Part 2 in Seamus McDaid's series on his journey from Donegal to a Newark, NJ football team. Read Part 1 here.
We all know the feeling. Somebody has just called your bluff. Bollox why’d I go all in on a pair of fours? Not only will you have to suffer the shame of bowing out of the game, you’ll be forced to show to the table – and by extension – the world, that you can write plenty of checks, but when it comes to cashing them you’re about as secure as an Irish banking institution. The aura you so confidently wore a mere few minutes before has evaporated as quickly as the sweat patches formed under your arms. It all seemed so easy as you pushed the green chips to the middle of the table. Surely nobody will call me? I’ll re-raise just to be safe.......Soon enough you’ve the rent money on the table and you’re pricing how much food will cost you for the rest of the week. In the immortal words of Mick McCarthy – your "backside's on the bacon slicer."
In the bigger, more fluid game of poker, that is American Football, I’d long since re-mortgaged the house with boasts of 50 yard field goals. Within the blink of an eye, Round 1 arrived and my bravado would actually be tested. Coach Ramos was my kicking coach and special teams coordinator and the man responsible for getting me to that point. Without his unwavering commitment and belief in me I would have never made it that far.
His openness to me was totally at odds to the Newark welcome I had envisaged in my head. He would take me at any hour of the day to practice my kicking and would pick me up from the train station after my commute from the Bronx. What struck me most about the organization was how similar to the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland it was. As a teenager, I knew of at least three people in my town who I could call who would open up the field and help me practice my Gaelic game skills. At its basis this is the soul of the GAA, selfless commitment and pride in your locality and to the youngsters in your locality.
If ever an area lacked pride in its' locality it's Newark. Coach Moss is the sort of person who would have excelled in the GAA – a man so passionate about his area and his sport that he self-funded the Spartans and dedicates his life to the cause. On top of this, he tries his hardest to find his players work and, as an organization, he insisted we help out locally.
We visited schools, packed food at a homeless shelter, ran a free kids camp, all in the effort of growing a community spirit. The GAA in New York may be a vibrant organization, but in reality this felt closer to the GAA at home.
Predictably in my first game we had to kick off first, meaning I was called straight into the fray. Tentatively I placed the ball on the 35 yard line and awaited a whistle. I stepped back 10 yards, took a deep breath and let rip. Seconds later the ball was stopped at their 35 and I trotted off happy in the knowledge that Act 1 had gone well. My next few punts were fairly standard. In training, I half seriously asked the coaches to let me stretch my legs and throw the fake punt – essentially the plan was to pin back my ears and run for Ireland.
On this day Coach Moss had identified a weak link in their defensive set up and was actually keen for me to exploit it. My “protector,” G, was to make a hole and I was to run through it until I got passed the first down marker. G and I have struck up what must be as unlikely a friendship as they come – the kid from West Africa and the kid from the West of Ireland shouldn’t have much common ground. Essentially this is what made my experiences with the team so special, mixing with people who I would have ordinarily not met. From marching in the Newark St. Patricks Day Parade, to taking trips to Atlantic City to just driving me through their city pointing out to me where they came from, they welcomed me to a side of America most Irish emigrants don't get to (or want to) see. The running joke used to be if we got pulled over by the cops while driving to or from practice, they would assume I was being kidnapped.
The snap came and predictably I fumbled it. When I picked it up, I raised my head just in time to see G clean a bloke out. Hello hole, hello first down, I don’t think we’ve met before. I scampered past the first down marker and was bundled out of bounds and arose to a mass of green and black shirts on top of me. Fist bumps, chest bumps, slaps on the helmet and dap with some of the players. (As an aside, of all the parts of Newark culture I took away from this "dap" has to be the best. A simple handshake seems so boring now!).
Ultimately our best efforts fell short that night as they would so often throughout the season. In essence our roster was too short on bodies and once injuries stuck we couldn't cover them.
Despite this we had some terrific performances and experiences. A benches clearing all-in-brawl reminded me of a club match at home; an away day in Atlantic City where I was drunk under the table and a last minute TD (and extra point) to seal a home win were all memorable and special.
By the end of the season the traveling to Newark from the Bronx took its toll on me and I "retired." I began playing with the team to grow my knowledge of American Football, but I came away from it with much more knowledge of American culture and, specifically, a culture in Newark which many people mock or believe is non-existent.
Despite the area's many drawbacks, on-the-ground people like Coach Moss believe in its potential and have dedicated their lives to improving the neighborhood. He recently set up a college team which is an amalgamation of students from the community colleges in Newark. This means he is now able to tempt people to go back to school so they can play for him. Sport offers us a vehicle to promote values and to give young men a route out of their troubles. In the New Jersey Spartans, one such vehicle is thriving.
Contact Seamus on Twitter @fbspecial