A new kind of ‘beautiful game’: A tight end from West Africa and a strong safety from Europe take a chance on American football

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Christian Vieyra

SRJC football coach Lenny Wagner (center) under the Bailey Field lights with Swiss-born strong safety Nils Lehmann (left) and France-born Malian tight end Dodji Dahoue (right).

Christian Vieyra and Jonathan Cangson

When the Bear Cubs marched on to Bailey Field this fall, the roster consisted of many unique athletes — the usual California natives, as well as players from Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Washington. 

But the gridiron Bear Cubs’ melting pot of a locker room also included two international players, and in their respective countries a football is a spherical ball that you kick into a net, not a brown egg-shaped pigskin that gets passed, handed off and punted.

Dodji Dahoue

Bear Cubs wide receiver Reese Bickart was working at a safety monitor stand outside of Kunde hall when he spotted Dodji Dahoue leaving a math class. “This dude is hella tall,” Bickart thought as he watched the 6-foot-10-inch Dahoue tower over his classmates. 

Bickart approached Dahoue. “I asked him if he plays basketball first,” he said, and then asked, “Have you ever played football?” 

Dahoue told Bickart he’d consider it. He had never been part of a team sport and barely knew anything about football; he had grown up mostly in the West African country of Mali, where soccer reigns supreme. Bickart invited Dahoue to workout with the team and see if he liked it.

“We connected on Instagram and I gave him the coach’s contact information. He came out the next week and then he’s been here ever since,” Bickhart said. 

Dahoue had contemplated the offer for about a week before he emailed head coach Lenny Wagner. His hesitation was understandable, given his football background was non-existent.

“I didn’t know anything about football, but then I met Reese and he told me to come by and I was like, ‘All right might as well,’” he said. “Then I stayed, and the more I came the more I liked it.” 

Early on in the season, Dahoue could not properly catch a football. “He was always jacking up his fingers trying to catch a ball,” Wagner noted.

Although Dahoue redshirted, which is when a player is ineligible to play for a year to develop their skills and extend their college career, his improvements as a tight end have been unreal, Wagner said. “He’s put on 20 pounds of muscle since January. His ceiling is obviously really really high. No pun intended.”

By season’s end, Wagner said every coach considered Dahoue to be the most improved player.

“I’ve heard that a lot because I never used to be athletic, so I’ve seen some progress and coaches have told me that I’ve made some progress,” Dahoue said. 

“His threshold was so low to start with,” Wagner said. “It shot up and it’s really fun to watch because now he’s confident, he walks around, he’s one of the guys.”

Adapting to the United States hasn’t been as difficult as expected for Dahoue, whose first language is English. Born in France, he moved to the Washington D.C. area a couple months after he was born. After living in the states for five years, his family moved to Mali, where he became fluent in French, the country’s official language. He didn’t return to the United States until the fall of 2021. 

Dahoue, a mechanical engineering major, only came to Santa Rosa because he “just looked online for the best JC, and this one [SRJC] popped up first.” He decided he wanted to study at a community college in California because his original goal was to transfer into UC Berkeley, and SRJC has a high transfer rate. 

Little did he know his future goals would include becoming a starter next season, catching touchdowns, making blocks for running backs and modeling his game after 6-foot-7 Indianapolis Colts tight end Jelani Woods, “I look up to him because we are the same physique. That’s my goal. That’s where I want to be,” Dahoue said. 

Dahoue definitely has his work cut out for him. “He needs to get beefier if he’s gonna play tight end,” Wagner said. “He’s gonna have to move linebackers and defensive ends, so I think his challenges are gonna be his height in a weird way. In football you gotta get leverage so when you’re 6-foot-10, you gotta put your feet way [back] to get leverage.”

Dahoue believes the support around him will help him achieve his goals. He specifically noted defensive coordinator Dante DePaolo’s weight room speeches. “He’s just really inspiring and wants you to get better,” Dahoue said. 

Offensive coordinator Vic Amick’s constant coaching has also been instrumental to Dahoue’s development. “He’s been just watching me, telling me what to do, how to get better at receiver and tight end.”

Coach Wagner has already been scheming creative ways to use Dahoue’s height. “Have you ever seen somebody on a long field goal put a really tall person right at the crossbar and just jump up and swat the ball? I’ve never seen that,” he said emphatically. “Like Manute Bol style. I think that might get us on ESPN.”

However Dahoue’s Bear Cubs career turns out, Wagner knows, “The sky’s the limit.”

Nils Lehmann

Switzerland is known for its natural beauty and artisan cheeses and chocolates. It’s not known for producing talented American football players. But freshman Nils Lehmann is playing at the junior college level despite not being from America and only picking up the sport six years ago. 

Donning jersey No. 38 and playing strong safety for the Bear Cubs, Lehmann was raised in Steffisburg, Switzerland, where he lived until just last year. He played soccer for six years before he switched to American football, where he played exceptionally well on the Thun Tigers, the closest American football club to him, from 2016 to 2021. Last year, his coach asked him if he wanted to play football in the U.S. because of his talent. Lehmann messaged SRJC football head coach Leonard Wagner, who replied with immediate interest.

Lehmann had been to the United States multiple times and attributed that as the reason the culture shock didn’t bother him much. He did note that playing football itself is much different in his home country because American players tend to be much more intense and competitive. “It used to be more like a hobby,” he said. Lehmann also said playing on the team helped him make friends and feel more comfortable in Santa Rosa. 

Lehmann already completed his education in Switzerland, so his primary reason for attending SRJC is for football not academics. “I want to focus on football and get better. When I go back to Switzerland, I want to be one of the best players in Europe,” he said.

Although American football is not very popular outside of the U.S., Lehmann said it’s slowly gaining attention, but soccer is still the main sport worldwide. 

Wagner said Lehmann has improved greatly this season. ”The game where he’s from doesn’t usually end up playing at the speed we’re accustomed to here in America, where a lot of kids are groomed their whole life to play,” Wagner said. “They were further behind, so when he got here, there was a lot of catching up to do. But now he’s one of the guys; he spends every day simulating the best players from the teams we’re gonna play, and he does a great job doing it.”

When coaching international players on his team, Wagner has noticed one big difference. “Athletes from other countries, when they come here, more than one of them have said, ‘You guys take this so seriously, like where we’re from, we just play to have a good time. You guys are trying to kill each other for real,’’’ he said. “So they’re sometimes shocked when the coaches are yelling at them or they take a rough hit in a practice play. But in a way it’s fun to see; it balances out some of our guys who could learn something from them.”

Santa Rosa Junior College tight end Dodji Dahoue catches a bullet pass during practice on Oct. 20. (Tony Moeckel)