How Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and LB Brian Asamoah have bonded over shared Ghanaian heritage

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and third-round pick Brian Asamoah shared a moment during rookie mini-camp in May, celebrating their Ghanaian heritage. Courtesy: Minnesota Vikings

EAGAN, MINN. -- KWESI Adofo-Mensah walked off the field in mid-May, deep in thought. He had just observed the first rookie minicamp of his tenure as Minnesota Vikings general manager and didn't notice the player hurrying to get his attention. Eventually, Adofo-Mensah whirled to find linebacker Brian Asamoah, a third-round draft pick who had been waiting months for the moment.

Speaking in Twi, a language predominant in Ghana, Asamoah asked Adofo-Mensah how he was doing.

The pair embraced, an emotional moment between two men whose connection in Minnesota is a deeply meaningful opportunity to share their heritage. Both are first-generation Americans whose parents emigrated from Ghana, a west African country of 31 million people that accounts for less than 1% of players on NFL rosters, according to league data.

"I feel like we are family," Asamoah said. "You know what the stigma is: 'Oh you're not really supposed to look at your GM.' There's not really a lot of relationships with GMs and players.

“Every time I see him in the hall, we stop and talk for five minutes to see how life is going for each other. It's different. When I say we are family, I really feel like it's like someone in my family has been called into a higher staff, and I'm here to represent him, and obviously make the most of my opportunity."

THE VIKINGS HIRED Adofo-Mensah in January, drawing immediate attention from the Ghanaian community in the United States. The Ghana embassy in Washington, D.C., posted a congratulatory video on its Facebook page. Asamoah, who had completed his final season at Oklahoma and was preparing for the draft, took to social media to celebrate.

"You don't see many general managers with a name like his," Asamoah said. "That was huge, him becoming a GM. First for being Black, and second from being Ghanaian. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this would be so cool if I played for him.’ So I put that in the back of my head a long time ago."

Asamoah hoped to meet with Adofo-Mensah at the NFL scouting combine during the first week of March, but their schedules did not match. At Oklahoma's pro day in March, Asamoah met with Vikings director of college scouting Mike Sholiton.

"The first thing he said to me," Sholiton said, "was ... how much he was looking forward to meeting Kwesi."

Asamoah didn't know it at the time, but Adofo-Mensah was already well aware of him as a prospect. During early draft meetings, senior vice president of player personnel Ryan Grigson pointed out Asamoah's similarities with Cleveland Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, another player with Ghanaian heritage who was named to several All-Rookie teams in 2021. Both Grigson and Adofo-Mensah were part of the Browns' personnel department at the time.

"You say Ghana, and you also talk about a player that I – and everyone else in Cleveland – was in love with in that draft, and now I'm intrigued," Adofo-Mensah said, recalling draft meetings this year. "Sometimes you put people on your watch list, and [Asamoah] was the player I added.

“Talk about something that was meant to be. I get to be in this position, and one of the first players I drafted would be of Ghanaian descent, and also remind me of a player that we just had drafted. So I'll always remember that night."

It was clearly on his mind as the Vikings turned in their draft card. When he got Asamoah on the phone, Adofo-Mensah said: "You know this one hits different, right? You ever think you would be called by a guy named Kwesi for your NFL dream?"

Asamoah responded: "From one Ghanaian to another Ghanaian, man, let's do it."

ADOFO-MENSAH'S PARENTS EMIGRATED from Ghana to New Jersey in 1969, 12 years before he was born. They spoke a sub-dialect known as Fonti, and he lived in the dual world of preserving heritage at home while learning a new culture at school and in sports.

By the time he reached college at Princeton, Adofo-Mensah said he had developed a "fierce pride" in his Ghanaian lineage. Today, he wears a necklace with a Ghanaian coin and carries beads that represent the Ghanaian flag.

"I've always said it's not a choice," he said. "The second your name is Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, and you have skin like mine, that is who you are. I've always embraced it. When I was in middle school and high school, you have those teenage dynamics where you're just trying to fit in and people say your name wrong and all those things, and then something happens in college when you go and you're around all these smart people who are open to new ideas. Something gets turned around, and you're just so proud.

"You're like, 'Yeah, I'm different, but this is how I'm different, and all these people appreciate it.' ... [The necklace and beads] are always reminding myself of my culture. There was a time in my life when I didn't appreciate it. It's almost like to balance the fact that there are times when you're just trying to fit in, and not understanding that you can be fiercely proud of what makes you unique."

Asamoah said his parents and three older brothers arrived in Ohio shortly before he was born in 2000. As part of a family tradition, he returned to Ghana at age 10. He spent a year there, living with an uncle and speaking Twi to learn the country’s languages and culture first-hand.

Asamoah hopes to visit Ghana next summer as part of the NFL's outreach to the African continent. The United Nations recently projected that more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 will take place in sub-Saharan Africa, prompting a flood of business interest -- including pro sports.

Damani Leech, the chief operating officer of NFL International, said the league has more than 100 active players (based on 2021 rosters) who were either born in Africa or have at least one parent who was. The NFL classifies Africa as an "emerging market," and last month, Leech led a contingent of 30 people -- including the Browns' Owusu-Koramoah, among seven active and retired players -- to Ghana on a weeklong trip to promote the league.

"It's a strategy of player-driven marketing," Leech said, "and a way to connect people and say, 'You may not understand this game. You didn't grow up playing it. But there's someone from your country, someone with your last name, that is playing in the NFL.' ... We think it's incredibly important and also provides us with a distinct advantage in Africa that we've got so many players who are in our league who were either born there or first generation Africans. It allows us to create really authentic connections with our players and the fans there in ways that we aren't able to do in a lot of other markets."

AT A RELATIVELY light 225 pounds for a linebacker, Asamoah isn't built to fill gaps at the line of scrimmage. But his college tape shows him sprinting from sideline to sideline to stop ball carriers, and his skill set is ripe for creative coaches to find a productive role on defense as a rookie, in addition to a heavy dose of special teams.

So went Adofo-Mensah's vision and purpose for drafting Asamoah with the second pick of the third round. In an interview this summer, Adofo-Mensah made clear the decision was based on football projections, not sentiment.

"I've got to make sure that while we do have that link together, I love everybody in that draft class," he said. "I love all of our players. I genuinely mean that."

The entire episode, however, has helped Adofo-Mensah realize the power of his representation. A year ago, he was a relatively unknown analytics expert with the Browns. "Just some random kid who knew a little bit about math," he said. Now he is on the other end of life-changing phone calls.

"These things are hard," he said, "and sometimes, it's not like a big push, but that little push, that says 'Hey, that guy can do it, he's not any different than me. He grew up like me. If he can figure it out, I can figure it out.' I think that stuff does really matter on the margins. It's not binary, but I do think that stuff matters on the margins. Maybe just to have some young kid that might not be the best on the field but it's, 'Hey, I love football, maybe I'll go be a GM.'

"Winning a Super Bowl is chief among my goals, but if I could help anybody achieve their dreams or even use that as impetus to do something else, that would be my greatest joy."