Kevin Manyara: From Kenya to the football field in America
While Kenya evokes thoughts of world class marathon runners, Princeton University’s Kevin Manyara is the exception, instead opting for American football.
Growing up in Eldoret, a town known for internationally renowned long-distance runners in the Rift Valley Province of western Kenya, Manyara lived with his mother and father.
He poured his efforts into academics while attending the highly regarded Kapsabet Boys High School about 25 miles from Eldoret, working his way to head boy, similar to being valedictorian.
“Being a head boy in my school was an awesome experience where I got to learn a lot by interacting with both teachers and students at a closer level,” the poised and reserved 21-year-old said. “I got to develop leadership skills that I think will be helpful for the rest of my life.”
Despite hailing from running-focused Eldoret, Manyara was interested in basketball, not track. He walked onto the high school team his second day of freshman year and was captain as a senior.
It was on the track, though, where Manyara, through the Kenya Scholar Athlete Project (KenSAP), found his ticket to the United States.
KenSAP began as an informal venture in 2004 by friends John Manners, who had previously lived in western Kenya, and Dr. Mike Boit, a professor at Nairobi’s Kenyatta University. They hoped to send Kalenjin kids — an ethnic group in the Rift Valley — to Ivy League caliber schools for the first time.
Although Manners admitted he and Boit possessed little admissions expertise, the first group sent five of the six kids chosen for the program to U.S. schools, including three to Harvard.
“At that point we realized this was not going to be a one-off,” Manners said. “We were going to have to keep this up because obviously we’ve got something here. It turned out what we had was … we were offering these colleges a kind of applicant they weren’t otherwise seeing for the most part.”
The mission for KenSAP, headquartered in Montclair, broadened to help Kenyans gain admission into top-level U.S. colleges, identifying highly achieving students by test scores then preparing them for entrance exams and applications. KenSAP takes 12-14 kids each year and has placed 117 since its founding, with the hope some return to give back.
While the “scholar” aspect includes national exams and grades, the “athletic” aspect is based on a 1,500-meter run. If grades aren’t enough, then raw running ability supplements.
When Manyara was identified as a KenSAP candidate, he trained, feeling others had an edge in grades. He timed well and was admitted, although Manners said his academic credentials were enough alone.
Manyara was accepted into Princeton before the 2012-13 year to major in operations research and financial engineering. He’d be the first in his immediate family to go to America.
Although running helped Manyara gain entrance, he returned to basketball at Princeton, playing intramurals with his sights set on any varsity team, he said. Like a call being answered, a friend one day told him sprint football was recruiting.
Sprint football, a varsity sport at Princeton, requires players to weigh 172 pounds or less, while maintaining at least five percent body fat to ensure safe weight-cutting. Princeton is a Collegiate Sprint Football League (CSFL) member, founded in 1934 and boasting eight members.
Manyara jumped on the opportunity to learn a new sport, especially a varsity sport with a former NFL Pro-Bowler and Super Bowl champion, Sean Morey, as head coach. And the opportunity to help Princeton to its first win since 2005.
While the new sport has been challenging, Manyara feels coaches have been patient throughout his learning process. Manners said Manyara is KenSAP’s first football player. Manyara, a wideout and defensive back, recorded a career-high three tackles in a loss at Mansfield this season.
“It’s been great learning a new sport completely from scratch, and ending up having a lot of play-time with important roles in the team,” Manyara said. “I can’t state enough the camaraderie that I have built with my teammates.”
Like most student-athletes, though, Manyara misses the food, friends and family back home, especially in the heat of mid-terms. But Kevin Manyara is not the average student-athlete, going from Kenya to the football field.