2020 Irish American Football Preview

A new season of Irish American Football in Upon us. On March 8th at 1pm, UCD and UL will kick off the Inaugural season of American Football Ireland. The league has  recently undergone a pretty comprehensive rebrand, but new logos and names aside it’s pretty much business as usual. Last year’s finale was contested by perennial top dogs the Belfast Trojans and first time finalists the South Dublin Panthers. Despite a lopsided start to the game, the Panthers made a valiant comeback attempt. But they never really stood a chance and Belfast skipped to another victory.

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Unsurprisingly, the Trojans are already heavy favourites to claim this year’s title. In fact, there are only three teams (in our opinion, don’t @ us) who really have a shot. The Dublin Rebels along with the Trojans have held a monopoly on Shamrock Bowl titles over the past couple of years, while the reformed Cork Admirals have become a force in the south. Cork’s tilt against the Rebels in 2018 was a very close affair, with 2 points being the difference in the final score. The Admiral’s ship was sunk at the semi final stage last year by the ambitious Panthers. The Panthers will be looking to ride the momentum from last season and make a return to the American Football Ireland Championship game.

Outside of the “top 3” there are a couple of teams looking to make some noise this season. 

UCD  have gotten to a semi final several times now, but have yet to make it as far as a Championship game. The students had a strong campaign in 2019 including decisive wins over the eventual title contending Panthers, as well as the Dublin Rebels.But can they take the next step? The Rebels themselves didn’t have a great year at all. Defeats to the newly demoted Knights and southside rivals UCD saw them miss out on the playoffs for the first time in years. The championship record holders will be looking to put last season behind them and return to winning ways. 

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Can a new Challenger emerge this season and upset the status quo in Irish American Football’s top flight? The likes of the Craigavon Cowboys and the Dublin Rhinos are only a few plays away from being in the conversation. Both clubs enjoyed a fierce rivalry during their time in Division 1 which has shown no signs of slowing down. Our prediction is that one of these teams will make it to the wildcard round this season, and who knows – maybe even further. Personally, we wouldn’t mind seeing things being shaken up a little bit. For example, It’s been about ten years since the Vikings last lifted the trophy. That was back in the “good” old days of the Smith Brothers. The landscape of American Football here has changed significantly in the intervening years, thankfully becoming more progressive and forward thinking – and actually focusing on the development of the sport here. But that’s a whole different article altogether!

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Honestly, we’re just glad that football is back! 

A History of College Football in Ireland

College Football makes its long-awaited return to Dublin this August, with the University of Notre Dame squaring off against old rivals Navy. This will be the third time that these sides meet on Irish soil and Notre Dame will be going for the Hat Trick.  Back in 1996, Notre Dame cruised to a 50-24 victory over the midshipmen in Croke Park.  The Sailors didn’t fare much better the second time around either, suffering a 50-10-point defeat to the Fighting Irish in 2012 at The Aviva Stadium.

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Notre Dame wore Tricolor gloves and cleats to mark the occasion.

But did you know that College Football’s history in Ireland goes as far back as the 1980’s?  The first ever college football teams to play here were the Boston College Golden Eagles and the Army Black Knights. The year was 1988, the venue was Lansdowne Road (the Aviva to you Millennials) and Boston College emerged victorious.  Just over a year later, there was a second college football game here as The University of Pittsburgh rolled over Rutgers on a score line of 46-29. Both games were known as the Emerald Isle Classic. The men behind these matches were Aidan Prendergast and Jim O’Brien, who were involved with the Irish American Football scene at the time.

The Golden Eagles and The Black Knights at Lansdowne Road.
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A young fan poses with The Pitt Panthers in Dublin, 1989.

The Emerald Isle series was reborn in 2012, as thousands of Americans descended on Dublin. Despite concerns over the time difference, the game was a huge success in terms of ticket sales and viewership back in the States. The third emerald isle classic provided a massive boost to the following of American football in Ireland.  People who would have had a passing knowledge or interest in the sport got to watch a game up close and live for the first time. And not just any old game but two of Americans top college football programmes. The positive effects of the 2012 game (including of course the massive cash influx to Dublin from tourism) inspired two further college football games in Dublin, taking place in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

2 years after Notre Dame sank Navy on Dublin’s South Side, Penn State University took on the University of Central Florida at GAA headquarters in what was dubbed the “Croke Park Classic”.  Despite the lack of an Irish connection, there was still a fantastic hype and atmosphere to the proceedings.  Penn State emerged victorious on the day, stealing the win from UCF with a last second field goal. The overall reception to the match up was positive, with the Penn State cheerleaders being a high point.

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Penn State with the Win!

The most recent iteration of a college football game in Ireland took place in 2016, with two lesser known teams taking the stage. Boston College returned to Irish shores to face off against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Without the name recognition of Notre Dame or Penn State, the “Aer Lingus College Football Classic” suffered a poorer attendance than its predecessors. It also suffered inclement weather, resulting in a low scoring 17-14 victory for BC.

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Ireland’s status as the official home of college football in Europe was cemented in October of 2018, when it was announced that there would be no less than five games taking place here over 5 years beginning in 2020. Two of those slots have already been determined: Notre Dame and Navy in 6 months’ time, followed by the University of Nebraska and the University of Illinois a year later. The latter is an interesting fixture. Neither of these teams boast a huge following outside of their home states, so we could potentially have another low attended game on our hands. A repeat of 2016 is unlikely however, as American Football’s fanbase has increased significantly here in the last 4 years.  Regardless of what teams fill the last three spots, a 5-year commitment is sure to put Ireland on the map as College Football’s home from home.

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The College Football Conundrum

The College Football season is just around the corner and with 5 games taking place in Ireland over the next few years, now is the perfect time to choose a college football team to follow!

The question is, what college team is the best one to follow? Well, that depends. There are a number of important factors to consider when selecting your college football team. Firstly and most importantly, can they win? Let’s face it, there’s no point in staying up till 3 am every Sunday morning to watch your team lose. If you’re going to sacrifice sleep to watch football, it has to be worth it. Secondly, does that team have a good reputation? If the coach is being investigated for something sketchy or underhand then maybe it isn’t the best idea to start supporting them. And finally – is their jersey nice? As shallow as it might sound, if your going buy their merch, you have to like how it looks.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the best college football teams to jump onboard with right now.

  1. Alabama

The Alabama Crimson Tide are without a doubt the best pound for pound college football team over the past 10 years. In the past 5 years alone they have appeared in 4 National Championship games, winning two of those. They always recruit the top players and have an evil genius as their coach. So if you want a team that wins, go with Bama! Although everyone will probably hate you for it.

2. Clemson

Clemson football are destined to be the next number one team in America, a fate they sealed by hammering their rivals Alabama in this years Championship game. The Tigers have a cool Coach, a monstrous Defensive Line and a Quarterback that will be playing on Sundays in the next two years. This is a bandwagon you definitely want to jump on!

3. Notre Dame

I’ll try to be as unbiased here as possible – but for me when I first got into college football, following the “Fighting Irish” was a no brainer! Not only are they once again emerging as a perennial contender for the national championship, but their mascot is a fecking Leprechaun! And if you find the Irish shtick to be offensive, then you don’t have any sense of humour. Notre Dame are on the come up in a big way and once their recruiting improves, expect them to be in the final on a regular basis.

4. Oregon

While they mightn’t have won much in recent years, the combination of ever changing uniforms and their adorable Duck mascot makes Oregon a solid team to support. Oregon’s jersey’s are produced by Nike and are usually pretty slick. They also occasionally produce talented footballers. For example, you may have heard of a guy called Marcus Mariota? The Ducks have been down on their luck in recent years but don’t be surprised if they splash back onto the scene this season.

Injury Prone

American football is a contact sport, and chances are that if you play at some stage you’re going to get injured. Bumps and bruises are part and parcel of the game and normally won’t impact on your playing time. But twisted ankles, sprained wrists and cracked ribs all pose a bigger challenge! There’s a distinct difference between playing hurt and playing injured. In the ten or so years I’ve been playing American football in Ireland, I’ve almost lost count of the number of injuries that I’ve picked up.

In fact, this year alone I’ve been injured 7 (yes 7 ) times since January. I’m what you might call injury prone”.

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But the point of this article isn’t to focus on the negative aspects of being injured. Quite the opposite in fact. Oftentimes when players get injured, their heads will drop and they’ll get disheartened. The worst thing you can do is wallow. This will only make things worse. Recovering from an injury is just as much a mental thing as it is physical.  So what exactly can you do to make sure you get back on the field as soon as possible?

  1. Keep working out.

The most important thing you can do to aid your recovery from a football injury is to stay as active as possible. Not only will working out keep you in game shape, it will keep the blood pumping and flowing which is vital in promoting healing. One of the biggest benefits of exercise is the release of endorphins; that magic happy hormone too boost your mood and overall productivity. It goes without saying that you should only push yourself as much as you feel comfortable with, doing your best not to re-injure yourself.

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  1. Stay involved.

Just because you’re injured, doesn’t mean you’re no longer part of the team.  Get yourself to training – you can learn just as much from watching and listening as you can from actually playing. Watching from the sideline will give you a different perspective and a different viewpoint from which to improve. Staying involved will keep you sharp and make your return to the field a lot easier.

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  1. Be Positive

You won’t be injured forever.  Keep your head up and keep working towards getting back to playing. Tracking your rehabilitation will help you to see how you are progressing and how close you are to returning to play.

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Injuries happen in our sport, and if you’ve been fortunate enough to never experience one then you are truly one of the lucky ones. But if you’re like me then you know just how demoralizing it can be to have to sit and look on as your team play. But trust me when I say that if you rehab properly and have the right attitude then you will be recovered and ready to play in no time.

The Growth of the Game

On Saturday afternoon, the 2019 SBC Season will kick off with the South Dublin Panthers hosting last year’s runners up, the Dublin Rebels. This season there are 22 teams competing in kitted football, the most that we can ever remember being active at the one time. It is without a doubt a time of great growth for the league and indeed the sport on the Island of Ireland. With one brand new team coming on board and one team returning to the fold, there will be a lot of football played in Ireland over the next 5 months.

There are changes afoot in the IAFL, and after years of poor management and shenanigans, the league finally seems to be moving in the right direction.

We recently sat down with IAFA Commissioner Brian Cleary to get his take on this growth and what is in store for the Irish American Football League during 2019 and beyond.

GG: What are your thoughts on the recent growth of the game in Ireland?

BC: I think everyone will agree that growth in any sport is a positive thing and it’s brilliant to see new teams expressing an interest and joining the association every year. This year we have a brand new team with the Causeway Giants and we welcome the return of the Waterford Wolves. We already have interest from two brand new teams for next season in parts of the country that has never had a team so we are definitely heading in the right direction. It’s important though that we manage our growth responsibly to ensure that all the clubs are sustainable and that we have the resources within the association to meet the growing demand for football in Ireland. While it’s great to have new adult kitted clubs coming on board each year, I feel it’s important we don’t neglect the need focus on the growth potential of flag football, youth football and indeed women in sport. Those are the areas that I feel will take our association to the next level and plans are underway to ensure we experience growth in those areas in the coming years.

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GG: What, if any, challenges are presented by new teams coming on board?

BC: New teams means more football, which is great but the challenge is then scheduling all those games to take place within the 5-6 months of our season. We are somewhat limited with the amount of games we can facilitate every Sunday and it’s pretty much dictated by the availability of home grounds and number of qualified full-time officials. We have started scheduling some games on Saturday’s and/or having double headers and I’m hoping that going forward more teams are willing to play on days other than a Sunday. We have recently restructured our officiating department and we now have a dedicated officiating development manager so we hope to see more full time officials coming on board to meet the growing demand. 

 

GG: How have the league been working to promote the sport and support the creation of new teams?

 BC: In late 2018 the board appointed a Director of Development – Niall O’Connor. This is a position that has been vacant for a number of years within our association and probably one of the positions we needed the most to develop and promote the sport. Niall brings in a wealth of experience and spent the last few months learning about the association and identifying our needs. I think we will start to see the benefit of his work and input in the months to come. 

 

In relation to new teams we are currently in the process of developing a handbook. The aim of this handbook is to help brand new or developing teams identify everything they need to successfully set up and run a club. A very rough version of this was actually supplied to the two new teams that joined us this year and indeed to the teams that are hoping to join us next season. It included a basic checklist on what was required to set up a club, a sample budget, constitution bylaws and general pointers on what is expected of a club. To my knowledge this was the first time the association has issued such a document to clubs and the feedback has been very positive. We hope to have the final version complete before the years end, which should be a big support for new clubs. 

 

GG: How will the announcement of more college games to be played here impact the growth of the game?

 BC: The college games present an amazing opportunity to promote our sport and raise awareness that American Football actually exists in Ireland. We have developed a good working relationship with organizer of these events and there will be most certainly opportunities for IAFA to benefit from these games. While I can’t go into great detail on it at the moment the focus will be on education and exposure for IAFA and its members.

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IAFA Commissioner Brian Cleary (right) at the launch of the 2020 College Classic

GG: What advice would you have for someone thinking about playing American football in Ireland for the first time? 

BC: I would say just get down to your local club and give it a go. If you’re thinking about it then you must have at least a small interest in it, so just do it. The American Football community are very welcoming to new players and all our coaches our certified by Coaching Ireland so you’ll be sure to have a safe and enjoyable experience. Be careful though, once you start playing it you’ll be hooked and never look back. It’s a great sport to be part of and you’re sure to meet a great bunch of people who will become friends for life.

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GG: Where do you see the league in 5 years’ time?

 BC: How long have you got? I would like to see growth and development across all areas of the association.  I would like to have maintained a consistent and competitive league structure not just for our adult kitted league but also for youth football. I can see our national team the Irish Wolfhounds participating in International competitions and our full time officials participating in such tournaments. I can see a massive growth in flag football particularly within schools and this is currently being supported by the NFL UK, which we are very fortunate to have working with us. Our Director of Coaching, Emma Burrows has already commenced a five year plan to raise the standard of coaching in Ireland. This is currently on track and I would be very hopeful that it will result in a very clear path, for new and existing coaches to develop their skills. I would like to see IAFA’s first all-female kitted game of football within five years with the ultimate goal of an all-female league being set up soon after. 

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I could literally talk forever on what I would like to see for our future but finally I think it’s important that IAFA improves its reputation both nationally and internationally, with the aim of securing sponsorship and commercial opportunities that can be used to further develop the association. 

 

 

Making the Cut

“Faith and perseverance always pay off” Weslye Saunders.

Draft Day has come and gone and while some NFL prospects were lucky enough to hear their names called, others will have to take the harder path to making a roster as undrafted free agents. The Draft, however, was just the beginning. The real competition starts now and rookies and vets alike compete for a coveted spot on a team’s final 53 man roster.

One player who knows better than maybe anyone just how tough it is to make a roster is Tight End Wes Saunders. Wes was primed as a high pick in the 2011 draft, but suffered an unfortunate injury just weeks beforehand. He was ultimately forced to take the tougher path to the NFL. Wes has played for two teams in his career and continues to work relentlessly to keep his playing career alive.

We sat down with Wes to gain a first-hand perspective into the journey of making the cut, from pre-draft preparation right through to currently fighting and grinding for the opportunity to make a team.

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Wes in action for the Steelers

GG: Tell us about your pre-draft process? How did you prepare for the draft to put yourself in the best position to be drafted?

WS: Well, upon entering the draft in 2011, I was predicted to be a high pick. So NIKE sponsored my NFL combine training in Dallas, TX at the Michael Johnson Performance Center. Under their awesome tutelage, I turned my body into a machine! But unfortunately, I overdid my training just a bit, and suffered a fracture in my foot just weeks before the combine. I tried to ‘tough it out’ during a few events but the pain was too unbearable. 

 

GG: Did you expect to be drafted?

WS: I fully expected to be drafted! But in the back of my mind, I knew what I was up against. I had just missed my entire senior season, I had recently broken my foot, and I was not able to showcase my physical gifts at the NFL combine…it was a ‘perfect storm’ so to speak.

 

GG: After going undrafted, how did it feel when you finally got picked up by a team?

WS: Once the NFL lockout was over and I was picked up by the Steelers, I was overcome with emotion. Feelings of joy, of course, but also of intense desire. As an undrafted player, I knew I had to TAKE my spot on the roster. But ‘undrafted’ was just a word to me. It didn’t mean sh*t. I knew I was the man. Still that 1st round talent. I just had to make sure the world saw it!

GG: How hard was it to make the final 53 man roster? 

WS: Making the roster in 2011 was one of the tougher obstacles I’ve faced. Following a +3 month lockout, teams and players were put in a precarious situation. We were essentially forced to have a full training camp/preseason in only 14 days. Unheard of! But thankfully, I had Heath Miller and a plethora of other Steeler veterans to turn to. In a matter of 2 weeks, I elevated my game from that of a rookie, to a seasoned NFL player.  Teammates such a Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward, helped me hone in, prepare my body, and execute my job in ways I hadn’t known before! I was really blessed to have those guys around me.

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Wes looking good in white!

GG: What did it feel like when you found out you had made the final roster?

WS: When I found out I made the roster, I felt slight relief. For about 2 seconds. Then my attention turned to the season

GG: You’ve spent time with both the Steelers and the Colts. What major differences did you find between the two teams?

WS: When I arrived to the Steelers, we were the ‘oldest’ team in the NFL. Guys like James Farrior, Brett Kiesel and a slew of other veterans stacked out roster. But when I got to the Colts in 2012, we were literally the youngest team in the NFL! It was Andrew Luck’s first season, and the club’s 1st without the great Peyton Manning. So we were really trying to find our identity. Then Coach Pagano got sick, and we instantly rallied together and found our purpose. Made the playoffs after being picked to finish LAST in the NFL!

 GG: For you, what was the hardest part to making an NFL Roster?

WS: The hardest part for me about making an NFL roster was the predicament I put myself in prior to the draft. Had I fulfilled my obligations in college, I would have been a 1st round selection, and the road would have been ‘paved,’ figuratively speaking. Being an undrafted player makes the road that much tougher for you! When an NFL team has no real money invested in you,that makes you disposable. So there’s much more to prove. But I wouldn’t trade the path I took for anything! I seem to thrive under that kind of pressure. And I truly believe that everything happens exactly the way it’s supposed to.

 

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Saunders as a Steeler, being tackled by a future Colt teammate. 

 

GG: Now that you’re a free agent, how do you put yourself in the best position to get signed by an NFL Team?

WS:Well, I was hoping you might have some insight on that? Haha But seriously, just staying in shape and staying on the phone with teams is the best way to stay relevant. Being ready when my time comes is the most important thing. 

 GG: Is it hard to stay motivated?

WS: It’s not hard to stay motivated because of my passion for football. If I wasn’t an elite player, or if I didn’t absolutely love the game, I don’t think I could remain this dedicated. But faith and perseverance always pay off!

GG: If you could pick any team to play for in the league, who would it be and why?

WS: I’d pick the team who puts their best players on the field!

 

Talking with Wes really gives you a sense of how everything needs to align perfectly for you to make it as pro football player. There are no guarantees, no matter how good you are. From everyone at Gaelic Gridiron, we wish Wes all the best in chasing his NFL dream and we hope a team sees his potential!