NFL: My First Sporting Love
There was a time during the early 1980s when, for a period lasting perhaps only two or three terms, football was supplanted entirely in my school playground by a sport that had previously been alien to us. Gridiron had landed. America’s ‘version’ of the game was enjoying it’s first wave of sustained popularity on these shores; and thanks to Channel 4’s pioneering coverage we briefly ditched our local heroes and decided instead that we wanted to be John Riggins or Joe Theismann.
On the schoolyard asphalt we played touch football, and - wisely I think - that was as far as my interest in American Football as a participation sport would ever go. As a spectacle, however, the appeal remains strong – strong enough to part with seventy quid to sit beneath the Sunday night lights and take in the NFL’s now annual Wembley showdown, at least.
On the schoolyard asphalt we played touch football, and - wisely I think - that was as far as my interest in American Football as a participation sport would ever go.
The tailgate party having been wisely avoided, pre-match ‘entertainment’ began with Buffalo’s Goo Goo Dolls, who kept things mercifully brief – presumably due to a lack of recognisable hits. They soon gave way to suitably earnest renditions of both anthems from Harlem tenor Noah Stewart and our own Katherine Jenkins. By this point the pitch had been occupied by an army of cheerleaders, an army of army personnel, 106 helmeted football players, innumerable coaching staff, team officials, water boys and ball boys, various costumed mascots, and more sinister men in suits than were surely necessary at a Sunday night football game.
Those hoping to see Rio Ferdinand take part in the coin toss ceremony, as had been rumoured, were left disappointed. If he was present to watch the Glazer family’s other franchise, he wisely chose not to venture over the touchline following the earlier humiliation of the more celebrated asset on the Glazer portfolio. Perhaps he had elected to repair to his Cheshire mansion instead, there to place his head in the nearest oven.
Kick off came and went and as the game unfolded, the eye struggled at times to make sense of the action from behind the goal line. With each snap, the helmets clash and the primal struggle for possession of the football begins. The ‘pit’ – the area along the line of scrimmage – is clearly no place to be unless you are a lineman weighing in at a bare minimum of 270 pounds. Players in other positions will spend whole careers avoiding the ‘pit’, and with good reason. Cumulative head collisions (and you can expect hundreds in a season) are now known to contribute to long-term brain degeneration in the form of dementia pugilistica, or punch-drunk syndrome. As for physical trauma, an unfortunate kicker or wide receiver drawn into skirmishes with the big hitters might prefer the odds of walking away unscathed from a car crash. Little wonder the left tackle is often the often the highest paid player on the team roster, sometimes second only to the highly valuable quarterback with whose protection he is charged.
This is violence played out in public, and at times the running plays resemble nothing more than the primitive forms of football you imagine were played out between rival villages in medieval England. However, what can look like chaos as a play unfolds is in fact the manifestation of probably the most complex tactical planning known in team sport. If the average NFL player spent precious little time sweating over his books at college (though in fairness, there’s more study involved in a football scholarship than is commonly thought), then he more than makes up for it when he turns pro. Summer training camps bring with them long evening study sessions when the daily training is done – it’s the only way a player can hope to memorise the seemingly endless codified play variations he will be expected to replicate in the heat of battle.
It’s partly this mind-boggling tactical complexity that lends the sport its fascination. Each and every player’s job is highly specific and consequently the physical disparity to be seen among them is striking. Linemen resemble Sumo wrestlers squeezed into astronaut’s suits as they crouch down, potbellies scraping the turf as they wait to lurch forward. A quarterback, probably the closest thing to a bona fide superhero in sport, is perhaps the one true all-round athlete on show. The receivers he feeds will be built for the sprint, and the punters and field goal kickers can seem gangly and somehow awkward in comparison, as they happily exploit their own particular freakish gifts for a decade or sometimes even two.
This is violence played out in public, and at times the running plays resemble nothing more than the primitive forms of football you imagine were played out between rival villages in medieval England.
With no opportunity to switch channels or fast forward through the punditry as one might at home, the live game can certainly drag. It’s strange to witness eleven Chicago Bears and eleven Buccaneers stand patiently for minutes on end in their field positions as they wait for the signal that tells them the ads back home are done and they can finally get on with the next play. But there is at least plenty to occupy the curious mind between plays. If the sight of the Buccaneer cheerleaders showing off their exemplary dental work to the strains of The Guess Who’s American Woman didn’t satiate the basest and most American instincts of the crowd, then at least the sight of the Bears mascot attempting to dry hump them will have amused.
And if that didn’t do it for you, then the very British sight of a streaker (albeit a bald, beer-bellied streaker in jeans) must have warmed the heart. Despite their high-fives, the NFL’s finest were visibly underwhelmed by this particular local custom but refrained from tackling him nonetheless, leaving that task to the men in suits. Presumably primed for such an eventuality, they duly took their man out, one of them furiously fisting the air in triumph as he did so – a frustrated defensive guard, no doubt.
Thanks to the Buccaneers’ two-touchdown rally in the fourth, the crowd got their moneys worth and saw the game stay alive right up to the last 37 seconds when the Bears intercepted to spoil the party, thus ensuring they ran out 24-18 winners. The NFL circus now hops back home over the pond, leaving us to look forward to the prospect of more than one competitive game over here next season. Indeed the loose talk is of a London based franchise – yes it’s a big idea, but they know how to think big in the NFL…
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