One of the most popular players around in the Elite Football League of India (EFLI, Amit ‘Happy’ Lochab was a star rugby player in his own right even before he signed up to play for the Delhi Defenders. ‘Happy’ as he is almost universally known, went on to catch everyone’s attention in this new sport as well with his focus and dedication on the pitch and his down-to-earth, friendly nature off it.
I caught up with him and got talking on how he enjoyed his first season in the EFLI and is looking to go one better this time.
What is the position that you play generally Happy?
Basically I play a lot of positions Line Backer (LB), Wide Receiver (WR), Kicker (K), Tight End (TE) and Kick Returner (KR).
Yes, I heard that in a match against Mumbai, in that match alone you played five positions. How did you manage to do it? And was it a desperate situation that made you play?
No desperate situation. I always want to stay on the field during the games and I actually enjoy being out there on the field. So that’s why.
You were a professional rugby player before you started playing American football. Tell us a little bit about your rugby career. What was the starting point?
Yes, I started my sports career with rugby and I actually still play rugby, whenever I have free time. So I have not stopped playing completely, but yes, not as much as before. I played rugby for seven to eight years.
There is actually a small story about how I started playing rugby. When I was small, I used to be very naughty and often used to beat up the other kids. Then there were many complaints from parents of those children and also others in the village. And my mother and a few uncles jokingly said that I should play rugby as that game suited my personality.
So then I decided to try the game, I liked it and started playing regularly. And still keep playing.
I have played for India in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. I have gone to China, Dubai, and Singapore to represent the country.
How was the experience playing rugby in a country where the sport is not very popular? What kept you focused and playing for such a long time?
There is another story involved in that. I used to go to places such as Mumbai and Pune to play rugby. Once, after playing in Mumbai, while coming back in the train after having played rugby, I was just sitting there very happy. It gave me a lot of satisfaction and I decided to continue to play the game for a long time.
Then, a camp was announced for rugby selections for the Indian team, and I attended that in which I got selected and went to China. It was a great feeling, travelling first time by plane. I was very happy that I got a chance to travel, and food & accommodation was taken care of. And all the players also got little bit of fame from that trip.
So, it started with that, and I have not looked back since. The focus has been there ever since.
How did you first come into contact with EFLI?
I was actually in Balewadi in Pune at the time playing rugby when I first came to hear that there is this new game, NFL-style league for American football which is coming to India. So I just thought it would be pretty normal since I was already playing rugby. Then I was contacted by a friend, who told me to come for the trials. That’s how it began.
What were your first thoughts when you went for the trials. Did you feel any nervousness or were you confident since you had already played rugby?
There was very little difference, not much. Mainly, for me, the ball was the same shape and it was a very aggressive game just like rugby. So having played rugby before, I was confident, and I did not have to make much change to adapt. It was like riding a scooter and then going to ride a bike. It is very much the same, but with different vehicles. So, I did not have many problems when I started playing.
How did you approach the game; because as you know, the game is of the same nature, but there are different rules, and you have plays and all that?
Both rugby and American football may look similar from the outside but there are lot of differences. Rugby is very continuous, while in American football each team gets its chances and breaks. You have to be smart. For me American football is like chess. That’s why you have to be smart, that is why it is like playing chess on the field.
Once you Joined the Delhi Defenders, did you influence other rugby players from the region to join?
Yes, we had a club called Delhi Lions rugby club. After I got selected I went and told the boys. They agreed and they decided to come for trials and join the Delhi team.
You had a great first season in the EFLI, you made it all the way to the finals and lost to Pune. What was your take on first season?
The first season was very good, much better than what I had expected. We lost by one touchdown in the final. We started slowly but we grew in confidence and we got the belief that we can play well. And then we reached final, and finished runner-up. That second place trophy is in my home, and I’m very happy about it. At the same time, every time see it, want to make it a first position trophy, and it inspires me to do better in season two.
I have spoken to many players from other teams and they have all said that Delhi is a very strong and physical team and that it is not easy to score points against you. What do you have to say about that?
If they say so, then it must be true, since they have played against us. But yes, it is true that we play very aggressive and we play physical as we try to protect the ball and the players.
When you go into a game, how do you manage to keep your focus and what do you tell your players?
The game is definitely physical, but our focus is always on the ball. The main point here is not about hitting a player or tackling a player, but scoring a touchdown or preventing a touchdown. So to take the ball and go, you make a tackle, not to injure any player intentionally. Our focus is always on the ball and the touchdown. We play according to that.
And how did you enjoy being the captain of your team and leading the boys?
In a lot of teams, you might see that the captain gets different treatment. There is differentiation between senior players and junior players. There is no such thing in our team. It’s not like if I’m captain, I will not listen to anyone; I take everyone’s views, incorporate their good ideas. I’m more like a friend. I don’t consider myself special because I’m the captain, and even my boys don’t see me like that; I don’t like to do that also. It doesn’t matter if the player is senior or junior to me, anyone with good ideas can come tell me things, which we will then discuss and use in the game or in training.
So would you say your captaincy style is more like Dhoni’s and less like Ganguly’s?
Yes, you can say, that I’m like Dhoni!
Did you know anything about American football before EFLI?
My only exposure to American football before EFLI was YouTube videos. I used to watch a lot of YouTube videos and I used to like it. I never really thought that I would get an opportunity to play, so I’m actually very happy.
I have also heard that you have a ground in your village where you can play and practice. Lot of other teams don’t have grounds. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Yes, we have our own ground, and I would say we are very fortunate to have that. It is in my village Auchandi, which is one of the last villages in Delhi, also called Happy village. All the children, youngsters and other villagers here have come together to make this ground. A lot of effort has gone into it as it has been made from the fields. There is no such ground available anywhere else in India. It is open 24×7 for anyone to come and play and practice, any game. 24 hours, 365 days a year, this ground is open. And it is not only for us, but also for people from nearby villages. It is for charity, open to all.
What about your name ‘Happy’? How did you get it?
I have actually had this name from the beginning. It was given to me by my grandfather when I was small. In fact, whoever knows me in India as well as abroad, 99.9% of them know me as Happy.
You have obviously seen lot of videos of American football in America. And I have heard that the level of college and school football is also very high. What do you think is necessary for the Indian teams to come up to that level?
“Khoon pasina” (blood, sweat), very high levels of commitment. You need a lot of hard work, we have to work on our fitness, our stamina and we have to be very strong physically and mentally.
How do you think American football will do in competition with other sports in India?
So far it has been good. There is some interest that is growing slowly. Recently we had gone to Hyderabad for the Pre-season kickoff. There we saw a huge crowd and all the boys were actually impressed that so many people came out to watch the game. All the boys were very happy to see the response.
How do you think the game can be promoted better in the country?
I think if the game can be taken in local languages, then I think it will do very well. If the game videos and highlights and other news can be done in local languages and spread, then people will come to know about the sport and about the teams.
From season one to now going into season 2, how do you think the team has improved?
There has been a lot of improvement I feel from the first season to now. I remind all the boys every time before stepping onto the pitch, about our final match, the way we lost by one touchdown to Pune. I always remind the boys about that match and we will be using that experience as motivation to do better this year.
What advice would you give for budding sportspersons in India who want to take up unconventional sports like rugby or American football?
I don’t think they should think about the popularity of the sport or anything like that. They should just give it their all and not worry about other things. Any sport can grow, like you can see with rugby and now American football. Eventually it can grown with sponsors and all that. So if you have it in you, you can definitely make it.
You have become very popular after playing American football. Right from small kids, to other players to even some EFLI management, they all speak very highly of you. What do you have to say about that?
It is nice to know. Through my life I have worked with one motto and that is ‘Hard work + honesty = success’. I truly believe in this motto. I just keep this in mind and play and I feel the rest will follow.