Sunday in Belfast saw the DCU Saints American football club travel to and beat the Belfast Bulls 6-0 to make the IAFL playoffs for the first time in their history.
'Wait, football, in Ireland??' I hear you cry
Yes. They play American Football in Ireland too, yes, on top of the baseball league, there is also a thriving, energetic and competitive football league.
There are nine teams in the league and they are dotted all over Ireland, north and south. There is also a development league with a further six teams in it. Check out the nifty league website right here.
Jumping around topics like a crazy person, this whole deal is another reason why it is better to live in Ireland than the States. If you love baseball or football, but didn't have an outlet to play the game after you left college, Ireland's the place for you, with it's fully functional, competitive and all welcoming baseball and football leagues. You can be 16-92 and any colour, race, creed and fit in perfectly in Ireland's minority US sports leagues.
I got lucky last October. I always knew there was an American Football league in Ireland but I didn't ever see a way into it, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I didn't think I would have the time, between Hurricanes baseball and the occasional Irish baseball team venture also. Secondly, I didn't know if I would fit in at all. New people, new sport and all that. I always wanted to try it though. That's when I got lucky. I found my way into training with the DCU Saints, a team in their their third season of existence. Led by coach Dave Rothwell and experienced talented players Carl Rushe, Neil Callinan and Eoin Fox, the Saints were known as one of the IAFL's up and coming teams. Perfect fit for a slow, washed up, veteran baseball player!
Training, and then the league season, were hard work and tough going. The IAFL is an extremely physical place to play. The teams are fast, well trained and full of very tough characters. I played rugby in school and I can tell you now, American Football is vastly more violent and physical. Anyone who tells you otherwise simply hasn't played football. There is no competition..
As with pretty much everything in life though, if you throw yourself into something and work hard at it, there is generally a tangible reward at the end of the journey. DCU have had a fantastic season, and it has been a pleasure to be involved. The team trained hard, lost it's opening game, won a couple, lost a couple and stood at 3-3 going into the Belfast game. The three wins were significant on their own as to date DCU, three years old, had won three games total up to the 2008 season.
Going into the Belfast game, DCU held their destiny in their hands, a win and they were in the playoffs for the first time in their existence. The game was a terrifically physical affair, with both teams losing players through injury early on. The hits were hard and the defenses were on top, with the windy conditions almost shutting down any thoughts of a passing game from either side.
At one stage in the first half I dropped back in the pocket, looked right and tried to throw a short enough hitch route to speedy, savvy receiver Sam Monson. The ball went five yards, took a nose dive in the wind and slapped to the ground uselessly. DCU's defence picked up our first half slack and kept the score at 0-0 going into the break. The most dramatic part of the first half came in the last 1:30. The defence made a big stop at our 10 yard line. We had the ball back but faced a gale wind in our faces. Running back Dave 'Chickflick' McMahon was called on to try and pick up enough yards to run the clock out. The Bulls were waiting and absolutely punished him every yard he took.
Nevertheless the talented, shifty-running young man took the hits and churned out the yards and DCU made it to the half unscathed. I should mention the offensive line here too. The Belfast Rhino's are big kids. Several of their linemen are over 6'2''/6'3'' and 250/275lbs, big for the Irish league. They came at us relentlessly, but thanks to Stuart, Emmit, Dave, Colm, Cillian, Neill and Liam we were able to run the ball and I wasn't sacked once. Just a few late hits. Which the Irish league referees never call. I am not bitter.
The second half went back and forth, with both teams seasons hanging in the balance neither wanted to be the first to give. Finally, in the fourth quarter, we got the wind at our backs and switched to a four receiver 'bunch' formation. This completely blew the Bulls defensive plan, and they were stretched all over the field. We were able to complete several passes to four different receivers. One receiver, the sure handed Dave Mullins, made a crucial 15 yard third down reception while taking a wild, untamed hit right in the back. Amazingly he held on to the ball. I am telling you, this is a rough and tough league! Even the receivers are made of rock.
We had our chance. One third down in the Bulls red zone we ran 'bunch inside out right' and Tight End Colm Collins broke free of his linebacker. It's amazing how fast a play goes in football, from the moment the ball is snapped to the moment the play ends seems like a split second. The ball hit Colm in the stomach and he grabbed it, giving us the touchdown.
The Bulls showed their resolve by blocking the XP, several players crashing onto the ball as it was kicked. Facing the wind the Bulls tried hard but simply could not advance up the field against a ferocious DCU defence led by Eoin Fox, Harmon Zveers, Damien Baker and many others who swarmed to the ball every play.
Time ran out and the DCU Saints were 6-0 winners and in the IAFL playoffs, no matter what happens in next weeks game against reigning Irish Shamrock Bowl winners the University of Limerick.
That moment, where we all stood around realising what we had just achieved, that's what you work for. That's what you strive for. That's what you take Advil, put on your cleats and grin and bear it for. Sure, sure, It's an amateur sporting league, played on Sunday's by guys who, with a few notable exceptions (we have two or three players who I know would have made it) would not even make a D3 US college side. However, if you are part of that group of approximately 45 guys, who have worked relentlessly towards that goal, boy oh boy it feels good.
DCU are still a very rookie team. The IAFL 2008 playoffs bracket is full of veteran sides with tough characters who are going to be very hard to beat. Realistically we may have to wait to next year to actually make a dent in the playoffs themselves. However, getting there, achieving that goal, is a wonderful moment for all involved in the club.
I travelled back home to Dublin with the two player coaches, Dave Rothwell and Steve Portious. Both men have won several IAFL Shamrock Bowls, both have seen it all in the Irish league. They have put so much effort into the DCU Saints, preparing and training them all year long, that their spouses give them a hard time about it. It is not an exaggeration to say the basically giggled the entire two hour drive home. Just uncontrollable, raw delight at how their protegés on the Saints had digested everything they had been taught and fought a hard game to make the 2008 season a wild success.
If you have a chance in your life to invest yourself in something fully with a group of peers, grab it, grab it and work at it, throw yourself into it and enjoy everything that comes with it, good and bad, winning and losing.
There's simply nothing like it.
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