NFL superstars are in Cairo as part of the American Football Without Barriers program. Before hitting the gridiron, they decided to visit the 57357 Children's Cancer Hospital to inspire hope while signalling to the world that it is safe to return to Egypt.
The majority of Egyptians have been suffering from a case of the revolutionary blues, but nobody has it tougher than the unfortunate children battling cancer. They need all the hopes and prayers the world can give, at a time where an entire country needs hope – or, at least a quick break from despicable headlines revolving around horrific doom and embarrassing gloom. Currently providing hope in Egypt is an organisation from the unlikeliest of places, from the unlikeliest of elite superstars… the NFL. Invited by the Egyptian Federation of American Football and ahead of taking to the gridiron to help elevate Egypt’s game, a visiting delegation of NFL ambassadors took the time to pay a visit and inspire hope with the kids at the 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital Foundation. Hearing about it through grapevine, I decided to head over and witness this unbelievable cultural exchange take place.Thanks to the passion and dedication of the local American football athletes, Egypt has become the largest American Football League in Africa. Putting this fact on American Football Without Barriers (AFWB)’s radar is none other than Amr Hebbo, one of the founders of the Egyptian Federation of American Football. According to Hebbo, “The Egyptian Federation of American Football started working on bringing the AFWB to Egypt back in July of last year. They had already gone to Brazil, China, and Turkey, trying to cover the continents, and this year they were looking into Africa. Since we are the largest league in terms of players and teams in Africa, coming here made a lot of sense.”
Recognising the exponential growth in gridiron pharaohs, the AFWB foundation hosted by the Egyptian Federation of American Football selected to run their fourth international training program in Cairo this weekend. “We usually get bids from 40 to 50 countries, but we picked Egypt because we think it is the biggest and most strategic place to host in Africa. With a population of over 90 million, there is a lot of room and potential for the sport to grow here,” believes Ahmed Awadallah, Egyptian Co-Founder of AFWB.Made up of a roster of NFL greats, the AFWB is on a goodwill mission to share their passion of American football with the world, while focusing on helping children along the way. The idea of sharing American football with the world was founded by Awadallah, Breno Giacomini, and Gary Barnidge, who became friends during their university days. “I am of Egyptian origin but grew up in the United States, where I played basketball. I went to university with the other two founders, where we decided we were all passionate about spreading football around the world, giving back, and helping kids. That’s what we’re doing here today at 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital,” explains the big-hearted Awadallah.
The initial goal set forth by AFWB was simple: use football as tool to help disadvantaged children. “Our mission is to promote health and fitness, and we look at football as a different avenue to get the kids off the streets. In America, we try to do this through after school programs to keep them busy. So, if we can share our passion and love for the sports with kids all around the world, it makes a positive impact,” explains New York Jets right tackle and AFWB Co-Founder Giacomini. What started with afterschool training programs has quickly become an international initiative spreading peace, charity, and, above all, American football. The foundation began reaching out to other NFL superstars, creating a delegation of NFL ambassadors. According to Miami Dolphins footballer Jordan Cameron, “Getting to help kids out and teach them about the sport you love in different countries is an opportunity that doesn’t come up too often, so I jumped onboard and have been on ever since.”
Arriving to the impressively clean 57357 Children’s Cancer Hospital, I found myself walking into a reception desk filled with Egyptian doctors and nurses under the shadows of surgical-mask-wearing giants bearing NFL swag in hand. It was difficult to tell who was who exactly behind the masks, but you could clearly tell which people where NFL superstars, which were children, and which one was Marshawn Lynch. As the players toured the hospital, I imagined the children would be frightened by large men playing a sport they have likely never seen, or perhaps confusing it with the European equivalent; but, I was wrong.To my surprise, many of the kids I encountered grew wide-eyed with smiles stretching longer than the Nile at the sight of these athletes presenting them with gifts, ranging from hats to team pennants. Perhaps it was the attention, or the fact that, for a second, they felt very important, but all these kids seemed to appreciate the affection, the distraction, and most importantly the positive attention. Fighting cancer is a tougher battle than any game, and in the eyes of these athletes, the kids were the true heroes.Towards the end of the visit, the NFL players were ushered into an auditorium filled with medical staff and government officials. Bringing the players on stage, a man in a suit - who never really explained who he was - began pleading with the footballers to “Go back to America and tell them Egypt is safe!” He continued to repeat the same message multiple times and, when he believed that the message had been received, brought everyone together for a photo shoot.
Out of nowhere, the same man then started asking into the microphone that someone play some music, and somehow - magically - someone was prepared to do that. Before anyone knew what was happening, Boshret Kheir – a.k.a. a military anthem - started blaring and players began dancing, with Marshawn Lynch being the clear winner in the Shaaby dance off. Arguably better than Egyptian dancers, it seemed that the NFL stars had totally embraced every aspect of the Egyptian culture. “I really like the mix grill plate; I like that it’s about four or five different pieces of meat. I order one, but I totally clean up everyone else’s plate. Unfortunately, I’ve got to put an end to that because I have to start working out next week and get back to my normal diet, but, in the meantime, I’m going to take advantage,” admits Giacomini.
Nutrition is one of the most important aspects to reaching the elite level in sports, and as such makes up an extremely important aspect of the AFWB training camp. Equally important is learning how to train safely. Recently, an AUC student died in a football accident. The tragic incident remains shrouded in mystery, as the family refused to do an autopsy, leaving many to speculate about the player’s condition before joining the team, or speculating that perhaps the doctors were somehow at fault. Accidents happen, and it was unfortunate that it occurred just days before the NFL player arrived; however, to ensure it doesn’t happen again, the AFWB will focus a lot of their efforts on teaching players how to train safely, while reiterating the importance of being fit before ever hitting the field. “What’s great about American football is that it teaches kids discipline. There are a lot of misconceptions that American football is not safe, but it is a safe sport when you know how to safely train and prepare, an issue we plan to seriously tackle during our camp,” says Awadallah.
There are many Egyptians out there who refuse to call American football any sort of football at all. No matter what your opinions may be, there is no denying that the country benefits from them being here. It’s not just about giving back to the kids suffering from illnesses, or improving Egypt’s football game, but is a signal to the rest of the world that Egypt is a safe place to travel. Visiting tourist sites and posting pictures to Instagram, instantly shared with thousands of people around the world, is doing an infinitely better job for the nation’s battered reputation than any #ThisIsEgypt campaign. Hopefully their visit will continue to be pleasant - free from any embarrassing headlines – and, if it does, will make a solid case to the world that it is safe to return to Egypt.
For more information about AFWB's trip to Cairo, visit their website.
For more information about the Egyptian Federation of American Football, click here.
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.