Behind the Face Mask: Suleiman Abulitsa, Kenya’s Football Pioneer

Football is an international game with many stories. My goal is to showcase some of those stories to show the personal side of football. What makes a football player? What have people overcome? How has the game made the players and how have the players made the game. When you see the game on TV, you see helmets and face masks. In this segment, we look behind the face mask.

The longer I have played the game of football, the more connections I have made across the globe that have blown my mind. Suleiman Abulitsa is one of those connections. We became friends on Facebook and I noticed his pictures of him and his teammates in rag tag gear, going to practice in a grass field of mud.

I chuckled because I can relate. Early and often in my career I have had those same type of experiences of going home, covered in mud. There is a joy in that that is hard to explain. The minute I saw those pictures we had a bond. I then noticed that not only does he play football but he has worked very hard to help the state of football in his home of Kenya. I thought I found the Kenyan version of me.

I wanted to know more about him so I asked him a series of questions. Suleiman was born in Kakamega, Kenya in 1990. He now resides in Nairobi. When he was 20 years old in 2011, he was a student at Buruburu Institute of Fine Arts (BIFA). During this time, he was introduced to the game of football by his cousin who is current president of Kenya Federation of American Football in Kenya. “He came home and told me he saw this old football kit in the sports store and asked me if I was interested in joining him to start up a team.”

At first, Suleiman thought his cousin was joking until his cousin brought him over the movie The Longest Yard, featuring Adam Sandler and his interest was peaked.

He watched the movie over and over to try to learn more about football and looked up videos on YouTube. He started throwing a football around campus and other students joined. Most of these other students had also watched football movies and were curious.

Suleiman became motivated to learn the game. They didn’t have any coaches so they would research videos online and write down notes. They would teach things to those that didn’t have access to the Internet. They started their team with 5 people but worked diligently until in 2012 they had enough to play in their first east African tournament in Makerere, Uganda. Uganda won due to the fact they had more experience but Suleiman’s team used the experience to get better.

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Suleiman used to sneak into the University of Nairobi in order to get time on the fields but in 2013 decided it was time to make it official and tried to introduce football to his school (BIFA). He took aside his games teacher and asked him if it was OK to start a football team at the school. He got permission and then went to various classes to recruit new players. The reaction varied between interest and those that told him it was useless. It was a struggle but that was how the Umoja Chiefs were born.

When Suleiman started playing, he began playing defensive end due to his speed, but switched to running back when the Chiefs were officially started because he had the most knowledge on the team. In 2015, he switched to linebacker per guidance of his coach.

The biggest obstacles Suleiman has faced in trying to progress the game in Kenya is the lack of football equipment which has proven expensive to import. They also have a hard time finding places to play and have to settle at times for tougher grounds, hence the mud pictures. It is hard for them to get support for the local community and even sometimes from friends and family.

Suleiman is an avoid Seattle Seahawks fan because he likes how they operate as a team. His favorite player is former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. I find this telling. Suleiman is a determined human being and can probably relate to how determined Lynch was to not go down.

The obstacles will not stop Suleiman or his team. He wants to lead by example and has introduced it to local schools, high schools, and colleges. He has posted football videos and drills and used social media to promote the sport. Suleiman wants to motivate people to join football.

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The reason he has become so passionate about the sport is that, “it has raised me well.” Suleiman also states that he has met many great people through the process of playing and promoting the sport and it has shaped him physically and mentally. It has taught him how to have courage and helped him find confidence.

Suleiman’s proudest moment so far is when he led his team to victory against the Jkuat Sparrows in 2014. He also fondly remembers when he asked his teammates to play in the swamp to have a fun practice and the bond they created, despite their different backgrounds, carries on to today.

One day, Suleiman ran across a bigger guy in the street and saw that he was “killing himself with drugs.” The guy looked at him like he was going to attack and rob him but Suleiman spoke to him and told him he can do better for himself and asked him to join him in playing football. In one month, he came around and accepted the offer and is now the best center on the team.

Suleiman’s dream is to see his country shine and to see the sport grow. He also hopes to someday play in college, semi-pro, or even in the NFL if he gets the opportunity. Eventually he wants to coach in his country.

Suleiman’s advice to others who look up to him is to, “keep God first.” He also says that success will never knock on your door and that you need to go chasing after it. He believes in the moment and that you can either act now or never.

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I look forward to seeing the growth in Kenya to the sport thanks to those who pioneer it like Suleiman. The strength and courage it takes to pioneer something on this scale is admirable. Marshawn Lynch would be proud.

You can follow Suleiman on:

Facebook: Suleiman Abulitsa

Instagram: Suleiman Abulitsa

Twitter: Shaban_Suleiman

Email: Suleimanrodgers@gmail.com

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