Friday, December 11, 2009

An Aussie's perspective on American College Football

Jess and I were 2009 season-ticket-holding-fans of Notre Dame's "Fighting Irish" college football team. In a previous post I described how South Bend comes alive for seven Saturdays in the fall as it hosts visiting college football teams at home. As it turned out, our season tickets weren't with the other graduate students, but with the "Freshmen" - the first-year college students - so we were thrown into fighting-irish-fandom with plenty of other newbies. But, the Freshmen had a huge advantage over us... they all live in the campus dorms and they had all been coached on the 20-plus cheers, songs, dances & traditions that students go through each game to cheer the Fighting Irish on to victory. Plus, we didn't look the part either... the freshmen all wore the matching "rise and strike" season t-shirts, while Jess' parents spotted us from the other side of the stadium because of the shirt and wide-brimmed Driza-Bone hat I had on. One surprise: the seats (really narrow benches called "bleachers") aren't used for their intended purpose - the ND students stand on the bleachers for the entire game, usually 3-4 hours, only taking a break at half-time.

A football ticket doesn't just buy you a football game at Notre Dame - also included are military fly-overs, marching bands, the Leprechaun mascot and yes, the cheerleaders! Throw in the football game and it really is a great experience!

The Irish started the season strongly with a string of wins and close games, two of which went into nail-biting over-time periods. But, the Irish couldn't maintain the momentum for all four quarters and often found themselves too far behind for a final quarter catch-up. While the games were close, the Irish lost the last four to end up with a 6-6 record for the season, which got the head coach fired... In the years to come, watch out for Jimmy Clausen and  Golden Tate in the NFL - these guys can play!

As an Aussie who grew up amongst four football codes I have mixed feelings about American football. On the whole there are lots of things I like about the game: there are a large variety of great tactical plays which keep defensive-sides and the fans guessing, some incredible throws and receptions, big hits and it takes a big team effort to win a game - all good!

I however do not like the "media time outs" which leave the players standing aimlessly on the field waiting for  commercials to run on viewers TV's -- it kills the momentum and is a downer for the fans at the game. In contrast, in Soccer, Rugby and AFL the game dictates the broadcast.

There is a scenario that kills the end of a close game and I really despise it. If the team leading the score board have possession of the football in the closing minutes, they can literally waste the final two minutes by running down the play-clock, removing any opportunity for the defensive team to turn-over the football and score to win or tie-up the game.

While American football is a big team effort, which I like, I find it odd that many of the players would never touch the ball during the game; I bet many wouldn't touch the ball all season. The other football codes are ball-centric where everyone gets their hands and feet on the ball (the possible exception may be Rugby Union forwards). An effect of this is the stars of American games are always the players that touch the ball - the quarterback, receivers and running backs.

Only in American sports would you come up with a game that would involve flying or busing a squad of 60 players, 10 coaches, support staff, cheerleaders, a marching band and a Leprechaun across the country to play - the travel costs must be enormous! Which brings up the critique of why you need so many players to play this game? The positions seem so specialised, where you need 3rd string back-up players who may never get to run onto the field all season. The other football codes seem to produce much more versatile players. Which is why Aussie Darren Bennett, an AFL turned NFL punter, is considered to be arguably one of the NFL's greatest punters, partly due to his versatility.  I like the stories of the small-town high school football teams who only have enough players to have a few reserves, so that most players are on the field for offense, defense, field-goal attempts and kick-off receptions - these guys really get to play the game!

I don't want to fall into Deborah Hutton's trap this week of "biting the hand that feeds me" - ND football brings in the $'s which allows the University to give Jess a free financial ride during her Ph.D and even pay her to study at ND. So I am committed to learn more about American football and be a fan of Notre Dame while we live in South Bend.
Go Irish!

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