In an attempt to improve my understanding of American Football, I began playing with a minor league team, the New Jersey Spartans. What follows is how a sports nut from County Donegal ended up not only learning football but also some new social etiquette on the streets of Newark.
There is a distinct pop in the distance, most probably a car backfiring, but in this part of town anything is possible. Bouquets of flowers and small stuffed animals marked all too many street corners on the drive here. Where I am from such displays are to commemorate a loved one lost through a traffic accident. In this urban sprawl, it dawned on me that these deaths may be more sinister. Predictably, a fog came down. "Let's get out of here fellas'. Cat's have been shooting each other recently and I aint about to become a statistic." Evidently there is a gangland war heating up in Newark, NJ and we were standing in the wrong part of town.
How is it that an Irish boy is standing in the wrong end of "Brick City" wondering if his teammates were pulling his leg about the shootings?
The New Jersey Spartans was founded in 2007, by husband and wife owners Kevin and Charmaine Moss. Both were in the midst of successful professional careers with a young family to boot. Despite this, both are Newark born and bred and they believed in trying to give back to their community. In a step of untold courage they quit their jobs and began a semi-pro football team.
Semi-pro or minor league football, unlike it's baseball and hockey equivalents, does not get much focus. Most of the teams are made up of guys who simply want an outlet for their aggression. While this is true of the majority of the players on the Spartans' roster, there is also an element of becoming a vehicle to keep these young men off the streets. The ages range from 19 to 30. Too old to still have the structures of the school system yet still young and impressionable enough to get sucked into trouble. Coach Moss had a hard and fast rule – get into trouble with the law and you no longer played for the team.
My ambition was simple, I wanted to learn as much about American Football as possible. The best way to learn a sport is to play it, so undeterred by my lack of skill, knowledge or physical compatibility I confidently assured head coach Moss that I could punt the ball 60 yards. Here was my logic: at another time I'd convinced myself I could play Aussie Rules. So after similarly bulls***ing my way onto the University Blacks Third Team I actually played half the regular season and a couple of post-season games. At training I was able – abetted by a strong breeze – to punt the ball 45 yards. Using this as a standard bear, I decided that with a lighter ball I could manage 55. Accounting for the adage to never let the truth get in the way of a good story I went for 60 yards.
The trial began with punting. Initially I used the Australian Rules drop-punt, essentially kicking opposite the lacing before moving onto the American football style where you hold the ball flat out in front of you and kick the belly. This makes the ball go much higher and further although you massively compromise on control and direction. Despite my boast of 60 yards, I could kick it 50 yards, which was respectable, but in the words of Coach Moss "fairly unimpressive." Next we went to kicking field goals, a technique at which I've no experience.
After successful attempts at the 10, 20 and 30 yard line they lined me up at the 35 (in a strange scenario that essentially sums up the quirks of American Football , this equates to a 42 yard field goal). When I pinged that over, a crowd started to gather. I'd seen this range missed by NFL players so figured I was doing something right. That turned out to be my peak, but I had done enough to make the roster.
Training began the following week and it was relentless. These guys practice five times a week for roughly four hours at a time. Video sessions on a Monday followed by on the field work Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday with a game on a Saturday. The league we played in stretched from Massachusetts to Delaware, so it made for some lengthy bus rides. Despite this commitment, practice was entirely enjoyable, the more immersed with the group I got, the more they accepted me.
Crucially, the more I impressed at practice the more the guys saw me as another teammate. Having played Gaelic Football and soccer growing up, I am quite athletic and have been blessed with a turn of pace. Athleticism and kicking do not usually go together. As such, it was great enjoyment for the coaches when I beat out the skilled position players in a race. It got to the stage when a new player turned up to play for the team, Coach Moss would call me over and get me to race them. The new players would see the skinniest, whitest player on the team and ask Coach Moss was he joking or did he actually want them to race the kicker. Needless to say, this got my competitive juices going and I went the season undefeated in sprints! I had proven to my teammates and Coach Moss I had the skills necessary to play.