x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Emirates American Football League gaining cultural experience on the gridiron

Players and volunteer coaches of many different nationalities, ages and skill levels will suit up Friday for the Emirates American Football League's inaugral Desert Bowl, writes Steve Elling.

Abu Dhabi Wildcats coach Charle Gillespie instructs his players during one of the last practices this week before the league's Desert Bowl on Friday. Delores Johnson / The National
Abu Dhabi Wildcats coach Charle Gillespie instructs his players during one of the last practices this week before the league's Desert Bowl on Friday. Delores Johnson / The National

The quizzical stares of children were quickly replaced by questions that cut to the chase.

Charles Gillespie and his band of helmeted curiosities were preparing for practice last month when they drew the attention of some local children, who took a long look at the choreographed mosh pit and raised the obvious question.

What sport are you playing, the kids wondered aloud.

"Football," Gillespie said.

The children sniggered and pointed out to the burly American that footballs are round, not spheroid-looking bullets like the ones Gillespie's team were throwing around.

"So the kids started calling it 'eggball'," he said with a laugh. "I told them we had a youth league, if they wanted to sign up and get the snot knocked out of 'em."

A comparable conversion and immersion began last autumn.

Seven months after his team, and an entire organisation, sprung from the sand, Gillespie's undefeated Abu Dhabi Wildcats will play for the inaugural Emirates American Football League championship on Friday at the Jebel Ali Shooting Club.

Truth be told, the conversation he had with the schoolchildren was not much different than the talk he gave his team on the first day of practice, last August, when players of every conceivable size, hue and ability showed up.

"This has been quite a cultural experience," said Ryan Michalenko, a Canadian who is a school administrator, as well as linebacker.

As he watches his team practice under the lights on a Khalifa City grade-school campus, Michalenko rifles through the assembled nationalities of the team as though he is taking roll call for class.

Players are Scottish, American, Canadian, Sudanese, Emirati, Turkish, German and English, among others. About all they have in common is a love, or an abiding curiosity, for a sport many had previously experienced solely via television.

MJ El Zubeir, an Abu Dhabi-born defensive back of Sudanese descent, had been involved in wrestling and martial arts but had never played the American game. His Emirati friend Nader Al Muhri, a running back, recruited him to play. Neither had strapped on a helmet before.

"It's like grappling people on the move," Al Zubeir said, enthusiastically. "The first time I hit somebody, they fumbled. I thought, 'Yeah, this is the sport for me'."

The sentiment is similar for the rest of the squad of amateur players, which is composed of helicopter mechanics, schoolteachers and government employees, some with 30-year gaps in age. Twice this week, the Wildcats (7-0) convened at the Gems American Academy to prepare for Friday's 4.30pm game against the Dubai Stallions (6-1) in the league's first Desert Bowl championship game.

Though it has been a long season filled with the predictable growing pains of a start-up sports entity, the American utility player Jay Drummond was having a somewhat wistful moment as he surveyed the practice field.

"This will be my last game, win or lose," Drummond said, sweat pouring off his shaved head. "It is a violent, young man's sport. I feel good about it, though."

Well, except that his thigh hurts, his right shoulder aches and he has been having trouble with diabetes. Drummond is 54 and has been playing football since he was a six-year-old junior player in the Washington area. Which might represent more experience than the rest of his team combined.

"This team has come a long way in a pretty short period," said KC Paulson, an American running back. "Even the guys with no football experience, the people with a competitive nature, from a soccer background or wherever, they had that team mentality and that desire to compete."

The squad numbers around 28, but because they all have day jobs, the turnout at practices varies. Gillespie and his staff of volunteer coaches have worked wonders given the time frame and varying levels of ability and commitment.

Dustin Cherniawski, the league's general manager, said it does not take long to deduce if a candidate has what it takes.

"The first time a guy gets hit in the chest you find out who's a football player and who's a cheerleader," he said.

Cherniawski, who played in the Canadian Football League, started the EAFL last autumn. Teams were established in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, with two in Dubai. That was the comparatively easy part. Then the logistics portion began - finding competent referees, securing game and practice venues and ordering equipment. As for the latter, the Wildcats' gear showed up two days before their first game.

Cherniawski said the league includes players of 35 nationalities, although 30 per cent of the rosters are filled with expatriate Americans and Canadians, such as Michalenko, who played at the University of Alberta and was hesitant about joining the league. So he called Gillespie.

"Basically, I interviewed him," said Michalenko, 30. "We had leagues back home that I had stayed away from because I didn't want to deal with that WWE [wrestling] and steroid-type mentality."

A practice session this week was well organised, and the players are soaking up the lessons, although Gillespie is a relative youngster at age 33. He coached at the youth and high school levels in North Carolina before moving to the UAE two years ago.

He hits his team repeatedly over the head with the rudiments, which has translated to success as other EAFL teams have dabbled more often in the razzle-dazzle.

"We teach fundamentals, we coach fundamentals and we drill fundamentals," he said.

There is some fundamental fun, too. Everyone seemingly has a nickname, from Flash to Microwave to the Professor. It's probably easier than remembering some of their given names, given the crazy confluence of nationalities.

Gillespie has four Emirati players on the team, more than the rest of the league combined, he said, and two are team captains.

For instance, Al Mahri, 24, who has seriously quick feet, had played 13 years of team handball, a contact sport, but never before played American football. He described his first day of practice as "point zero". Now he is one of the league's best players, Cherniawski said.

"I had seen it on TV," Al Mahri said. "But I am a quick learner."

Having arrived 30 minutes before practice, Cory Peisel, 29, the quarterback, is slowly lacing up his shoes and chatting with teammates, his University of Georgia T-shirt visible. He played in high school in the Atlanta area, but not in college.

His alma mater, Georgia, is a powerhouse programme in the States, and like many American males from the south-east of the US, Peisel cannot get enough of the sport, despite the dents and dings. He flashes bruises on his right arm that are weeks old and concedes to feeling sore in every pore after most games.

"Hot showers over the years have turned into icy baths," Peisel said with laugh. "But that's the price you pay for one more week of playing the game you love. I say thanks every day for having the opportunity for one more play."

What Emirates American Football League’s Desert Bowl

Who Abu Dhabi Wildcats (7-0) v Dubai Stallions (6-1)

When 4.30pm, today

Where Jebel Ali Shooting Club, Dubai

Directions located 1.5 km before Jebel Ali Golf Resort in Jebel Ali. Parking is plentiful.

Tickets Admission by donation; adults Dh30, children Dh15, infants free.

For more information Visit online at www.eafl.ae or email info@eafl.ae

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