My bittersweet journey in American football

Edwin Otieno is an American Football player and coach.
Photo credit: Bonface Bogita

What you need to know:

  • He was part of Maseno School rugby team which lost to Kakamega High School in the national Sevens (semi-final) and 15s (final) in 2012
  • He coached rugby at Otieno Oyoo High School in 2013 after finishing high school
  • Edwin joined the University of Nairobi in 2014 to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in architecture. It is here that he got to learn American footbal

Edwin Otieno Osumo, 30, is an architect who plays and coaches American football. He plays as a wide receiver, but also doubles as a quarterback and defensive back for both tackle and flag football. 

American football is not so popular in Kenya, how did you come to play the sport?
I used to play rugby and when I joined the University of Nairobi (UoN), I found some students playing American football. I decided to try something new. In my first year, I sat in the stands just watching people play, but I started playing it properly in my second year in January 2015 after some encouragement by my friends.

We have had a few Kenyans in the professional American football league (NFL). Have they inspired you in any way?
Before I took up the sport, I had heard of Kenyan players like Daniel Adongo (Indianapolis Colts), Helva Matungulu (New York Jets) and Rees Odhiambo (Seattle Seahawks), and then I started watching the game during that time. I never met them, but I was greatly inspired by the fact that they are Kenyans.

How would you describe your journey as an American football player?
It has had many ups and downs. When I started, we only had three teams in the country – the University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and a team called Umoja Chiefs.

In 2015, we had a coach from the USA, Dan Eck. He noticed our team’s potential, and specifically, he told me that with the talent I had if I had been born in the USA, I would have made it to the NFL. He tried to expose me to other avenues that could work. He suggested I go to college for my Master’s in the US to sharpen my skills. 

Did the dream materialise?
Eck left in 2016. We kept in touch and I was to graduate in 2017, but the major strikes in our campus derailed the plan because I couldn’t graduate until 2018. By then the eligibility age for playing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which is 24, was upon me, and I was locked out.

I decided to explore other alternatives. I had heard of a programme called NFL Undiscovered. I used to send mywork out videos to them. I persisted in 2017 and at some point they noticed me and asked me to work on my skills. I did, but that also didn’t work out. I tried knocking on a few more doors, but I wasn’t successful, so I shifted my focus to teaching. That is what I do now.

How else are you staying involved in the sport?
I was involved in a pilot coaching programme for training children at Mirema Primary School. I’m still a player, but I am transitioning to coaching. I think I can prolong playing if I get that professional opportunity. But now my focus is on playing less and doing more coaching. I’m also looking forward to the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028 because there is a new variant of American football called flag football. It is basically the no-contact version of American football and I'm learning how to coach this.

What challenges have you seen in American football?
Getting good training facilities was a challenge in campus. I had to make my own hurdles so that we could play. We also depended on donations of American football gear because they are expensive and not found easily here in Kenya. Recruiting and sustaining people in the team was also a challenge. Being a new sport, we only have small competitions organised locally. Most international matches we tried organising did not materialise. So, people join the sport, but drop midway and you have to start recruiting again. Sometimes you try to recruit people and they ask you how far they can go with this sport that is not popular in Kenya. My vision was to play professionally, but I have not given up. I may not get to play professionally, but I’d like to stay in the game, to develop others. This sport has the potential to grow, especially with flag football which is not expensive.

Taking you back to rugby, who was your role model in rugby? Do you regret leaving it?
Kenya Sevens star Collins Injera was my role model. I used to compare myself with him in terms of physique. He was not the biggest, but he had strong determination. After I cleared high school and stayed for a year without playing rugby, I felt like I was being left behind. I did not feel like I could recover the lost time. I thought I would play rugby when I joined the university, but fate had other plans. I found encouraging friends, discovered that I was good at American Football, and found a coach who believed in me and made me captain, so I decided to stick with the new sport. Some of my friends told me that I should have stuck with rugby. They told me that with Amercan football I wouldn’t go far. I don’t regret my decision. 

Tell us about your best and worst moments in both tackle and flag football…
In tackle football, I received one, and ran for two touchdowns in the second leg of Kenya vs Uganda (Utalii Grounds). We won 34-22. In flag football, I threw four touchdowns and scored a pick-six against JKUAT Sparrows, leading UoN Nyati to win 69-12. My worst moment in tackle was when we went goalless with UoN Nyati against JKUAT Sparrows in the first game of the first-ever tackle football tournament in 2018. JKUAT won. In flag football, I had a high ankle sprain during a training session that limited my activity for three months in October 2017.