Interview with Roshan Lobo, EFLI MVP - "Parents didn’t really want me to join a dangerous sport, but I would sneak out and go for practice"
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.