He is a fan of trance music and is a huge admirer of Usain Bolt for his running ability. But most importantly, he is the reigning MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the Elite Football League of India (EFLI).
He is Roshan Lobo, star Running Back of the Bangalore Warhawks team and the name that has made waves with his performances in EFLI’s first season.
American football is in its fledgling stages in India and is trying to carve out a niche for itself. In Roshan though, the game has found a superstar who the fans and even non-followers can connect to.
I caught up with him over a cup of coffee and we talked at length about a wide variety of topics ranging from his experience of playing American football to his visit to the United States and his new found stardom and how he’s dealing with it.
So Roshan, are you a resident of Bangalore, a proper Namma Bengaluru boy?
Yeah totally! I’ve been and brought up in Bangalore.
So tell us a little bit about yourself, where did you study and what course did you pursue?
I studied at St. Patrick’s on Brigade Road and went to college at Kengeri College of Commerce. I studied commerce and marketing there.
So before the EFLI happened, what were you planning to get into as a career?
I had no clear cut plans as such, but I was keen on joining the Army, but I was thinking that I could join later. I was in the NCC and stuff right from school days, so there was a natural tendency to join the armed forces.
But then later I took up sports, about 5 years back, when I started off with rifle shooting while in the NCC. Unfortunately, I couldn’t continue for long because it was too expensive to join a club and practice. Then I took up rugby.
My rugby coach Thimmaiah was the one who was asked to coach the Bangalore Warhawks, and he asked me to come over for a trial. He was my first contact point for EFLI and American football.
So when you heard about the sport coming to India in this format, what were your initial reactions? Did you know much about the sport before?
Not exactly, I had just seen it in movies. In fact, I didn’t even know the name, I was under the assumption that it was a different form of rugby. I came to know only much later about the game once I started playing rugby as I realized that what I had seen was different.
What were your first thoughts when you came to know that there is a league like this happening in India and when you were asked to play?
I was actually happy because I had seen the game in movies and it was very exciting for me and I wanted to give it a try. So I was really excited to go out and give it a shot.
You’re right, because even for me personally, the only time I have watched American football on television is in the movies, especially The Longest Yard and Clash of the Titans. And as a viewer, it is quite exciting. How was it for you to suddenly be playing a game that you had seen in the movies and perhaps had a distant dream of playing?
When it first came in, we didn’t have kits. The kits are something that attracts people to the game. For the first few months, we practiced and played without them, but later when we got them, the ball was really fancy, because we don’t find that ball anywhere in India.
So when we touched the ball, it was quite an experience and there was a coach from the US who taught us about how to play the game, how to hold the ball, throw it. And it was a lot of fun, because it was something totally different from what we had seen earlier or grown up with.
You used to play rugby earlier, how did that help you in transitioning to American football?
Yeah absolutely! Rugby gave me a big chance in this because it’s a little similar as you know how to tackle, how to avoid tackles, how to run away from people who are coming to tackle you, that really helped me a lot.
Once you joined EFLI, did you also pull in any of your friends into the sport?
When I joined, not many, even from the rugby team not too many people were interested. Also because rugby development itself in India has not really been great, people basically come and play because they love the game. But no one would want to commit themselves, because they saw no future in it.
So everyone thought that even American football was going to be the same, there was going to be no future for it, and that it would be a waste of time coming here and doing tryouts.
Talking about your team, the Bangalore Warhawks, in the first season was it predominantly the players from Bangalore and Karnataka that featured?
Actually the team was a mix of Bangalore and Punjab guys. The Punjab guys were the big guys in the team, they ended up playing the offensive and defensive lines. The rest of the guys were from Bangalore, and few from Shimoga. So yes, majority of them were from Karnataka and about 9 guys from Punjab.
It happened mainly due to a shortage of players. The Punjab players were small in number so they had to be combined with another team.
And did you have any foreign players in the team, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis?
Oh yeah! Once we went to Sri Lanka, basically every team got some Sri Lankan players. They actually had many players over there willing to play and they put two or three each in every team.
How different was the scene for rugby and American football in Sri Lanka as compared to India?
Very different! I think in Sri Lanka right now, rugby has become more popular than cricket. There are many followers for rugby and they find it more entertaining. If you go to Sri Lanka or Colombo, every locality or alternate locality has a rugby field where you can see guys playing. And rugby is very common in their schools as well. In India, you don’t find any such thing.
That’s very interesting actually, because it seems to be quite a recent phenomenon…
Yes, it’s really shot up like anything, you know. The game has become so famous now that everyone knows rugby, everyone wants to play rugby, they are soon going to be one of the best rugby teams in Asia soon.
What about the Indian rugby team?
India too has a team, but it’s not that great. Every time you see, there is a camp which is only held a few months before any tournament.
So, you could say that in Sri Lanka they have a more serious programme?
Yeah, they have a more serious program and there are more followers and there is more support from the government and stuff.
Now, you did mention that the equipments are one of the most fascinating things about the game. What was that one piece of equipment that really caught your attention and amazed you?
For me the shoulder pads, when you tackle someone or you get tackled by someone, it really doesn’t hurt. You don’t feel any pain and it kind of fits nicely on you.
Even the helmets actually, oh yeah! I completely forgot about the helmets.
In fact, I remember that one of the first promos that was made, they showed the different players sporting the various helmets of each of the teams and that kind of created a buzz.
Yes, the helmets were actually this fancy thing and how it looks from the outside and how it feels is very different. It’s really heavy and people wonder how you play wearing it. It is heavy, but unless you play regularly with it, you won’t get that familiarity.
So, compared to rugby, you just put on the uniforms and go out and play. Here you have to put on the helmet, wear the shoulder pads and all that, what challenges did you face up front?
The first few months were quite hard for everybody, it was definitely not easy. But we worked hard to try and get used to it. In fact, after the first week, almost everyone had a neck pain, people were struggling to move their heads and turn their necks.
And talking about support staff, could you tell us a little bit about the team of coaches, physios and others that oversaw the preparations of the Bangalore team.
Every team had at least two foreign coaches who came in from the US. They used to take turns going to different cities to teach the players. We had one quarterback coach and one defense coach. They would stay with each of the teams for about one month or two months.
Once, all the teams got together in Pune for about a month, and we had a camp there conducted by these coaches. Totally there were eight teams right, so four teams went in the first batch, and then the other four teams came in the second batch.
And even before we went to Pune, there were coaches coming down to Bangalore and teaching us skills.
Before the season started, how many months of total preparation did you have?
I guess, five to six months, in total.
In the beginning, we just had one coach coming down. Only from the second month onwards we got another coach coming down. Then we had a lot of Indian coaches taking over after they had spent some time with the American ones.
So these former coaches who came to train you were former players?
Yeah, most of them were former players, having played college football and I guess, two or three, were former NFL players.
Roshan, you’re a Running Back right? Tell us a little bit about what major role a Running Back plays and your role in the game.
So, yeah, a Running Back’s major job is to take the ball and run with it. It is slightly different from the Wide Receivers, as the ball is not thrown to me. The Quarterback basically offloads the ball to me and then I just run with the ball, dodging the defenders on the way.
So basically it’s your job to make the yards?
Yes, kind of. Actually, you can make the yards either by passing or running. The Quarterback can either throw the ball directly to the Receiver and help the team cover the yards, or give it to a Running Back like me who then runs with it.
If you ask me, that’s more fun, you know, dodging the defenders and escaping from everyone.
Apart from the MVP award, you also received the Best Running Back award right for the first season?
Actually, I was not supposed to play Running Back initially, I was supposed to play in defense. The three guys who were supposed to play Running Back couldn’t make it to Sri Lanka. Two of them had government jobs – one was in the Army and the other guy couldn’t get a passport done to get to Sri Lanka.
Then my coach came up to me and said ‘You know what, you’re the only guy who can play this position now’. And he asked me to come back into offense and play there. That’s when I started playing Running Back and there was no one else to play that position in the team, offense as well as defense.
Were there any backups for you?
There was a guy but he was not too experienced, and the coach didn’t let him play first up.
That’s quite something isn’t it, the doors kind of just opened up for you.
Yeah! The coach came up to me and told me to play offense. I told him that I have no practice and he just asked me to take the ball and run. I was like ‘Okay cool! I can do that’.
So how did your friends and people around you react to that? Going from being third or fourth choice to starting and eventually winning the MVP trophy?
They were quite amazed because I was not even an option till December and they kept asking me how I made it to the starting spot and get the MVP award for the Running Back position. And I told them that I was just made the Running Back, the team had no other option.
And I ended up with the longest running yards as well, about 534 yards. So yeah, it was kind of crazy.
For a Running Back, what do you think are the most important qualities to have both physically and mentally?
I think reactions, speed and you got to have strength. You got to have reactions because it’s not like one or two people chasing you, you have so many running after you, you’ve got to make fast decisions and know how to react, check the people around you, increase your speed, be aware of incoming tackles.
The linebacker is the main danger to a Running Back, because they just want to kill the Running Back. So you need to have so much strength that even when someone comes and tackles you, you give them a hit that they don’t forget. Basically, your job is to keep the ball, but also its about sending a message to the opposition linebackers.
So in the first season of EFLI, which was the meanest defense that you faced?
That would be Kolkata. Meanest in the sense, they used to hit you hard and I really got belted in the game against them. They lost all their games and came last in the league, but some of their players used to tackle really hard and it was difficult for me. I would run away, but every time they tackled it used to hurt a lot.
The Colombo defense was also good.
I was actually reading about your first season, and it was kind of unfortunate right, that you lost only one league match and in the semi-finals you lost to Delhi?
Delhi, they had a lot of rugby players from Delhi and nearby areas like the Hurricanes and Lions team. So since they were used to playing rugby earlier, they found it easier to adjust and read some of the passes and they defended really well.
Also, we had lot of injuries at that time. A lot of our major players were injured. After that game against Kolkata, we had lost close to four main players. So basically, some of the coaches had to come in and play for us in the semis.
I think I now understand why you said they had such a mean defense!
Roshan, you not only won the MVP trophy, but you also got selected to go the US for trials right where a lot of scouts came to watch you play?
Basically, the American coach who coached the Bangalore team, Chris Stafford, knew a friend back in the US who conducted this tournament called the Scout Bowl. This tournament basically takes the top 80 players or so from third and second division college and makes them play together. Here the scouts from the NFL teams, Canadian football teams come to watch and if they like any of the players then they select them.
So, even some international players are brought in for this. Last year, about three foreign players got chosen, one German guy, one from Mexico and one from Asia. So, I was the player chosen from Asia. So these 80 players were split into two teams and a game was played between these teams in Alabama.
The teams were split into North and South – I was in the North team – and the South team won.
How was the experience playing with these players?
It was really hard, but it was a great experience. Of course, these guys have been playing for so many years since childhood and I have been playing just for the last two years. First of all I was really confused, because their game was so fast and then they had all these names for plays which I was not used to.
What was the biggest difference for you Roshan, from playing here in the first season of EFLI and then mixing it with some of the best from college football in America? Was it a sea change and a huge difference?
There, you know, in practice itself you could feel the pressure and the level of play that the athletes over there operate at. So in practice, everything was so fast for me initially, because in India it is not so fast. Even college and school kids there play really well. They are so experienced and used to it and you just get a split second to react and you need to get into the gap.
So when the game happened, it was really exciting because everyone was pumped up and everyone wanted to play well as they wanted to be spotted by the scouts. So, it went really well. I only got to play a few times as Running Back, but it was really fast and I loved the experience.
So after having played there, and coming back now for the second season of EFLI, you would have learnt a lot of new things, many plays, how are you looking to incorporate that into the Bangalore team?
Yes, I am now playing with more confidence than before. Before, I was kind of the same player as everyone else, because a lot of us were playing for the first time and stuff, but once I went to the US and came back, I really feel confident and believe I can do more and I’m eagerly waiting for the second season to start so that I can implement everything that I have learnt.
How was it to be on live television in the US? Tell us a little bit about that experience of yours.
It was a lot of fun. The first time actually was with CNN, the international CNN channel. It came in India and no one really knew the date and time. My brother switched on the TV and was watching CNN and he noticed and then he called everyone. It was kind of nice because after the recording when the show is going to be telecast, you kind of message everyone, family, friends to catch the show. It’s really amazing to see the show yourself as well as see everyone else watching it.
And people come and tell me – “Dude! You came on TV” – because, you know, it’s not like everyone comes on TV.
And were you nervous the first time you went in front of the cameras?
For the CNN one I was, because for one week I was alone there in Times Square and I didn’t have anybody with me. And suddenly I came to know that CNN wants to do an interview, like the CNN, you know. So it was a big thing. I was kind of really nervous, in the beginning of the show also, I was little nervous. Now I am sort of okay with it.
The first one was in fact a radio interview in Florida, there I made a lot of mistakes while speaking since I was nervous.
Also Roshan, tell us a little bit about the culture around American football in the States. It must have been a totally different setting to the one here even for some of the more popular sports.
Over there, you know, American football matches are like a festival. People just love going for the games, enjoying themselves there. Here, even though people like cricket, there is no atmosphere like that. There, the people just love it so much, they sing, they dance, they do all sorts of things. And they do it as a group. Like for example if some team is playing, all the supporters of that team get together, they wear the same jersey, they carry various boards and signs, and there’s a whole lot of energy around it.
And I believe that’s the case not just with the big teams, it’s like that even at school and college level?
Yeah, the game is just big everywhere. Every college and school has a football field and dedicated coaches for it. Like, each team has some 10 coaches or something. So even for school/college games, the families, the entire city/town will get behind the team. It’s just a totally different situation, you don’t find that in India at all.
Roshan, your coach Thimmaiah looks to have been a major influence in your career so far. He was your rugby coach and as you said, he was the one who brought you to the EFLI. So tell us a little bit more about Thimmaiah, his contribution to your success?
I met Thimmaiah when I started playing rugby. When I started playing, he was in the Indian rugby team for the Commonwealth squad and he had played rugby before as well for the national team. At that time, he was the best player in the team and everyone knew him in Bangalore as he was the best player.
Everyone respects him for the way he goes about his work and being an athlete. Rugby is not an easy sport you know, you have totally different requirements for an athlete. When I started playing rugby, he was in the Indian camp in the preparations for the Indian team. We were both roommates over there, we got really close and he taught me so many things as I was looking up to him.
Then once the Commonwealth got over, he got a job offer from EFLI to coach the Bangalore team. In fact, he was one of the best coaches across all the teams in EFLI and even now, if you ask anybody around, they will tell you that he is the best coach around at the moment.
The way he coaches people is something really terrific; he can coach any player and get him to play better. He knows what is required.
So what are some of the elements from his coaching that really stand out?
Thimmaiah has some really good methods of coaching, he goes about showing us videos, talks at length about the game, tells people what to do and what not to do, does a lot of research; these are the things that made our team really good.
The US coaches, of course, came down and taught everyone the basic rules, but he went and did his own research and came up with tactics and stuff.
After falling at the semi-final stage last year, are you keen to make up for that loss and go all the way in the second season?
Absolutely! We are just waiting for the new season to start off and we want to improve from last year.
That’s great, because you must have noticed, there is another Bangalore team that is doing really well, the Bengaluru Football Club. It’s a new team, but they are top of the i-league and are beating some of the other more fancied teams also. So do you think you can also emulate their efforts and give Bangalore another title winning team?
Totally! We just have to wait for the season to start and see what happens, but I believe Bangalore will be there amongst the top four teams. We are looking to make the final from there; actually I think Bangalore can take the championship, but it depends on a lot of things, so let’s see how it goes.
Guess that means the losses to Hyderabad in the friendlies were a bit of a smokescreen?
Yeah, people might think that since we lost to Hyderabad three times, we are not so good as last season. They might underestimate us, but when the season begins they could be in for a surprise.
Even last year actually, that’s what happened, everyone thought that Bangalore team is not very big and not very aggressive. Physically yes, we were not that aggressive out there on the field, but I guess we showed the most fight through the season. We have few players in our team who get really aggressive and stuff.
The Pune Marathas were the champions of the inaugural season. So what do you think was the reason why they were successful?
The defense! Their defense played really well and their quarterback, Dinesh Kumar from Chennai, was one of the best. He was really quick and he is one of the Indian rugby players who play for the national team. He was the quarterback and made really good plays. He used to have a very good understanding with his teammates and I think that made a big difference.
So do you think that this year, they will again be one of the main contenders for the championship?
I think the main contenders this time around will be Pune, Delhi, these are the two teams we feel will be good. And also, perhaps Hyderabad.
Delhi team, they are really big, and have good strategy, so they are very dangerous. Pune, they do the basics very well and have some really good players, so that is their strength.
What is the reception that you get now when you go around? Have you become some sort of celebrity in your neighbourhood especially since the sport is not that popular? They may have seen people playing cricket or football or tennis, but this must be something different?
A little bit, yes. Basically, I get many friend requests now on Facebook, people just pop up from nowhere and say ‘you know what, I just found you online, I read that you’re the best, I want to join the team, I want to play the game’, that sort of thing. So, it’s kind of amusing because I never expected something like this to happen. And once I came back from the US, there were many followers from the US, there were many orders for my shirt from the US. Its kind of different as I never thought this was going to happen and then the articles started coming up.
I was just doing some research today and I found out that there are at least 25 articles about me in different publications. It’s kind of nice and my family is very proud of me.
So they supported your decision to get into this sport?
In the beginning, they didn’t really like it because it was a contact sport and they were of the opinion that there is no future for sports in India. I was initially in agreement with them, but then I just wanted to do something different and that’s why I chose rugby as a sport.
In fact, during rugby, I suffered some serious injuries, many broken bones and my parents didn’t really want me to join a dangerous sport like American football. But I just wouldn’t listen to them, I would sneak out and go for practice.
But now they are kind of chilled about it, they think its fine.
I guess it worked out eventually in the end right, that’s what matters.
And how has been the response and buzz created in Bangalore and in India after the first season? What have you observed?
Many people are now interested and I get many messages now saying they want to join and stuff. I really want the EFLI to do something where they promote the basic rules of the sport and create more awareness so that people understand the game a lot better.
Basically now, if you see, on Ten Sports the ads go out and we have started school programmes and college programmes. That will get a lot of interest going in the local public. We actually need active participation from kids, especially school kids, so that they will follow, then their family will also follow.
In the first season you played matches in Colombo and last year you played some exhibition matches in India. With every passing match, have you seen more and more people turn out for your games?
Even now, if you conduct a match in most cities, you will probably see the same people turning up, because even now, they have not fully grasped the game and its rules and regulations. But in places like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Kolkata, there are more and more people coming in even though they don’t know much about the game.
Especially the game at HAL in Bangalore, we could see that the crowd were on their feet towards the end as the game went into double Extra Time. And people were just so energetic and they were very keen to know what’s happening and who was going to win and very excited for the game.
In your opinion do you think this league can really take off in a big way in India and work like some of the other sporting leagues?
Yeah, because if you ask the people who have come and watched these games, they will tell you that their experience was good and that they didn’t find it boring. Even if they don’t know the rules, they just love the entertainment. The tackles and the action are a big hit and as more and more people come and watch, the word will spread. And slowly, they will also learn the rules a bit better, so they will understand and enjoy the game even more.
Who are your favourite players that you perhaps idolize?
One of them is Adrien Peterson, he is the MVP in the NFL amongst Running Backs. Basically I love his story because in 2012, he had both ACL and MCL in his legs; he trained for the next eight months and he played in the NFL in 2013 and picked up the MVP award. It is a really great story.
What do you do in your free time Roshan, when you’re not playing American football?
Basically, right now, I’m doing a part-time job with a company called Runners4Life. Also, I go to schools and teach and I play Ultimate Frisbee now and of course, rugby and American football. Ultimate Frisbee is a game that is coming up big and people who don’t want to play contact sport are taking up this game. It’s very popular and it requires good levels of fitness and skills to play it.