Adventures in American Football: Week 1

Do you like to hit or be hit?

It was a serious question. What kind of idiot decides to take up a new sport at 32? One they’ve never played before. One that can result in serious bodily damage. One that’s (relatively) expensive to play, that requires intricate understanding of foot movement, of body positioning, and that requires one to be either very fast, or very strong, when the aforementioned idiot is neither?

Two thumbs pointing at this guy.

It started as a desire to get back into sport. Any sport. We’d moved cities recently, so I’d lost my regular sporting activities (cricket and basketball). I emailed a couple of basketball clubs, looked up Rugby League teams and contacted the local AFL football association when I had a brainwave – I should go play a sport that couples demanding physicality and danger.

To be honest I didn’t actually think anyone would get back to me. When you email a sporting club to say – “Hi, I’ve never played your sport but am pretty good at it on PlayStation. I’m old, weak, and not fast. I understand this sport requires intricate training to be successful and that the season starts in two weeks which pretty much means I will be useless. Can I join your club?” – You don’t really expect a response. And I didn’t get one from the first club I emailed. The second however, did, saying words to the effect of “come down to training in running gear, have a chat to the coaches. We’ll run you through some of the drills and if you want to stick about then we’d be happy to have you.”

Low bar to acceptance. I was hooked.

Do you like to hit or be hit?

The first thing that struck me as different was the sheer number of coaches. In all amateur organised sport I’d played (a lot), the fact that you rely on volunteers always limited the ‘help’ you got. But when I got there I was introduced to the line-backers coach, then defensive coach, the head coach, the offensive coordinator and the wide receivers coach all within five minutes. None were paid. All were volunteers willing to give up three hours a day on three separate days a week training the ‘finest’ athletes from the suburbs. And everyone called them ‘coach’ – it was like an American sporting movie. “Yes Coach” was probably the most common heard phrase on the park that day. The number of coaches made it seem inevitable that they were always arguing with each other. And they didn’t do it quietly. Coaches calling coaches fuckwits, having full-blown arguments about strategy in front of the players, only to be laughing together when they hung shit on someone for being out-of-shape two minutes later.

The second thing was the institutionalised discipline – an expectation of acting together, moving as a team, and subservient to the authority of the coaches. The game itself requires movement of players together – like an intricate dance – so the discipline is necessary. The warm-ups were synchronised, players changing legs in unison, a single, unified clap from all members indicating it was time to move on. Star jumps were broken down into four separate movements to be counted out the same way I counted long breaks in concert band: “One. Two. Three. Four. Two. Two. Three. Four”. Players encouraging each other for doing basic things like completing run-throughs.[1] “Yes Coach”, “No Coach”, “Sorry Coach”. It was an American version of collective action (i.e. hierarchical fascism), transported to suburban Australia. 

But oh you can’t remove the Australian from these people. Sure “Yes Coach” was the most common phrase I heard. But “go fuck yourself coach” was said at least three times, mostly seriously, and never with the coach batting an eyelid. The players routinely teased coaches for being old, teased each other for being fat/slow/shit/good/having a small penis/having a large penis and basically hung shit on each other for the entirety of practice. Most of the team are in the late teens/early twenties. They are made up of people of all backgrounds, and call each other by racial epithets happily and without malice. They are young men. Teasing in a sporting environment has always been a way of either marginalising or including. So far it has been impressively inclusive. And they have included me, even if they are confused as to why an older man with no skills is suddenly in their world.

Do you like to hit or be hit?

This question was actually put to me by the head coach as a way of ascertaining if I was an offensive or a defensive player. When I said I can’t imagine I could do much damage to someone he told me I was a receiver. He didn’t know if I could catch. He didn’t know if I was fast – in fact I’d explicitly said I was not. But I was going to be a receiver.

The first training session I didn’t wear pads or a helmet and only participated in skills drills. I caught most of the balls throw my direction. The second session was much harder. In pads and a helmet concentrating on the ball suddenly becomes a challenge. Catching a footy with your thumbs and forefingers making a triangle is one thing. Working out where the football is as you try to manipulate your now massive dome into the line of sight of the ball is another. And then watching scrimmage I felt genuinely worried for the first time – these dudes hit each other HARD. Like, proper hard. Could I be hit that hard and not curl into the foetal position? I don’t know.

So far I have sucked. It has annoyed some people but not really the coaches, who have only been slightly confused by the presence of an overweight 32 year old in their squad. But so far, after two trainings and one week it has been fun. There are about 11 wide receivers on this team so I don’t have to worry about getting on the field anytime soon. I haven’t even got onto the field in a scrimmage because I haven’t been shown ‘how to hit or be hit’.

Do you like to hit or be hit?

I don’t know yet. But I think I’ll find out soon.

[1] Short sprints of about 10 metres.

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