Why should an Aussie care about American football?
Carolina Panthers defensive end Thomas Keiser (98) chases Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. AP Photo/The Detroit News, Daniel Mears
It’s a question I get asked incessantly. Many struggle to understand why an Australian can be passionate about a sport which does not exist locally. It’s because American football is the ultimate team sport.
As a sports enthusiast who has grown up in Melbourne predominantly around Australian football and cricket, American football has not always been a passion.
Growing up it was all about AFL. If you don’t know it, you don’t know how to play it and you didn’t support a team, you would be sitting in the corner of the playground feeding bread crusts to pigeons.
Towards the end of high school the NFL caught my attention when Ben Graham moved from the AFL to the NFL as a punter. As a Geelong fan, Graham was my favourite player and I was curious to see why he would give up the club captaincy to move to the US at the age of 31.
His booming left boot was his most dangerous weapon. It’s what made him so dangerous in the AFL.
A year after Graham left he earned a contract with the New York Jets to become the oldest rookie ever in the NFL. Shortly after, that record was broken by Sav Rocca, who earned a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles as a punter after leaving North Melbourne.
In New York Graham was a mediocre punter but he developed into the league’s best after he moved to Arizona. By the age of 35, Graham was the punter of the Arizona Cardinals who met the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2009 NFC Championship game. Graham was facing Rocca and the winner would be the first ever Australian to play in a Superbowl.
Arizona won that game but fell in the Superbowl to the Pittsburgh Steelers in an epic encounter which saw the Steelers pinch victory in the final minute of the game.
By then I was hooked. I’d watched two full games of American football and the sport itself was riveting.
Four years later I was in America studying at a football school.
Fans of other sports often knock American football because of its stop-start nature and the amount of padding the players wear for protections. Australian football and rugby players wear no padding and in Australia are considered tougher sports due to the athleticism required to play the games.
I’m not here to knock the Australian codes, but equal if not more athleticism is required in the NFL, dependent on a player’s position. I also consider the sport to be more dangerous.
Taking a look at the most appealing elements of the sport, one of my favourite is the effect on the game which linemen have. At first glance these guys look fat, lazy and get paid to eat pizza and drink coke. While that may be the case, linemen are silent achievers who do not receive praise by the media, nor on the statistics sheet.
Linemen, however, are given the task of protecting their quarterback and make blocks for their backs.
Blocking is one of the toughest skills in the NFL because it requires strength, alternates and acceleration. The most intriguing aspect of it is that if a players misses his block, their quarterback can get seriously injured. ‘The Blind Side’ is an excellent movie which shows the importance of laying what some would call a simple block.
Speed and strength are combined requirements of skill position players. Wide receivers and running backs need to be quick and strong enough to break tackles and run over people. They also get tackled more than any other players on the field, often with force.
Defenders usually run up to gather momentum before crunching the player with the ball.
The AFL has outlawed the bump, but in any given game of NFL there are dozens of head-high bumps which are legal because players wear helmets.
Receivers jump to catch balls only to find themselves spear tackled out of bounds when they hit the ground. There are more big hits in an NFL game than AFL and I like this. It makes for entertainment much better than that WWE stuff.
Probably the best element of American football, though, is the play calling. It’s stop-start nature allow organised plays to be called on every single play and coaches can control the game more so than any other sport.
The intricacies of play calling mean that every player on the field has an assignment for the play to work. If one guy fails his assignment, the entire play can break down.
This is the antithesis of teamwork.
Players get injured when their team mates fail their assignments.
I do not take pleasure in seeing players injured, but for a team sport, this is the ultimate show of faith which makes American football the ultimate team sport and why it’s worth waking up at 3am to watch live.