “People are becoming more familiar with American football in Egypt and I expect more female teams will be launched," Osama said. "In the future, I am hoping to play international matches with teams outside of Egypt."