With the Shamrock Bowl, the Irish version of the Super Bowl taking place tomorrow in Ravenhill, 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 local American football fans have never had so much action on their doorstep.
But tomorrow’s game between the Dublin Rebels and UCD American Football, the first decider game played since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is not the first time the home of Ulster Rugby has accepted an oval ball belonging to another game. .
During World War II, curious locals and on-duty US military personnel filled the stands of local stadiums four times for a series of games that were the first of their kind on these shores.
Those unfamiliar with the biggest rivalries on the other side of the Atlantic may have missed the joke when it was announced that Yarward and Hale would battle, drawing inspiration for their nicknames from the two Ivy League powerhouses, but ignorance of the rules was more extension problem.
With ticket sales supporting organizations such as the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Red Cross, the level of curiosity was so high that the coincidence hit the headlines under as much of a headline as it did in the New York Times.
“The first major American football game ever played in Northern Ireland will take place next Saturday when Hale faces Yarward at the Irish rugby football ground,” their story began. “However, it is difficult for American soldiers and sailors to explain the rules of the game to Ulster football fans.
“The BBC arranged to broadcast commentary on the game to troops in the Middle East.”
Enthusiasm, if not knowledge, was overwhelmed, although the local press ran advertisements that day that implored readers to “come by the thousands and see two amazing American teams in the first big American football game ever played in this country.”
The pomp and ceremony more accustomed to American sport was on full display, even if the specter of ongoing war was never far from the brass band drum featuring Adolf Hitler under the instruction “Strike the Axis”.
After Yarward scored a field goal to win the game 9-7, a review in the US military magazine Stars and Stripes wondered how many of those present knew the final score.
However, the product was clearly sold to many, as a week later the same Yarvard team battling the Tech team, which had many pro-Hale members, again saw supporters turn up in their numbers. to play in Sandy Bay. fields in Larne.
Now, of course, no one doubts the knowledge or enthusiasm of the support.
While some on the other side of the pond may still be taunting about the growing internationalization of their most popular sport, with more NFL games being played overseas than ever in 2022, there’s no denying the growing interest and many diehard fans. until dawn to follow their foster teams every weekend of the season.
The number of players is also on the rise, as revealed this week with news that Lopez Sanusi will move from the Belfast Trojans to the NFL Academy in Loughborough.
Created in 2019 and moving this fall to the East Midlands from Barnet, the program offers students aged 16 to 19 avenues to employment, further education and the opportunity to play NCAA college football in the United States by combining full-time education with a professional American football coach. football.
With five Shamrock Bowl titles to their name and still the most recent pre-Covid champions, the Deramore team is naturally disappointed that there won’t be an exhibition in their hometown tomorrow, but the big news about Sanusi’s choice ensures that it still was. . Banner week.
Born in Dublin, the defender moved to Belfast at the age of 17 after spending time in the US and Nigeria, joining the Trojans’ newly formed youth structures just last year, earning the MVP award ahead of his promotion to the senior ranks this season.
Under the tutelage of defensive line coach Teddy Canty, an American who himself played for the team in the States, the teen excelled again, earning the team’s Defensive Player of the Year award. An incredible opportunity now awaits him as he heads to England.
“Whenever Covid happened, one of the things we really wanted to focus on was building a youth team,” explained Hassan Jaafar, one of the Trojans youth team coaches.
“It was that before, despite the success we had with the senior team, we probably just didn’t put the time and effort into where the other teams were in our league and we risked being left behind.
“During the pandemic, we were able to get a number of grants and coaches, get that kind of setup, and Lopez was one of the first to sign on.
“Right away he was very ambitious and we could see his potential, but he was also very raw.
“He had all the physical features, but he never played organized football, even when he was in the States.
“We knew that if we could use this potential, we could help him move to the next level.
“And he took to it like a fish in water, playing on both sides of the ball. With his athleticism, he really dominated.”
While coaches and teammates have played a huge role in Sunusi’s development, Jaafar believes the player was genuinely eager to lead the way.
“When he was young, he was always very malleable, always willing to listen to coaches and older players,” added Jaafar. “But he took on a lot by putting himself to the test at Loughborough, and it’s fantastic that he got this award.
“It’s a real endorsement, not only by the Trojans, but by the League as a whole, that we can produce athletes of this caliber.”
After one year in the program, Lopez now cherishes dreams of using the opportunity to play in college in the US.
Meanwhile, local fans will have the chance to see NCAA action up close and in person later this month.
A sport that draws 50 million fans to stadiums across the U.S. every week during the fall, with another 145 million tuned in to watch on TV, audiences are steadily growing in Europe, where greater coverage has made following schools battle easier than ever before. ever. .
And on a public holiday weekend, it will land again at the Aviva Stadium.
With the series suspended by Covid-19, the matchup between Northwestern and Nebraska on August 27 represents the first step back in what organizers hope to see Ireland become a home away from home college football.
Returning for the first time since 2016, a commitment has been made to stage five consecutive productions, with next year’s match already in the diary after organizers pulled off a sensational coup tempting Notre Dame to play its first match of 2023 against old rivals Navy in Dublin.
With teams of this caliber signed, the possibilities will seem endless and the ultimate goal, with all the benefits that come with not only sports fans but also tourism, is to make the first game of the college season synonymous with Ireland.
American football here may have a long history spanning nearly eight decades, but now it seems like the future has never been brighter.