Commentary

Africa's first organized football game

In May, Drake University's football team will try to introduce football to 15 percent of the world with a game at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro

Updated: April 12, 2011, 12:45 PM ET
By LaRue Cook | ESPN The Magazine

Kevin J. Miyazaki for ESPN The MagazineCoach Chris Creighton and Drake University football players will play the first organized football game in Africa on May 21.

This story appears in the April 18, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THE WHOLE THING started about 16 months ago, in the middle of the night, in Chris Creighton's sleeping head. And on May 21, Creighton's dream will be realized: The coach's FCS program, Drake, will play at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in the first organized American football game ever in Africa.

But let's start at the beginning. In 2003, Creighton was at Division III Wabash College and got involved with Global Football, a Texas-based organization that wants to export American football around the world. Global Football offered to coordinate off-season trips for Creighton and his Wabash team to Austria and Panama, and the latter was a life-changer. "We spent time in the jungle and in Panama City," says Creighton. "But what all the guys remembered most was farming in a remote village with the local people. It was something you never forget."

Whether you know it or not. In January, after a particularly vivid dream, Creighton cornered Global Football president Patrick Steenberge at a coaching convention. "I have something big -- are you in?" Creighton asked Steenberge.

Creighton's dream scene -- him and his Drake players at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro -- required a lot of planning. Steenberge, who now has held games in 18 different nations, booked the six-day, 19,298-foot ascent up Kilimanjaro for the end of a two-week mission. Before that, Drake players will team up with members of a Mexican all-star football team (players are selected from the CONADEIP, a Mexican college-sports league) to hold clinics with 1,000 local youths. Then the two football teams (about 110 players total) will construct an addition to the Kitaa Hope Orphanage, a Tanzanian charity that cares for children who've lost parents to HIV/AIDS. Then, finally, Drake will take on the Mexican all-star team on a makeshift field at the foot of Kilimanjaro. "This will be a legitimate game," says Creighton. "I went to watch the Mexican league's national championship game and came away impressed. I told our team a win is not going to be easy."

Paying for the two-week safari isn't easy either. This trip will cost an estimated $358,000 for 65 Bulldogs players and 10 coaches, with two doctors, an athletic trainer and a strength coach also traveling with the team. Global Football is even paying for Bill LeMonnier, who officiated at this year's BCS title game, to fly in and ref. To cover some of the costs, Drake fans donated during the Bulldogs 7-4 2010 season for every point (289) and sack (33). As of late March, with the help of player fund-raisers, the school had hit $333,000. "This is exactly the kind of trip, using the power of sports to serve, that is at the core of our mission," says AD Sandy Hatfield Clubb. "My eyes well up thinking about an African child who will grow up to play American football because of Drake."

Drake had a normal spring practice session, with its spring game slated for April 23. But the contest the players look forward to most will happen in a revamped soccer stadium the name of which few can pronounce (Sheikh Amri Abeid Memorial), in front of 20,000 new fans. "I have a hard time believing this is going to happen," says DT John Sawhill. "But we've all bought our hiking boots, so we're ready."

Is Africa?