‘Touchdown!’

Self-praise is for losers, be a winner. Stand for something. Always have class and be humble

John Madden — NFL coach, who never had a losing season and who holds the highest winning percentage of head coaches.

This coming Sunday will see Super Bowl LVI between the Rams and the Bengals. Although I suspect it’s a game that will be of little interest to most reading this.

I first caught a glimpse of ‘American’ Football over fifty years ago when the BBC broadcast a short clip of an early Super Bowl on ‘Grandstand’.

Mentioning Grandstand, it was a surprise to discover that the programme ended fifteen years ago. In the days when I still lived in the Northeast, and if I wasn’t at St James Park watching NUFC, it was staple Saturday afternoon viewing for my father and me. Rugby League, Rugby Union, the Boat Race, horse racing, etc. As well as that first glimpse of the NFL.

I can’t say I understood anything that I watched. It just seemed to be a morass of bodies crunching into each other. So different from the other ‘contact’ team games of the UK with their constant movement and pace.

American Football might therefore have stayed a vague childhood memory if Channel 4 had not begun, in 1982, to broadcast highlights each week.

The sport soon hooked me. Not before had I seen something that combined the strategy of chess with such supreme physical endeavour. A Quarterback’s ability to sail a ball to any part of the field into the hands of a wide receiver. The speed and handling skills of said receivers. Running backs who can pause, accelerate, twist, and spin through or around the scrimmage line. Or those on that line who use their physicality to ‘open up’ a ‘play’, or if in Defence, close it down. And if a play unfolds as it should, it can take on a balletic beauty.

American Football emerged from rugby football. It was Walter Camp, the ‘Father of American Football’ who, in the late 19th Century, introduced changes such as a scrimmage line, downs, the forward pass and blocking. Not long after came the concept of scripted plays.

I wasn’t the only one in 1982 who took to the game. Viewing figures on Channel 4 soared and I, and several million like me, tuned in to watch Super Bowl XVII, despite its late Sunday night start, on the 30 January 1983.

Along with its popularity on TV, many people across the UK began to form teams to play the game. It culminated in the creation of what became to be known as NFL Europe. Teams coming from cities across the world including New York, Montreal, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, London, and Edinburgh. For a while, NFL Europe had quite a following. It ended in 2007 as sadly, the quality of play and players were not to the standard that one could see on TV from the NFL in the USA.

In the same year as NFL Europe disappeared the NFL International series began. Teams from the NFL in the USA playing regular-season games in London. So, since 2007, as well as watching on TV, I can now indulge myself by watching games live.

The atmosphere at such games is much more that of a rugby game than of English football. There is no tribalism or undercurrent of violence. Instead, it’s about spectacle and, what a sport should be, entertainment.

Also as with Rugby, there is a swift and firm dealing of violent conduct on the field. Men so big and fit could do each other severe injury (even wearing helmets and padding) if strict laws were not in place. Tackling headfirst, tackling a quarterback low, horse collaring (pulling a player from behind by his shoulder pads) or pulling the face mask are all penalised by significant yardage. And gaining yards is what the game is about. Even minor offences such as holding, blocking in the back, and tripping, carry a penalty. I’ve seen many a player ejected for over aggression and woe betide a player who so much as questions an official never mind touches them. Oh, and VAR is faster too.

American Football is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve yet to see a team sport that turns so much on momentum or that offers so many last-minute triumphs or disasters. So come this Sunday, I’ll catch an hour or two of sleep before the game then will sit up into the wee small hours with a beer or two and as I’ve done for near forty years, watch the spectacle unfold.

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In the Renaissance period of my post-career life …

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Harry Watson

Harry Watson

In the Renaissance period of my post-career life …

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