GRAEME COUSINS joins a Northern Ireland American football team for a training session ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl showdown in Atlanta
Over 100 million viewers around the world will tune into this Sunday night’s Super Bowl.
In Northern Ireland the number of viewers for the NFL showpiece is likely to be in the thousands, especially given the time of night it begins (11.30pm).
Fewer still are the number of people in the Province who have ever pulled on a helmet and shoulder pads and taken part in an actual game of American football.
On Sunday past, I considered myself one of those lucky few when I took part in a training session with the Craigavon Cowboys.
The team who train at Annagh United’s ground in Portadown were established in 1986 when players like Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Jerry Rice and William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry were the big names the sport.
Current head coach Greg Loughran from Portadown joined the team just a couple of games into its inception.
He recalled: “I came in during the first season, I think it was just before the second game we ever played.
“I was playing indoor soccer one morning and I saw a lot of boys dressed like American footballers and wondered what was going on. I got talking to one of the fellas and he asked me to come along and give it a go.
“I was awful. I started on offence, I didn’t know where I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to be doing. Then they switched me to defence and told me, ‘go and get the player with the ball and knock him down’. That worked for me.”
The Craigavon Cowboys went on to win the first ever Shamrock Bowl (Irish Super Bowl equivalent) that season, beating the Dublin Celts 6-0 in the Irish capital.
He said: “The team started out with a lot of boys who were interested in American football but had absolutely no knowledge. They were in the wrong stances, they had very little gear.
“They came from all different sporting backgrounds, some with no sporting background. It was amazing to see how things came together that first season.”
As well as winning the Shamrock Bowl in their first season, the Cowboys repeated the feat in 1990 and 1992.
There are currently 20 American Football teams competing in the Irish American Football League’s top three divisions.
Teams from NI include Belfast Trojans, Belfast Knights, Craigavon Cowboys, Donegal / Derry Vipers, Causeway Giants, Antrim Jets and NI Razorbacks.
Most teams tend to play on rugby pitches, marked out for American Football.
Some of the teams also have flag football teams – a five-a-side, non-contact version of the sport with no helmets or pads.
Greg said: “The Cowboys have had a couple of breaks since 1986, but the current set up has been going since 2005 as flag team, and 2007 as fully kitted team. We’re in a strong position now.”
Craigavon Cowboys club captain and president is Jordan Buchanan, now in his seventh season with the team.
The 24-year-old from Dromore said: “I’ve been playing since I was 18. We had a flag football team that I started in Dromore, I wanted to started a proper kitted team but it would have cost too much to get kitted up so I jumped ship to the Cowboys.
“I started watching American football on Sky Sports when I was about 13 or 14. I was playing rugby at the time and I could see that it was quite similar, but it involved a lot more tactics. I thought it would be a bit more of a challenge.”
Jordan, who plays in the defensive role of linebacker, said: “Because it’s not one of the main sports in Northern Ireland you do get people not taking you seriously. People think the shoulder pads and helmets protect you and American footballers are soft.
“There was a couple of years I was playing both rugby and (American) football and honestly I was worse off because of the football – the stop-start nature of it, the intensity is higher, when you get hit you get hit hard. It’s not like rugby where you can only tackle the ball carrier. You have to keep your head on a swivel because you could end up getting smacked out of nowhere.”
Training sessions for the Cowboys began at the turn of the year and take place every Sunday with an additional fitness work at the coach’s house on Wednesday evenings.
The Sunday sessions begin with a ‘classroom lesson’ where coaches talk the players through on-field manouvres – with a lot of prep work being done by offensive and defensive co-ordinators to come up with plays and present them in a format players can understand, both via a digital display and on a wrist-worn play list.
The players then put on their helmets and pads and take to the field for some warm-ups, skill drills and putting what they’ve learnt in the classroom into practice.
Jordan said: “I like the fact that there’s a lot more to learn than most other sports. It’s a challenge.”
Of the club he said: “We’ve come on leaps and bounds. When I started we’d have been lucky to take 20 players on the road. Last year our average was 38. We’re an amateur sport, so we make sure everyone gets onto the field.
“There’s a good mixture of ages, all the way up to 52. The older players tend to be in defensive positions. They’re the ones giving out the hits rather than taking them.”
In terms of hits, the players are afforded some protection by way of helmets and pads, but they don’t come cheap.
Greg said: “When we started we all had bits and pieces of gear. All the kit we now have came from an Lottery grant in 2007. We got another grant four years ago which allowed us to get more equipment.
“It costs about £300 to start with for your basic kit. It’s expensive but it’s a lot easier to come by than it used to be.
“We don’t charge players to rent equipment. What their fees cover is rental of training facilities and to pay for away trips – for example to Waterford and Galway. They pay 45 Euro to register and our fees are £200.”
Greg said: “American football is unlike any sport you’ll have done before. The calls and plays need to be second nature. You need to start young. That’s one of the reasons why it is so hard to spread outside America. It is built into their education system which is why it thrives there.
“We’re trying to address that here with a youth set up for under 18s.”
Graeme’s verdict after training session:
The last time I encountered a football of the American variety thrown in anger I sustained a badly staved finger.
That injury occurred while watching the Craigavon Cowboys play a demonstration match in Lurgan Park in the late eighties.
Spotting myself and my cousin on the sidelines sporting Bears and Redskins coats respectively, one of the coaches offered to throw us a ball so we could try out as wide receivers.
I thought I’d judged the ball perfectly only for it to rebound off the end of my middle finger causing the digit to concertina and resulting in a finger that looked like something out of a cartoon.
Anyway, not one to be put off, 30 years later I returned to the same club to see if I could cut the mustard without ending up in A&E.
I’m pleased to report I finished the three-hour session with no new injuries and a newfound respect for players of the game.
I always knew American football was a complex and physical sport from watching it on TV, but having donned the helmet and pads I can now say that I underestimated both aspects.
The ‘classroom’ session at the beginning had my head in a spin as the offensive and defensive coaches used annotated computer presentations to show players where to be and what to do when a multitude of plays were called.
When I played rugby I had difficulty remembering half a dozen line-out calls. I’ll admit, I was starting to regret my decision to try my hand at grid iron.
However, when we actually took to the field and went through a few warm-ups and smaller group drills, I got a taste for the rough and tumble of the sport. It reminded me of rugby in its essence of attack trying to gain hard yards against defence.
Some suggest wearing a helmet and pads gives American footballers an advantage over rugby players, but afterwards I was every bit as sore as I’ve ever been after a rugby match. If anything the pads allow for even more physicality, though what I found particularly hard was the stop-start nature of the game, meaning that muscles are being used in bursts rather than continuously.
We finished with a series of offence vs defence scenarios and while I hadn’t a clue what the any of the calls meant it was interesting to see the intricacy of the line of scrimmage at pitch level.
Full credit goes to these American footballers, who are not only able to retain an amazing amount of information, but they can knock you into the middle of next week with consummate ease.
Sadly I’ve no touchdowns, interceptions or sacks to report but at least I came away with all my fingers the same size.
Where to watch the Super Bowl on TV, and locally:
The New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams will battle for the Vince Lombardi Trophy when they meet at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Sunday for Super Bowl LIII.
NFC Champions the Rams will look to running back Todd Gurley to put in an MVP while New England will be hoping quarterback Tom Brady (pictured in the divisional win over Kansas City) can draw on his Super Bowl experience to see his team over the line.
The game will be broadcast both on the BBC and Sky Sports on Sunday night with kick off at 11.30pm (GMT).
Although the action is timed at 60 minutes over four quarters, an average games lasts around three hours as a consequence of a number of factors including play reviews, time outs, injuries, and change-overs in play.
This year’s half-time show will feature US pop group Maroon 5.
Craigavon Cowboys will be hosting a Super Bowl party of their own in the Seagoe Hotel in Portadown where non-members are welcome to join them for the game.