Early February, 1990.
Somewhere in grey middle England.
12: 01 pm.
Lunch Time/Play Time:
A gaggle of primary school lads pile up at the faded chalk lines of the playground. A half-inflated capsule of air with the letters NFL is placed in a puddle. The kid holding it then yells out loads of random numbers with a voice that hasn’t broken yet, before grunting three times with the same un-cracked tone. After that the ‘ball’ is launched between his own legs and some other kid tries to catch it (which he never does.) After that it is pandemonium. No rules, no idea, no clue. Just a WWF Royal Rumble with a ‘ball’ tossed in the middle.
Eventually a whistle cuts through the late winter air and the teacher tells you to stop fighting.
“We’re not fighting miss, we’re playing American Football.”
“You’re playing what?”
Not boring names like Tranmere Rovers or Bolton Wanderers…but Los Angeles Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. Washington Redskins (pre political correctness era.) And the team of the time, the dynasty of the period, the divine linkage of Quarterback Joe Montana and Wide Receiver Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers. We watched these games on a Sunday evening, just after proper football and just before The Wonder Years. Sat in front of the telly with a bag of Monster Munch while our moaning fathers spoiled all the fun:
“Why do they call it football when they play it with their hands?”
“All that stopping and starting.”
“It’s on for too long.”
“What a load of wimps, you don’t see rugby players wearing helmets, and all that padding!”
We didn’t care. We watched on anyway, in wide-eyed amazement. Those kits, that pitch. Those stadiums that made Old Trafford look like Meadow Lane. The refs wearing caps and Notts County tops. The energy and the colours. The colours that seemed ten times bolder than our own football, like someone had been tampering with the contrast at the back of the telly, rainbow bright, solid, sharp. The gold and black of Pittsburgh Steelers clashing against the turquoise and white of the Miami Dolphins. Tiger-striped helmets of the Cincinnati Bengals locking horns with the Rams of L.A, or St Louis, or wherever in the vast land they decided to play from that year. So what if we didn’t have a clue what was going off, all this stopping and starting, first down, second down, numbers, quarters, 6 points for a touchdown and 3 if you kick it through the posts.
Who cares if our dads were right, we loved it all the same.
Twenty-five years later and I still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Yet the energy and the enigma still transfixed me. So I took my glory-supporting tendencies and switched from the 49ers of San Francisco to the Patriots of New England (who were really rubbish back in that February of 1990.) Gone was Joe Montana and here was Tom Brady. There were new teams too, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens. Houston was still Houston only they the Texans now, and not the outdated Oilers. Another love of mine the Raiders had left L.A and were back in Oakland where they belong, only not for long, as Las Vegas was on the horizon. The geographical disloyalty is bewildering to us English, like taking West Ham and suddenly plopping them in Newcastle, with a quick whistle-stop season in Birmingham on the way.
Ha. Just wild. Just radical. Only in America.
So I learned the rules and went to America. Found myself in Denver one October Sunday. Broncos playing at home to the Giants. Abused my overdraft and sold my soul and bought a golden ticket, finding myself way up in the gods of the famous Mile-High Stadium. Sun switched to moon, darkening the edges of the great state of Colorado. I was swarmed by the orange of Denver and thought that I should keep my Patriots allegiance to myself. Only there was no real need, cos rivalry isn’t rivalry over there. Rivals sit together. Celebrate together, commiserate together. Not the do-or-die tribal inflexibility over here (although this does have its masochistic place, oh, ha.) People wear jerseys of teams that aren’t even playing. Sweets (candy) is thrown out like rain. Home fans cheer and fireworks burst even though their team had lost.
It’s a day-out; a night-out. An event. That’s entertainment. The spectacle was blinding. A mid-season, inconsequential game yet it had more razzmatazz than the F.A Cup Final twenty times over.
On that same trip I had met a bunch of mates in Rapid City, South Dakota, regulars of Kellys Sports Lounge on Jackson Boulevard where I spent whole days on the games, beers and bar food circled constantly. I spent two Sundays with Kyle and the Gang, watching a multitude of games from different screens. Picking up The American Way. By now I thought I had the game down, knew the rules verbatim; the plays, the yardage, the points and the players. But by the end of the game the real technical stuff surfaced and I was at a loss once more…just another dumb Brit not knowing the Offside Rule. An Englishman in New York…or more aptly…a Midlander in the Midwest.
Will the NFL ever really leap the pond and break the UK for real? I went to Wembley with my nephew last September. He’s a fanatical super-geek and a connoisseur of the highest calibre, and would definitely give those Rapid City boys a run for their money in the knowledge department. The turn-out at Wembley was immense but still I couldn’t help but think it was a niche thing, like a Star Trek convention where all the fans were in one place at the same time.
Either way, I spread the word and pass the vibe.
A few years back by mate Ben, Forest aficionado and boxing fan, said the same, “American Football, I want to like it but I just don’t get it.”
After a few YouTube clips and a couple of games he’s now more hooked than me. The proof of this is that he’s just named his daughter after his beloved team, and current Super Bowl champions.
Planet Earth…welcomes…Kansas Hines.
*Article provided by Joe Archer (Health & Lifestyle Correspondent).
*Main image @USAToday NFL Superstar Patrick Mahomes in action for current Superbowl Champs Kansas City Chiefs