‘Build the Monster’
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.
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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.
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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.
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.