I’m an unabashed sports fan. I absolutely love watching, playing, and writing about all different kinds of sports. My favorite sports are “the big three” sports of the states (US): Baseball, (American) Football, and Basketball, in that order. While my passion for baseball has never waned since I was a kid, my love for American football has sky-rocketed in recent years, while my interest in basketball is slowly fading.
It might surprise some readers and colleagues to know that I also have an interest in Track and Field. I actually pole-vaulted while I was in high school. You know, that field event where you sprint down a runway with a giant pole in your hands, stick it in the ground and catapult yourself over a bar? Believe it or not, I did that.
And, as a sports fan, I wasn’t surprised to see that the most popular sport in Sierra Leone is World Football. I don’t know the teams and players as well as I do, say, in baseball or American football, but I very much enjoy soccer as well – I played both soccer and baseball as a kid until I had to make a decision between the two because they were played during the spring season. I’ve always loved getting up in the early hours of the morning to watch the World Cup.
Anyway, I’ve noticed that soccer is ubiquitous in Freetown. Games are broadcasted at bars and restaurants, children kick a ball around the streets for fun, and the Leone Stars are clearly popular amongst supporters.
I’m what you might call a “casual soccer fan” – someone who enjoys watching and playing the game, but not necessarily a die-hard fan. There doesn’t appear to be any “casual soccer fans” in Freetown – either you’re an intense football fan or you’re just flat out crazy for not liking football.
This got me thinking: Why is football the only prominent sport in Sierra Leone? Yes, it’s probably the most popular sport in the world and it seems like America is the only place where it’s not even a top-5 (or even 10) sport. But after combining some prior knowledge and research, I found plenty of Sierra Leonean athletes that have starred in sports other than football outside Africa – particularly in America.
The two big names that come to mind, at least for me, are Gibril Wilson and Madieu Williams of the National Football League (NFL) in America. Wilson and Williams are two of the better defensive players in American football. Wilson, who recently won the Super Bowl with the New York Giants and is now a member of the Oakland Raiders, is known as a fierce hitter with uncanny athleticism. Williams, now with the Minnesota Vikings, is considered a great cover safety – to explain in a nutshell, the ‘safety’ position in American football is one where a defensive player or two stays back in coverage to prevent the deep pass. Since they are in charge of a “zone,” safeties are typically not the fastest guys, but Williams is an exception to that rule. I knew that Wilson was of Sierra Leonean descent, but it was a pleasant surprise to find out that Williams is originally from Freetown.
A lesser known Sierra Leonean in the NFL is Beigeh Joe (B.J.) Tucker. Born in Freetown on October 12, 1980, Tucker was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the 6th round of the 2003 NFL draft. Like Wilson and Williams, Tucker is a defensive player.
Sticking with American football, I’ll introduce one Dorrell Jalloh. Though he was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Jalloh is of Sierra Leonean descent, as one can tell by his last name. Bucking the trend of the previous three Sierra Leoneans playing American Football, Jalloh is a player on the offensive side of the ball, playing the wide receiver position. Collegiate football is just as popular (more popular, for some) as professional football in America, and Jalloh plays for a prestigious program at the University of West Virginia.
The West Virginia Mountaineers have produced immense talents that have since moved onto the NFL, and it’s very much possible that Jalloh will take the next step after his collegiate career and pursue a future in the NFL. He certainly has a good track record – before being awarded the team’s “Ideal Mountaineer Man” award at the conclusion of his junior season, Jalloh set school records at his high school in Greensboro, North Carolina, when he caught 105 passes for 1,531 yards and 10 scores as a senior.
You may have heard of Eunice Barber: Born November 17, 1974 in Freetown, Barber is a track and field athlete competing in heptathlon (a contest comprised of seven track and field events) and long jump. Though she competed for France since 1999, she initially began by her career competing for Sierra Leone. She won the heptathlon at the World Championships in Athletics in 1999, the long jump in 2003 and finished second in heptathlon in 2003 and 2005.
How about feeding your basketball jones? Ansu Sesay, who played in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in America for several seasons, recently signed with a professional team in Berlin as he continues his basketball journeys overseas. Sesay was originally drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1998 NBA Draft. I even had the opportunity to see Sesay play a few years back when he was on the playoff-contending Seattle Super Sonics team, my hometown basketball squad, in 2002. His short stint with the Sonics was perhaps the highpoint of his NBA basketball career. He was called up on a 10-day contract with the Sonics, expected simply to be a warm body on the bench. But he impressed the team so much with his energetic play that he stayed on the playoff roster and played four playoff games with the team.
Speaking of basketball, here’s a quirky one that you probably never heard of: Viktor Keirou. The son of a Sierra Leonean father and a Russian mother, Keriou is a Russian professional basketball player with the Russian pro club, CSKA Moscow. Keirou stands a massive 6 feet 6 ¾ inches tall and weighs in at 225 pounds. He plays both the small forward and shooting guard positions. Keirou recently played for the Russian national team in the 2008 Olympics. Keirou’s sister, Katerina, plays for Russia’s women’s Under-21 national basketball team.
I’m sure there are a host of other Sierra Leonean athletes that star in different sports all over the world. It’s hard to imagine a world where soccer is no longer the prominent sport in Sierra Leone. But I believe that if it is people take time to recognize and realize the talents that are surfacing around the world at the hands and feet of their fellow countrymen, we just might see the emergence of “casual fans” of other sports in Salone.
By Yu Nakayama