Rookie linebacker Brian Asamoah's Ghanaian heritage is at the forefront of every step he takes during Vikings practices.
An outline of Africa is printed on his custom thigh pads, a symbol visible through his thin white practice pants that represents not only his Ghanaian-born parents and many family members there but also an increasing number of NFL players who are African immigrants or whose parents emigrated from African countries.
"I'm showcasing it all," said Asamoah, a third-round pick. "This means everything, just to carry on a tradition and a legacy. I feel like this is bigger than me. This is for all the kids in Africa, especially Ghana, to see that I made a way out of this, and they can also do the same thing."
Asamoah and at least five other Vikings players — receiver Bisi Johnson, running back Kene Nwangwu, tackle Oli Udoh, defensive end Esezi Otomewo and linebacker William Kwenkeu — were born in Africa or are first generation-born in the United States. They are among the more than 100 players leaguewide in this growing demographic that had at least 10 players in this year's draft class. The NFL has taken notice and held its first official marketing events in Africa in June.
The Vikings' Kwesi Adofo-Mensah is one of seven Black general managers in the NFL, but the only one whose parents emigrated from Africa. A red, yellow and green beaded bracelet around his left wrist nods to his Ghanaian heritage. So do his talks with Asamoah in Twi, a dialect of a language widely spoken in the West African nation of 31 million people.
"It's crazy. I felt like God had aligned us together for a reason," Asamoah said. "Every time I talk to Kwesi, he always says it's meant to be. That's how I kind of see it, it was really meant to be."
When Adofo-Mensah phoned Asamoah to say the Vikings were drafting the Oklahoma product with the 66th overall pick this spring, Adofo-Mensah said, "You know this one hits different, right?" Asamoah replied, "From one Ghanaian to another Ghanaian, let's do it, man."
The Vikings have four players of Nigerian descent in Johnson, Udoh, Nwangwu and Otomewo; one of Ghanaian descent in Asamoah; and Kwenkeu, who was born in Cameroon. From the locker room to the GM's office, cultural connections are formed over shared passions such as African music, soccer and food.
Debates begin when talks turn to jollof rice, a West African dish in a tomato, curry and spice-infused broth that has unique twists across borders.
"The first time I met [Adofo-Mensah]," said Johnson, whose father was born in Nigeria, "I had to come in here ... and say obviously Nigerian jollof rice is better. That battle will never end. That will go on forever."
Nwangwu, whose parents emigrated from Nigeria, agrees: "My mom's, I'll take that every single day."
"I really think it's Senegalese," said Kwenkeu, who lived in Cameroon until he was 14. "They have the original."
Kwenkeu "spoke like a man who knew something I did not," Adofo-Mensah conceded, adding the debate is "all love." In 1969, Adofo-Mensah's parents emigrated from Ghana to New Jersey, where he was born in 1981.
"Such a great way to break the ice when you see a certain name and know where they are from," Adofo-Mensah wrote in an e-mail. "Like most of these debates, it's not about the thing but the emotional attachment to the thing. To me, Ghanaian jollof symbolizes the contentment of a big plate from my mother when I came home from college, or growing up wanting to eat the burnt part at the bottom of the pot like my father."
Shared experiences are also found in African upbringings. Sports are often secondary to education, which is viewed as a "badge of honor" by parents pushing high-level occupations such as medicine or engineering, said NFL Network reporter Jeffri Chadiha, a former University of Wyoming football player whose dad emigrated from Uganda.
No matter the job, there's a sense of pride in representing the family name, said Otomewo, a fifth-round pick and former Gophers defender. He saw that in his friend and college teammate Boye Mafe, whose family is also from Nigeria, and Otomewo sees the cultural pride again in some of his new Vikings teammates.
"Any time I see a Nigerian or African inside the locker room, instantly I feel like I know how they grew up," Otomewo said. "It's kind of a special feeling because we instantly connect."
A family-centered culture can help African immigrants and their children make the most out of opportunities in America, Chadiha said.
"African culture is so big on discipline, so big on pride, so big on family," Chadiha said. "If you're somebody who is going to go out there and make a fool of yourself, not work hard, not appreciate your opportunity, you'll have a hard time functioning with your family."
Kwenkeu, an undrafted linebacker out of Temple, is the only African-born player on the Vikings roster. Family is his motivator, playing to earn enough so his mother, Martine, can stop working three jobs to support herself and family in Cameroon.
She came to America in 2010 and two years later brought over Kwenkeu, who hadn't heard of American football when he arrived in Maryland from a Catholic boarding school in Cameroon. His English was limited when he was recruited by students to try out for the football team as a sophomore. Football helped him make American friends and learn the language. Two years later, the soft-spoken Kwenkeu was a team captain barking out plays.
"Through football I was able to find a voice," Kwenkeu said.
A long-term vision
In his hometown of Douala, Cameroon, Kwenkeu said he had see people wearing random NFL jerseys, but very few people knew much about the teams or players.
The NFL is trying to change that. In June, the league held its first official events in Ghana, where seven current and former NFL players, including the Colts' Kwity Paye (Liberian) and the Browns' Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (Ghanaian), joined to host a week of events, including a talent identification camp, a flag football clinic and a fan meet and greet.
Damani Leech, NFL chief operating officer of international, led the contingent in Ghana dubbed "NFL Africa: The Touchdown." The league leaned on former Giants edge rusher Osi Umenyiora, who is of Nigerian descent and founded the Uprise, a football developmental program that has camps in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. Players from Umenyiora's camps were invited to the NFL's talent camp.
"The reactions there live were amazing," Leech said. "[NFL players] were taken aback at some fan events with how long the lines were of fans waiting to meet them, take pictures, get autographs."
As the NFL annually holds games in Mexico and England, league officials are eyeing Africa as another opportunity to grow fandom and pathways for future players, coaches, executives or referees. Leech pointed to Africa's "population growth, technology adoption and infrastructure."
"That signal really in the next 30-plus years, a lot is going to be happening there," Leech said. "So, if we can continue to identify talent and also position ourselves by growing fandom, we'll be in a good spot."
The NFL wants to host annual events in Ghana while exploring other markets in Africa, Leech said. Some current NFL players reached out after this summer's events, offering to help in future years. One of those players is Asamoah, who said he's looking forward to returning to Africa for the first time since he was 10 years old to grow the game's reach.
"Make it bigger and worldwide," Asamoah said. "So guys in Africa or Ghana, specifically, can get the opportunity just like I had to display their abilities and play American football. I'm excited and I think this is just the start of something."