With the Shamrock Bowl, Ireland’s version of the Super Bowl, being played at Ravenhill tomorrow, and the highly anticipated return of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic to Dublin at the end of the month, it’s tempting to say that local American football fans have never had more action on their doorstep.
ut tomorrow’s match between Dublin Rebels and UCD American Football, the first decider to be staged since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is not the first time Ulster Rugby’s home has hosted an oval ball belonging to a different game.
During World War II, curious natives and serving American servicemen filled the stands of local stadiums four times for a series of games that were the first of their kind on these shores.
Those unaware of the bigger rivalries across the Atlantic might have missed the joke when it was decreed that ‘Yarvard’ and ‘Hale’ would fight each other, drawing inspiration for their nicknames of the two Ivy League powers, but a lack of familiarity regarding the rules was a bigger concern in the build.
With ticket sales supporting causes such as the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Red Cross, the level of curiosity was such that the match-up made headlines in no less than one headline than The New York Times. .
“The first major game of American football ever played in Northern Ireland will take place next Saturday when Hale meets Yarvard on the Irish rugby pitch there,” their story began. “American soldiers and sailors, however, find it difficult to explain to Ulster football fans (the) rules of the game.
“The BBC has arranged to broadcast commentary on the match to troops in the Middle East.”
Enthusiasm, if not knowledge, however, was on the agenda with the local press of the day running advertisements imploring readers to “come by the thousands and see two crack American teams in the first great game of American football ever played in this country”.
The pomp and ceremony more familiar to American sport was on full display, though the specter of the ongoing war was never far away with the marching band drum carrying a depiction of Adolf Hitler under the instruction “Beat the Axis.” .
After Yarvard threw a field goal to win the game 9-7, the article in Stars and Stripes, an American military magazine, wondered how many people present knew the final score.
Still, many were clearly sold on the product as a week later the same ‘Yarvard’ team playing a ‘Tech’ team which contained many people who had re-shown for ‘Hale’ again saw supporters show up in numbers at the Sandy Bay game. fields in Larne.
Now, of course, no one questions the support’s knowledge or passion.
While some across the pond may still be sneering about the increasing internationalization of their most popular sport as more NFL games than ever are played overseas in 2022, we don’t can deny the growing interest and plethora of die-hard fans who stay up until the wee hours to follow their adopted squads every weekend of the season.
The number of players is also on the rise, highlighted this week with the news that Lopez Sanusi will move from the Belfast Trojans to the NFL Academy in Loughborough.
Established in 2019 and migrating to the East Midlands from Barnet this fall, the program provides students aged 16-19 with pathways to employment, further education and the opportunity to play NCAA college football in the United States. by combining full-time education with vocational training. High-level American football coach.
With five Shamrock Bowl titles to their name, and still the most recent pre-Covid champions, the Deramore-based team are understandably disappointed not to be in tomorrow’s showpiece in their hometown, but the important news from the Sanusi’s selection have ensured that it has always been a banner week.
The Dublin-born defensive end moved to Belfast aged 17 after spending time in the United States and Nigeria, only joining the newly formed Trojans youth structures last year. earning MVP honors ahead of his promotion to the senior ranks this season.
Under the tutelage of the team’s defensive line coach, Teddy Canty, an American who himself played collegiate in the United States, the teenager once again stood out, winning the defensive player award of the year of the team. An incredible opportunity awaits him now as he heads to England.
“Whenever Covid happened, one of the things we really wanted to focus on was building a youth team,” said Hassan Jaafar, one of the Trojans’ minor team coaches.
“It was something that before, despite the success we had with the senior team, we probably hadn’t put the time and effort where the other teams in our League were and we risked be left behind.
“During the pandemic we were able to get a number of grants and coaches, get this setup and Lopez was one of the first to sign up.
“Right away he was very ambitious and we could see his potential, but he was also very raw.
“He had all the physical traits but he had never really played organized football, even when he was in the United States.
“We knew that if we could harness that potential, we could help take it to the next level.
“And he took to it like a duck to water, playing both sides of the ball. With his athleticism, he was really dominant.
While coaches and teammates have played a huge role in Sanusi’s development, Jaafar credits the player with a real determination to lead the way.
“As a young man he was always very coachable, always wanting to listen to coaches and senior players,” Jaafar added. “But he’s taken a lot himself, showing up for trials at Loughborough, and it’s just fantastic to see him get this award.
“It’s a real endorsement not just of the Trojans but of the League as a whole that we can produce athletes at this level.”
With a year of eligibility on the program, Lopez will now dream of turning that opportunity into offers to play college ball in the United States.
Local fans, meanwhile, will get to see the NCAA action up close and personal later this month.
A sport that draws 50 million fans to stadiums across the United States every week through the fall, with another 145 million watching on TV, there is an ever-growing audience in Europe where increased coverage has made tracking schools easier than ever. .
And on the bank holiday weekend, it will once again land at the Aviva Stadium.
After Covid-19 put the series on hiatus, the game between Northwestern and Nebraska on August 27 represents the first step back on the road to what organizers hope will see Ireland become the home of college football away from home. .
Returning for the first time since 2016, a commitment for five consecutive stagings has been made with next year’s game already on the agenda after organizers pulled off a sensational coup by tempting Notre Dame to host their 2023 opener against old rivals Navy in Dublin.
With sides of this stature entered the possibilities will seem endless and ultimately the aim, with all the associated benefits not just for sports fans but also for tourism, is to make the first game of the college season synonymous with Ireland. .
American football here may have a long history dating back some eight decades, but now it looks like the future has never looked brighter.