RIO DE JANEIRO – At first, the Green Bay Packers linebacker hesitated.
"It's hard, man," said Sam Barrington. "It's hard. I haven't come to a decision yet."
After a few minutes talking about it, though, his true colors emerged.
"Now that I really think about it," he said with a laugh, "I'm going for Ghana."
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There is a very small contingent of NFL players with Ghana roots, but those roots are strong. And although Barrington was born in the U.S. and loves the U.S., well, Monday will bring out the Black Stars fan in him. Barrington and his dad actually located tickets to Monday's USA v. Ghana match in Brazil, and they planned to fly down on Father's Day, but then he found out he had something more important to do on Monday: football practice.
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"We actually had tickets and were scheduled to go," Barrington said, "but OTAs got pushed a week back.
"It's OK, it's for a good reason."
Then: "I don't want to get into it, because I'll get sad."
Carolina Panthers' offensive guard Edmund Kugbila has some emotions about Monday's game as well, but sadness does not apply. The mammoth blocker plans to go to an Irish pub in Charlotte with his Ghana jersey on.
He also plans to talk smack.
"The last two World Cups, Ghana put the USA out," Kugbila said gleefully by phone on Friday. "I don't see revenge happening. Ghana is too fast and strong."
Another NFL player in the Ghana camp is Lions' pass rusher Ziggy Ansah. He's been predicting a Ghana win for months. The three of them met for the first time at the NFL Rookie Symposium last summer, and they've kept in touch since. Ansah and Kugbila were born in Accra, Ghana, while Barrington was born in the U.S., but it's impossible not to sense the pride in all three. In fact, Barrington's family doesn't even call him "Sam." He was born on a Friday, so he's called "Kofi," or "Friday-born." Sam, his dad, is known as "Big Sam," but "Little Sam" is always called Kofi.
Big Sam moved to the States when he was 18, and was a little surprised when Kofi didn't end up as a soccer player.
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"That was the game I wanted him to play," he said Friday. "He chose football."
Barrington became a star at Jacksonville's Terry Parker High School, then went on to USF and got drafted last summer. The 2013 wave of Ghana players into the NFL drew a lot of excitement back in the homeland. Nigerians have been sending players to the NFL for a while – Christian Okoye being the most beloved – but Ghana is known for only one sport.
"Soccer is really, really big," said Big Sam. "We don't have anything else. Soccer is everything. In Kenya and east Africa they have track. In West Africa, we have soccer."
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Kugbila played soccer as a little boy in Accra, though not with the kind of speed the Black Stars have. "I was a striker," he said. "I just had a foot." Then he moved to the U.S. to follow his mom, who had left a couple years prior and moved from Kansas to Georgia because she had a dream telling her to do so. Kugbila didn't quite get American football at first.
"I didn't really understand the game," he said. "'Why are we hitting each other?' Now I can't wait to get back at it."
Barrington, meanwhile, loved football from a young age, and then developed a deeper love for Ghana when he visited the motherland with his parents. The passion for soccer was overwhelming.
"I've driven by stores there, and the manager might stick a TV on milk crates," he said. "When they make a goal, they all scream and talk crazy about it. Are we crazy like that here? Maybe not."
It's possible these three will build a trend in the NFL. Many with Nigerian roots have followed Okoye's lead and starred – including Osi Umenyiora, Brian Orakpo and Nnamdi Asomugha.
For now, though, there's no question which sport is king in Ghana. And in the minds of these three NFL players, there's no question who will win on Monday.
Anyone who disagrees can take it up with the 6-foot-4, 325-pound guy in the Irish pub.
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