KEI KAMARA spent the duration of our interview observing a cricket ball and passing it between his hands.
In many ways, it is a fitting metaphor for his current situation. Here is a footballer who has been obsessed with all things England since he moved to the United States of America in 2000, and now, at the age of 29, he is grasping his opportunity, at Middlesbrough, with both hands.
His route to a permanent contract in England has not been a straightforward journey by anybody’s standards.
Born in Sierra Leone, Kamara saw his country torn apart by civil war before leaving for the USA at the age of 16, where he developed his love of football - or soccer - fell in love with Chelsea and dreamed of one day making it in the English game. Proving himself in Major League Soccer with Columbus Crew then Kansas City, Kamara spent ten games on loan at Norwich last season, returning to Kansas before Middlesbrough, and Tony Mowbray, came calling.
Five games into his Boro career, and Kamara has finally been able to take a breath. He admits he has not had the chance to play the practical jokes which characterised his time at Kansas, but is proud to have finally made it to England.
“I’ve always wanted to come here,” admitted Kamara, who found his love for English football through the constant coverage of the games in America, and who satisfied his hunger at a young age by taking part in training programmes in England organised by adidas. “Yeah, this isn’t the Premier League, but I wanted to play in England. I’ll be here for a couple of years, that’s to push myself. I’m not that young anymore, but I want to push myself to see where it will take me.
“I’ve supported England since I was a kid. People are like ‘they’re never going to win anything,’ but I’m like ‘yeah, but maybe next year, maybe next year.’ It’s frustrating. I’m 29 and I still think they might win something someday.
“I’ve had more opportunities to watch it, it’s one of the hardest leagues in the world to get into. If you want to compete with the best, that’s where you put yourself.
“My time at Norwich gave me a taste of something I’d seen for years and years of watching television, watching the Premier League. I’ve been around here for a few years before, I just wanted to live here and play here. Being able to say I can actually live in England for the next couple of years, it’s a good feeling.”
Mentioning Kamara to anyone at his new club usually results in a raised eyebrow and an occasional “he’s a character”, and that is the best way to describe him. But underneath that amiable exterior is a serious streak which has been moulded by the things he saw growing up.
Kamara saw death and destruction growing up in Kenema, Sierra Leone’s third largest city, as civil war broke out in 1991. It was ongoing when Kamara left for America under a refugee programme in 2000.
“I was 16 when I left, I was there my whole life,” explained Kamara. “I saw everything that went on there, and it was tough. Today, I’m so blessed to have got out of it.
“Things that I went through made me stronger, mentally and physically, able to overcome a lot of things that have gone on.
“For me, people I’ve met throughout my life, I’m not telling my story for them to feel bad for me, I’m telling them so they can learn that you can be in a worse situation than what they are in.”
After making a name for himself for Orange County Blue Stars, Kamara played for Columbus Crew, San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo before joining Kansas City in 2009, where he scored 38 times before his move to Middlesbrough this season.
Kamara, who is engaged to Kristin Bock, a touchline reporter for Kansas City’s TV channel, admits he is missing home, and the MLS, but could not turn down the opportunity to move to England.
“It’s a place who made me who I am,” said Kamara of the MLS. I loved every year I played in that league and I still follow it. My guys from the locker room, I miss it, but at the same time I was ready to move on and give myself a new challenge.”
On his long-distance relationship, he added: “We Facetime, we’re texting every minute, this isn’t the first time. She’s used to it now, I do travel when I’m with the national team, I’ve been through Europe over and over.
“She works in football so she understands. She’s missing me as she does sideline reporting for the club and she is missing being able to interview me. She’s strong, she knows.”
Kamara, who has nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter, has settled in well to life in England, sharing a house with Boro right-back Justin Hoyte, while introducing his new roommate to basketball.
“I’m bunking at Hoytey’s at the moment,” Kamara said. “He’s got me cleaning the house, cooking for him, that’s the only way he can keep me around. It’s great for him to do that.
“I talked to Thierry Henry and told him that one of the first youth players he looked after at Arsenal is taking care of me right now, so he says that’s good, it’s sharing the same good karma.
“I’ve been able to explore the area, I’m going out to Newcastle, I’ve been around. England’s England. It’s what I expected. There’s not much around you but it can be a family-oriented place. I love my dog, I see a lot of dogs around here so I can’t wait to have my dog over here.”
While at Kansas, Kamara invited fans of the club to come down and have some food with him from the Mexican takeaway Chipotle, with the striker footing the bill. And he revealed it is something he’d like to repeat on Teesside - but with the area’s local delicacy.
“I can’t wait for a Parmo,” said Kamara, shrugging when he was told a standard chicken Parmesan contains the daily recommended calorie intake. “It’s really about settling down a bit and getting the team going on the path we want to go, and I definitely want to go and sit down with a few Middlesbrough people so they can tell me about the Parmo as I have one with them. I haven’t heard any players talking about it so I want to have one with the locals.”
And the pranks? Custard pies and King Kong costumes have played their part as Kamara made a name for himself with YouTube videos on unsuspecting teammates at Kansas. Again, Kamara insisted that now was not the right time for such hijinks at Rockliffe Park, not while Middlesbrough find themselves at the wrong end of the Championship.
He said: “I can’t really do as much right now, it’s been really hectic coming over, going to Africa, coming back and playing a lot of games, twice a week, it’s been hectic.
“They’ve watched a few of my videos, so they know what to expect. It’s about me doing something for a laugh, making them more comfortable.”
Since his first call-up in 2008, Kamara has made 15 appearances for Sierra Leone’s national team, and has been working hard to develop his Heart Shape Hands Foundation - named after his goal celebration, long before Gareth Bale trademarked it - which aims to give youngsters a better start in life by paying school fees. In 2012, he was bestowed with the award of Humanitarian of the Year by the MLS.
“I’ve been giving back to my country for years and years,” said Kamara. “I’m working with a programme called Schools for Salone, building schools in villages, we’ve raised 50% of costs for orphanages and that’s what my focus is on right now.
“When they approached me to help build this orphanage, I was scared thinking ‘I don’t have that much money’ but it’s the people that love you that will help, your fans, people who follow you.
“Football has given me a life to become Kei Kamara and be noticed where I go.
“If I can use this opportunity to give back to where I came from, then it’s something good. If it gives hope to two kids out of a million, it’s a good thing.”