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INDIANAPOLIS – When Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis speaks, people listen. When he gives his opinion, it's never casual. So his endorsement of Daniel Adongo carries heavy weight.
Adongo, the former rugby player from Nairobi, Kenya, who was signed by the Colts without ever playing a football game in his life, makes his debut Sunday. He'll be solely on special teams, but even so, the jump – from never playing football to playing in the NFL – is mind boggling.
But it's realistic, Mathis said.
“He can come in and he's explosive,” Mathis said. “He's a stud. He has all the tools and the 'want to,' which is an intangible, and I think he'll help us.”
Mathis didn't stop there. He took his praise higher.
“It's the first time he's going to get to hit somebody, so we're very anxious to see it,” Mathis said. “He has a lot of potential. He can be a force in this league. We've got to keep him on the right track. He's mentally already there, so he's going to be fine.”
Consider Mathis' words. He calls Adongo a “stud” with the potential to “be a force” in the NFL. That's incredible on several levels. Adongo, 24, has been one of the elite rugby players in the world, playing most recently in the highest pro level. But he'd never put on a helmet before the day he flew from Johannesburg, South Africa, to the United States in July. Incidentally, he'd never been the U.S. before, either.
Adongo was promoted to the Colts' 53-man roster Tuesday after spending the season on the practice squad. Colts coach Chuck Pagano said Adongo will start on special teams at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals in Cincinnati.
Adongo didn't even play in a preseason game. This sounds like a risk on paper, but Pagano makes it sound like a fairly easy call.
“He's very, very athletic, big, strong, a tireless worker,” Pagano said. “Even though he hasn't played, he's picked up a ton. Robert and the rest of the guys in the defensive room have been tremendous in working with him and mentoring him.”
Adongo has worked as an outside linebacker with the scout-team defense, and has performed well, Colts defensive tackle Cory Redding said. Because of the number of outside linebackers in front of him, Adongo is unlikely to see action this week, or even this season, in the regular defense.
Still, he might be the first football player to play the first game of his life in the NFL.
“Other than the actual real game, under-the-lights stuff, he's been outstanding,” Pagano said. “Everybody's anxious to see what he does.”
For his part, Adongo has handled the new opportunity well. He stood in front of the media Wednesday discussing his excitement, and his progress.
If Adongo has any nervousness, he's not letting it show. In fact, he adopted the Colts' team-first mentality in assessing his excitement about joining the active roster.
Adongo said he has a “duty” and “obligation” to his teammates and coaches to perform well and temper his emotions about making his debut.
The secret to his progression as a football player has been Adongo's commitment to learning the game and his position in incremental steps.
“If you start off with thinking, oh, it's a lot of information to take up, then you don't focus on the proper execution and proper planning to absorb whatever challenges you have presented to you,” Adongo said.
Since joining the Colts, Adongo has put on significant muscle weight. He's 6-foot-5 and says he weighs 270 pounds now.
His physique and drive make him an ideal candidate to perform on special teams, particularly kickoffs where the task is simple: Use his speed and then aggression. Those skills translate well from rugby, Adongo said.
“He's played on a big field before,” Pagano said. “He's run around and tackled people before with no pads. I think instinctively he'll know how to do that. It might be more physical and violent (in pads). Don't be shocked to see him knocking people around.”
Mathis and other veterans have tried to help Adongo as much as they can, given the time they have to spend worrying about their own jobs every week.
Mathis, like most people, remains intrigued with what Adongo could develop into as a player.
“His football IQ (has improved),” Mathis said. “He knows what he's doing as opposed to when he first got here and was raw to say the least.”
Asked about the biggest similarity between playing rugby and playing football, Adongo smiled and said, “Hitting people.”
Adongo will have his first chance Sunday to prove worthy of the Colts taking a chance, and Mathis making a bold endorsement.