With the Shamrock Bowl, Ireland’s version of the Super Bowl, to be played in Ravenhill tomorrow, and the eagerly anticipated return of the Aer Lingus College Football Classic to Dublin at the end of the month, there is a temptation to say that local American Football fans have never had more action on their doorstep.
But tomorrow’s game between Dublin Rebels and UCD American Football, the first decider to be staged since 2019 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is not the first time that the home of Ulster Rugby has played host to an oval ball belonging to a different game.
During World War II, curious natives and on-duty US service men packed the stands of local stadia on four occasions for a series of games that were the first of their kind on these shores.
Those not au fait with the biggest rivalries on the other side of the Atlantic may have missed the joke when it was decreed that ‘Yarvard’ and ‘Hale’ would do battle, taking inspiration for their monikers from the two Ivy League powerhouses, but a lack of familiarity regarding the rules was a bigger concern in the build-up.
With ticket sales supporting causes such as the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Red Cross, such was the level of curiosity that the match-up made headlines under no less a masthead than that of the New York Times.
“The first big game of American Football ever played in Northern Ireland will take place next Saturday when Hale will meet Yarvard at Ireland’s rugby football ground there,” began their story. “American soldiers and sailors are having difficulty however in explaining to Ulster football fans (the) rules of the game.
“BBC has made arrangements to broadcast commentary on the game to troops in the Middle East.”
Enthusiasm, if not knowledge, was fulsome though with local press on the day carrying advertisements that implored readers to “come in your thousands and see two crack American sides in the first big game of American Football ever played in this country”.
The pomp and ceremony more familiar to US sport was on full display, even if the spectre of the ongoing war was never far away with the brass band’s drum bearing a depiction of Adolf Hitler under the instruction ‘Beat the Axis’.
After Yarvard kicked a field goal to win the game 9-7, the write-up in Stars and Stripes, an American military magazine, wondered just how many of those in attendance knew the final score.
Still, plenty were clearly sold on the product as a week later the same ‘Yarvard’ squad taking on a ‘Tech’ team that contained plenty who had turned out for ‘Hale’ again saw supporters turn up in their numbers to the Sandy Bay playing fields in Larne.
Now, of course, nobody questions the support’s knowledge or passion.
While some on the other side of the pond can still get snippy about the increasing internationalisation of their most popular sport as more NFL games than ever are played abroad in 2022, there is no denying the mushrooming interest and plethora of die-hard fans staying up to the wee hours to follow their adopted teams each weekend of the season.
Playing numbers are on the increase too, highlighted this week with the news that Lopez Sanusi will make the move from the Belfast Trojans to the NFL Academy in Loughborough.
Set up in 2019 and migrating to the East Midlands from Barnet this autumn, the programme offers students aged between 16 and 19 pathways into employment, further education and the opportunity to play NCAA college football in the United States by combining full-time education with professional-level American Football coaching.
With five Shamrock Bowl titles to their name, and still the most recent champions pre-Covid, the Deramore-based side are naturally disappointed not to be in tomorrow’s showpiece in their home city but the significant news of Sanusi’s selection has ensured it has still been a banner week.
Born in Dublin, the defensive end moved to Belfast at the age of 17 after time spent in the USA and Nigeria, only joining the Trojans’ newly-formed youth structures last year, earning MVP honours before his promotion to the senior ranks this season.
Under the tutelage of the side’s defensive-line coach Teddy Canty, an American who himself played collegiately in the States, again the teenager was a stand-out, picking up the team’s Defensive Player of the Year award. An incredible opportunity now awaits as he heads for England.
“Whenever Covid happened, one of the things we really wanted to focus on was setting up a youth side,” explained Hassan Jaafar, one of the coaches with the Trojans under-age sides.
“It was something that before, despite the success we’ve had with the senior side, we probably just hadn’t put the time and effort into where other sides in our League were and we were in danger of being left behind.
“Through the pandemic, we were able to secure a number of grants and coaches, get that set-up and Lopez was one of the first to sign up.
“Right away he was very ambitious and we could see his potential, but he was very raw too.
“He had all the physical traits but he’d never really played organised football, even when he was in the States.
“We knew if we could harness that potential then we could help him onto the next level.
“And he took to it like a duck to water, playing on both sides of the ball. With his athleticism, he really was dominant.”
While coaches and team-mates played a huge part in Sanusi’s development, Jaafar credits the player with a real determination to blaze a trail.
“As a young guy, he was always very coachable, always wanting to listen to the coaches and the senior players,” added Jaafar. “But he took on a lot himself, putting himself forward for the trials at Loughborough, and it’s just fantastic to see him get this reward.
“It’s a real endorsement of not just the Trojans but the League as a whole that we can produce athletes at that level.”
With one year of eligibility in the programme, Lopez will now harbour dreams of parlaying this opportunity into offers to play college ball in the US.
Local fans, meanwhile, will have a chance to see NCAA action up close and in person themselves later this month.
A sport that attracts 50m supporters to stadiums across the US each week through the autumn, with a further 145m tuning in to watch on TV, there is an ever increasing audience in Europe where increased coverage has made following along as schools do battle easier than ever.
And come the bank holiday weekend, it will once again land at the Aviva Stadium.
After Covid-19 put the series on hiatus, the fixture between Northwestern and Nebraska on August 27 represents the first step back on the road to what organisers hope will see Ireland become college football’s home away from home.
Returning for the first time since 2016, a commitment for five consecutive stagings has been made with next year’s fixture already in the diary after organisers pulled off a sensational coup in tempting Notre Dame to host their 2023 opener against old rivals Navy in Dublin.
With sides of that stature signed up, the possibilities will feel endless and ultimately the goal, with all the associated benefits not just for sports fans but for tourism too, is to make the first game of the college season synonymous with Ireland.
American Football here may have a long history dating back some eight decades, but now it seems that the future has never been brighter.