x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

A field of dreams springs up in desert

You know how incongruous words and people often turn up in dreams? Well, in this pleasant one, right there at Zayed Sport City, somebody said "wishbone" and "basic 3-4 defence", as my ears exulted.

Emirati Khalid Al Qassemi said: ‘It’s a sport that gets to you’. Lee Hoagland / The National
Emirati Khalid Al Qassemi said: ‘It’s a sport that gets to you’. Lee Hoagland / The National

With line calls and a thrown helmet, the UAE Falcons stir up memories of the past, with a Royal twist, during their run out in Abu Dhabi

I had the oddest dream yesterday.

I dreamed I walked out to a field in Abu Dhabi and heard a coach scream out, "Holding!" I saw a team flagged for running into the kicker. I heard a referee note that somebody had been "lining up in the neutral zone".

To anyone raised in the hot Augusts of the American South as the marching bands rehearsed and the American football annually resumed life, the words "lining up in the neutral zone" have sombre meaning.

They almost qualify as music.

You know how incongruous words and people often turn up in dreams? Well, in this pleasant one, right there at Zayed Sport City, somebody said "wishbone" and "basic 3-4 defence", as my ears exulted.

The somebody was Marcos Guerrero, 40, who played for the renowned University of Southern California Trojans in the late 1980s, alongside such weighty names as "Junior Seau" and "Willie McGinest" and "Jason Sehorn",

That's right. I went outside in Abu Dhabi, and I heard somebody speak of Junior Seau. I heard Guerrero tell of shopping for a university by visiting iconic American coaching names such as Lou Holtz, Dennis Erickson, John Robinson and Joe Paterno. I heard him say: "We've got to get them to stop calling it 'American football'.

It's 'football.' The other one is 'soccer'."

He said that of the nascent UAE Falcons, playing their first proper scrimmage in this waking dream, showing growth with their 80-odd players. Many had never played before, explaining their unevenness as it went along, so no wonder a quarterback said: "It is a big step for the new guys that have never played, so they can actually feel what is football."

That quarterback, Andre Tosic, came from Serbia, and you know you're in woozy frontier when you find a Serbian quarterback who played 10 years in a Serbian league before joining a UAE league for a game you always presume isolated to North America.

But that didn't top the sights in this dreamscape. No, I saw an Emirati member of the Sharjah Royal Family, a 25-year-old man with a thick football build, play the yeoman position of offensive guard, come off the field and chuck down his helmet one time.

Among those reared on American football, we love it when guys finish a failed series of downs by chucking their helmets.

Why? It shows they care. And Khalid Al Qassemi definitely cares, even though he never really saw an American football until his father presented him with one about 10 years ago. "I was like, 'What is this?'" he said.

Now he watches the NFL sometimes in the wee hours of the night, and he says: "Let's put it this way: After playing here, I understand the sport more". He loves all the permutations of strategy. "It's a sport that gets to you," he says.

And as if all that weren't enough to stamp a day as memorable, I saw something unforeseeable eight time zones from New York.

I saw a person wearing an honest-to-goodness referee's uniform, with the black-and-white "zebra" stripes and the white trousers. I never knew a referee's uniform could stoke such nostalgia, but dreams can be funny that way.

It turns out, this Doug Ralph used to help coach the Falcons, then got too busy, so they asked if he could help with officiating. They knew he had experience.

For nine years in Colorado, on levels from Pop Warner (children) to high school (older minors) to junior college (new adults), he had refereed football games, so soon he dialled his son Tim, also a former referee, and soon the exotic uniform came, shipped halfway around the world to a place it never figured to end up.

In that same package came a necessary accoutrement.

The yellow penalty flag.

Excuse me while I swoon.

It had been 10-and-a-half years since those refereeing days, so no wonder Ralph kept little sheets in his pocket, reminding him of the yardage for each penalty, not that he used it all that much.

"These are almost all guys that are learning, so I try to keep the game going because they're learning," Ralph said, soon adding, "It's an emerging sport and we have a lot of people who don't understand the rules, and we have players who aren't used to the rules. So I do a lot of coaching on the field as well as refereeing. If I come in as a hard line ref, a lot of players would find it too restrictive."

Still, on occasion, such as somebody lining up in the neutral zone, a yellow flag would fly skyward.

Even that looked dreamy.

cculpepper@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE