The Touchdown: Indian-American millennials embrace American Football

Jai Patel, an 8th grader at Crossroads South Middle School in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, is a kicker/punter in the school team.

Deepika Somarj’s introduction to American football was in 2002, the year the New England Patriots defeated the heavily favored St. Louis Rams, 20-17, to take home their first Super Bowl victory. She had recently arrived from India and was a novice to American football. Despite being unaware of the rules of the game, she enjoyed its fast-paced nature, she said, “especially the way [Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady dominated the game.”

Needless to say she became a fan. For the first few years, Somraj watched just the Super Bowl, but as her son’s interest in the sport piqued, she found herself watching more and more football – both college level and the NFL. She eventually learned the rules of the game from her son and has been hooked ever since.

The Skillman, New Jersey, fan is not alone. She is part of a growing Indian-American population smitten with American football. For immigrants like her, who grew up on cricket, soccer or even field hockey, watching college and NFL games does not come naturally. For some it was an interest in sports in general that made them gravitate towards football, one of the most popular sports in the U.S. Some watched it as a family event, or as an excuse to hang out with friends. Another attraction is the short duration of the game, compared to cricket. “It’s a three-hour sport, is often held once a week, and you don’t have to spend all day watching it [unlike cricket],” says Sanjay Chhabria of Hillsborough, New Jersey.

Like Somraj, Chhabria’s introduction to the sport was the big 2002 Super Bowl, making him a die-hard Patriots fan.

Following sports has been a widely popular tradition in the U.S. due to a rich history at both the collegiate and professional levels. There’s also a notion that athletes embody the American ideals of hard work, perseverance and striving for greatness.

Unlike immigrants who came to this country as adults on a work visa, those who came to America as students or those who grew up here were introduced to the sport much earlier.

West Windsor, New Jersey Mayor Hemant Marathe says as a student at Virginia Tech in the early 1980s, he found football hard to escape. He recalls watching college teams play and gradually got interested. His roommate taught him how the game works and since then football has been an integral part of his life.

In a 2015 survey on Football trends in America, Mintel Group Ltd., a London-based market research firm revealed that nearly half of Americans are professional football fans, making the sport a clear favorite among adults. Also at the top of the must-watch list: college football (35 percent), professional baseball (32 percent) and professional basketball (30 percent). Though men (63 percent) are much more likely than women (38 percent) to watch football, it is the most popular sport among fans regardless of gender. In fact, 38 percent of men report that they almost never miss their favorite football team's game. A similar trend is seen among college football fans, with 45 percent of men and 26 percent of women reporting that they are fans, Mintel says.

TIME TO SOCIALIZE

While most watch the sport for the love of the game or their allegiance to a particular team, fans agree that eating and drinking is a big part of watching sports. Super Bowl parties have become de rigueur and many Indian-American families host the annual events replete with the must-haves like beer, chips and dip, chicken wings, pizza and nachos. It is also a time to socialize.

“Sports is more about being social than anything else,” says Navdeep Parmar. “Watching your favorite team with fellow fans or sports lovers is always fun.” Parmar, of East Brunswick, New Jersey, gets together with friends to watch NFL games once the season begins. Although Parmar grew up here, and most of his friends grew up in India, their common love for sports brings them together, he says.

For many like Parmar, watching the game with friends at a bar makes for an ideal Sunday. Investment banker Dushyant Rao of Charlotte, North Carolina, himself a football player through college, has transitioned from home-style Super Bowl parties to watching at a bar or with friends at home.

BONDING WITH FAMILY

Although Marathe’s daughters never played soccer, they are equally into the game as their father. “We are serious football fans,” says Marathe, himself a follower of the Seattle Seahawks. Marathe, who often takes to social media to express his happiness and sometimes frustration with his team, says he tries to watch as many games as he can. Now that his four daughters are spread across four corners, watching the game together is difficult, but on game day, the family is connected through social media, keeping tabs and exchanging notes. His wife and daughters also have a Fantasy Football League of their own, but Marathe says he’s “too superstitious” to participate.

Connecting with family and bonding over a common goal is another reason why many immigrants who were unaware of the sport started watching it in the first place. Many first generation Indian-Americans told India Abroad that their parents, especially their mothers, made extra efforts to understand how American football works. Rao said his parents, both Carolina Panthers fans, never miss a game, and watch with their friends. “It started with we kids wanting to watch the game,” Rao says, “but now it’s got to a point that most of us have moved on, but our parents still get together to watch the Super Bowl every year.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota businessman Adit Kalra recalls the first time his mother watched her first football game. It was very recently. “She does not understand the game, but enjoys its pace,” he says. “It is a perfect combination of both social and love for the sport.”

Interest in football did not come naturally for Anjali Rao Martin, who grew up in the U.S. “Growing up I personally didn't follow it during the season,” says the Newark, Delaware resident. But she does recall Super Bowl parties over the years, either hosted at her parents’ home or at some family friend’s home. She said she got more interested in the game at college, but it was only after she met her husband Greg Martin that she “actually started watching more games through the season.”

INVESTED IN THE GAMES

While many watch NFL for their love for the game, there are many like Rao or Monmouth Junction, New Jersey siblings Tyler, Kaelyn and Jai Patel, whose love for the sport goes beyond merely watching or following the games.

Rao played football through high school and college. Although his only connection to the sport now is watching the NFL and the fantasy leagues, Rao says the sport taught him team spirit, competitiveness and confidence. He also learned how to manage his time and how to be a good teammate – qualities which Rupal Patel says her kids Tyler, Kaelyn and Jai have learned over the years. Her girls play soccer at high school and college levels, and Jai recently made the switch to football.

Rupal Patel says it’s a tough sport. “There’s a high level of commitment that’s required from both the kids as well as the parents in order to reach a high level,” she says. The biggest challenge she says is maintaining good grades and keeping in par [physically] with most of the kids.

Rao experienced that first-hand. “As a child of immigrants there is always a focus on academics,” Rao says. Then there’s also the issue of physical build. “We are not as strongly built as them [the Americans].” Investing more than 15 years on their children’s sports careers, Rupal Patel says she and her husband Tushar Patel make sure their son follows a strict regimen including a high protein diet and regular workouts to strengthen his upper and lower body. But at the same note, the proud mother says football, which she says is a “true team sport,” has taught her kids to look after each other and learn team spirit.

DIE-HARD FANS

As families and friends plan to get together Sunday to watch the game, eat, drink and be merry, both New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles fans say “it’s crunch time.” Die-hard fans like Chhabria and Nya Patel say they prefer to watch the game with “fellow fans.” And then there are some traditions as well, Nya Patel says: The face-painting, the ceremonial football playing in the yard, the jerseys and dispersing positive energy. Had her team not made the cut, Nya Patel says she would have hosted a big party. But now that her team’s made, “we are not going anywhere.”

Rao Martin and Nya Patel might not be supporting the same team, but when it comes to traditions, both follow a similar path. Rao Martin says she and her family get their faces painted in Eagles’ colors before every game.

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The Touchdown: Indian-American millennials embrace American Football

Rohan Patel, a 6th grader at Crossroads Middle School South in Monmouth Junction, N.J., left, and his brother Viren Patel, a 5th grader at Indian Fields Elementary School in Dayton, N.J., play football for the South Brunswick township travel team.

POWER OF FOOTBALL

“Football is a very powerful game,” says Kalra, who was to attend the Feb. 4 Super Bowl in Minneapolis, a city where he grew up. A Minnesota Vikings fan, Kalra says the sport, with a team in nearly every big city, lets you identify with your team, your state. “It almost becomes an extension of you.”

Nya Patel can easily identify with what Kalra is saying. A Boston native who now lives in South Brunswick, New Jersey, Patel says she breathes, lives and dreams football, specifically with the Patriots. “Football has been an integral part of my life,” she told India Abroad. She got hooked after her brother started playing football. Her husband Mo Patel is a Miami Dolphins fan, but that hasn’t stopped Nya Patel’s loyalties. Her boys, both football players, are Patriots fans as well. “When we decided to move to New Jersey from Boston, I had to make sure that it’ll always be the Patriots,” Nya Patel said. “We can never be Giants fans.”

ECONOMICS OF THE GAME

Not only has the sport the power to assimilate you, Kalra says, American Football generates more revenue than basketball or baseball.

According to statistics portal Statistica, the NFL has been increasing its revenue every year from around $6 billion in 2004 to more than $12 billion in 2015.

In comparison, the revenue of Major League Baseball (MLB) was at $8.4 billion in 2015, while the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) generated around $6 billion and $4 billion, respectively, in annual revenue.

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The Touchdown: Indian-American millennials embrace American Football

Prabhav Somraj and his father Parankush Somraj at a New York Giants and Seattle Seahawks game at the Metlife Stadium  in East Rutherford, N,J., Oct. 22, 2017. 

Kalra says he’s completely invested in the game – literally. His company, 612 group, which brews beer, is the official beer supplier for all games at the U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings and venue of this year’s Super Bowl.

“It is a huge deal [for his company],” Kalra says. He is excited that “the entire world” has descended upon his city, “bringing a lot of business and boosting up sales and revenue.”

Although it’s work that will take him to the game, his love for the game will take over once the game starts, Kalra says.

He says his support will be with the Patriots: not because he loves them, but because the Eagles beat his home team, “depriving them of an eagerly-awaited change at the Super Bowl.”

BEHIND THE LENS

Whether he’s anchoring ESPN College Football on ABC on Saturdays or the annual Scripps Spelling Bee, Kevin Negandhi of SportsCenter is a household name. Another well-known name among NFL fans is Aditi Kinkhabwala, a Pittsburgh-based reporter for the NFL Network.

She is currently covering the Super Bowl-related events in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In addition to being a part of an Emmy-nominated SportsCenter, Negandhi, who joined the network in 2006, has hosted NFL Live, Baseball Tonight, Outside the Lines, College Football Live, NBA Tonight, the women’s NCAA basketball Final Four and the 2015 Special Olympics World Games.

He also has been a part of special projects that include co-hosting SportsCenter’s Veterans Day specials. In 2015, he was awarded the Team ESPN Disney Volunteer Commentator of the Year.

Prior to ESPN, Negandhi worked as a sports director at WWSB-TV in Sarasota, Florida and was a sports director for KTVO-TV in Kirksville, Missouri. Negandhi began his career as a college sports stringer at USA Today in 1995.

A native of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, he graduated from Temple University in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in communications. He is in Temple’s School of Media and Communications Hall of Fame. Kinkhabwala joined NFL Media in 2012 after two years at the Wall Street Journal.

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The Touchdown: Indian-American millennials embrace American Football

NFL Network reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala interviews Steelers’ wide receiver John Sherman "JuJu" Smith-Schuste.

At The Journal, Kinkhabwala was a New York Giants beat writer and NFL writer. She previously covered Rutgers college football and men's and women's basketball for The Record in New Jersey. She started her career at the San Antonio Express-News and also wrote a column for SI.com, her profile on NFL website says.

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The Touchdown: Indian-American millennials embrace American Football

ESPN anchor Kevin Negandhi.

As a NY Jets beat reporter for the New York Daily News, Manish Mehta has chronicled every grandiose Rex Ryan prediction one back page at a time, the Daily News says. Mehta’s breaking news, analysis pieces and columns have taken readers behind the curtain of the most entertaining teams in the NFL. Mehta, also a Jets Insider for NBC Sports and SNY-TV and an ESPN contributor, has been with the Daily News for three years.

INDIAN-AMERICANS IN THE NFL

While there are no Indian-American players currently in the NFL, there have been at least two players of Indian descent on team rosters: Brandon Chillar, a former linebacker for the Green Bay Packers and the St. Louis Rams, and Sanjay Beach, former NFL wide receiver who played for the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.

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The Touchdown: Indian-American millennials embrace American Football

Brandon Chillar of the Green Bay Packers.

Indiana Colts wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal was named the wide receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys in January. Lal has worked as an assistant in the NFL for 11 years, previously working with the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets and the Oakland Raiders.

Chillar, whose father is of Indian descent, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft. He also played for the Green Bay Packers, with whom he won Super Bowl XLV over the Pittsburgh Steelers. He played college football for UCLA. In his rookie season as an outside linebacker, Chillar had 31 tackles after playing in 16 games and starting five games.

On March 18, 2008, the Green Bay Packers signed Chillar to a two-year, $5.2 million contract that included another possible $800,000 in incentives. In 2008, he played in 34 games with 32 starts. On Dec. 14, 2009, Chillar was rewarded with another contract with the Packers. This time he signed a four-year, $22.65 million contract with $7 million guaranteed.

He was released by Green Bay in 2011, after which Chillar was named among primary investors and advisers for the Elite Football League of India . A year later, he joined his alma mater, Carlsbad High School in California, as the defensive coordinator. Beach played high school football at Chandler High School in Arizona and college football at Colorado State University.

He holds a bachelor's degree in communication. After suffering a knee injury, Beach was cut by the Dallas Cowboys in 1988. He spent the 1989 season with the New York Jets, where he played in only one game and had no receptions. He then signed on with the San Francisco 49ers in 1991 and caught four passes for 43 yards that first season.

After leaving for the Packers in free agency, he returned in 1993 and caught five passes for 59 yards. Beach attempted a comeback with the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe in 1995. After four years in the NFL, Beach retired, and went on to receive his master's degree in business administration from Colorado State. He is currently a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney in Westlake, Ohio.

Meanwhile, there are a few South Asians in management and broadcast positions in the NFL. Most noted among them are Paraag Marathe, chief operating officer of the San Francisco 49ers and Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, a Pakistani-American.

Marathe is in his 17th year with the 49ers, and second as chief strategy officer and executive vice president of football operations. He is also a managing partner in the investment entity created by the York Family. Before being named team president, Marathe spent several seasons as the team’s COO. Marathe also holds a leadership position on the football side. He is responsible for the 49ers compliance with the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement and works alongside general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan on all aspects of the club’s football operations.

Marathe, his wife, Jennifer, and daughter, Juniper, live in Los Altos, California. Khan bought the Jaguars in 2012 in a unanimous 32-0 vote by NFL owners in support of his purchase of the franchise. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Khan came from his native Pakistan in 1967 at the age of 16 to attend college. When he graduated in 1971, with a bachelor’s in industrial engineering, he became Flex-N-Gate’s engineering manager.

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The Touchdown: Indian-American millennials embrace American Football

Shahid Khan, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In 1978, Khan left Flex-N-Gate and with $13,000 in savings and a $50,000 loan from the Small Business Loan Corporation. He created the start-up Bumper Works, which revolutionized the industry through an innovative one-piece bumper design – a lightweight continuous piece of metal with no seams to rust or corrode. His innovative design is still considered the industry standard for all seamless steel bumpers worldwide, his website says.

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