Etihad Airlines Inflight Magazine Feature
Growing the League
THE NFL SUPER BOWL IN THE US IS WATCHED BY MILLIONS. IN A NOD TO THE SPORT'S GROWING POPULARITY, TW...O INTERNATIONAL SERIES GAMES WILL BE STAGED IN LONDON THIS YEAR. AND NOW AMERICAN FOOTBALL TACKLES THE UAE
A young man, kitted in blackand beefed up with serious padding, reaches up and plucks the ball from the air with one hand. Tucking it under the crook of his arm, he sprints up the field, deftly weaving past the defensive players of the opposing team. He barrels into a player blocking his path, spinning out of his grasp while maintaining his hold on the ball. When he reaches the end zone, he dives Superman-style over the line, slamming the ball to the ground. Touchdown.
The game of American football is played professionally and in amateur leagues across the United States. Now, in its latest move, it is making inroads into the UAE. The Emirates American Football League (EAFL) has brought full-contact American Football to the Arab shores for players of all skill levels, from beginner to experienced, in a safe and structured environment. Teams in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai battled it out throughout the inaugural 2012/2013 season, culminating in the Abu Dhabi Wildcats triumphing at the Desert Bowl in March.
As the heat of summer subsides and a new season prepares to kick off, potential players are dusting off their boots and pulling on their protective padding, ready for the open try-outs being held across the nation this month.
"It's for anybody who's interested, -come on out, see if you like it, see if it's for you, and if you're keen you can sign up and start practicing with one of the teams," says Dustin Cherniawski, General Manager of the EAFL.
This is very much the attitude of the budding league - it's about getting involved, regardless of your experience level.
"It was a range of skills sets and abilities - we had guys who'd never even touched a football before and then we had some guys who'd played high-school football; they played for their local team in England, some of the guys played in college football teams in the States. I had played professionally back in Canada. So we had everything from absolute beginners to former professionals," says Cherniawski about the launch season.
The EAFL started organically.
"A couple of years ago there was a bunch of guys throwing a ball around, maybe 35 guys, and they were all interested in American football, but there were no organised leagues out here. So we got together and coached ourselves with the goal of playing a game," explains Cherniawski, one of those 35. There were no regional leagues for the group of men to playagainst, but someone knew someone, and they staged a game against a Turkish team in March 2012.
"Unfortunately, we got beat pretty bad," laughs Cherniawski. "The guys were a little bit discouraged, but what came out of it was pretty positive."
The group realised that the only way they were going to have a chance of beating anyone was if they played more regularly. To do that, they needed more games under their belts, and the best way to do that was to form a local league.
"We put ourselves on a mission to find a few more players, to have maybe two teams," says Cherniawski. "We put out the word and before we knew it we had over 160 people interested. As the idea got rolling, the kids picked up on this. There was a fledgling youth football league out here. All the parents saw what we were doing and said 'Well, why don't we just join up with these guys and then we'll have a vertically integrated league?' So we did."
This led to exponential growth - the membership expanded to 270 within the first four months.
Both Cherniawski and the new EAFL commissioner, Stan Gay, are determined to see the league's development continue.
"We'd like to see two things happen," announces Cherniawski. "We would like to have more depth within our programmes - so more players and developing the quality of players - and, of course, expanding the programmes."
This expansion includes introducing a youth programme in Al Ain and developing a second programme in Abu Dhabi.
"That's looking very positive," Cherniawski confirms. "The youth programme in Abu Dhabi is bursting at the seams. We're going to be looking to launch the Abu Dhabi Scorpions this year."
"The players are making huge strides in learning the game of American football," says Gay proudly. "Football is a tough game to master. There is still a lot to teach and to learn, but for the most part all teams are moving in the right direction."
Gay believes a consistent positive fan experience is what will ultimately grow the league.
"The long-term goal of the league is for each team to put a decent product on the field that fans will want to watch," he explains, although he recognises that there are so many nuances to the game that it will take time. "We are still at the grassroots level right now and need as much support as possible, but the skill level of the players is improving every day and the league is growing at a phenomenal rate. It will take another one to three years before the product we put on the field is at the level for sustainability [but] the players are putting in the necessary work and effort to eventually help the league to the next level of play."
The junior and senior programmes that feed into the men's league are key in the continuing growth of the sport in the region, and there are a number of promising players coming through the ranks.
"We have some impressive Emirati players on the teams," says Gay. "It is amazing to see them play this game for the first time at such a highlevel. They play with passion [and] enjoy the strategy of the game. Of all the nationalities on the EAFL teams, the Emirati players are the most attentive and coachable."
"There were a couple of guys who stood out this year from the seniors' teams," says Cherniawski in regards to the more experienced players. "There was a gentleman from Abu Dhabi, Andrew Williams, who plays both sides of the ball…"
Williams won the Offensive Most Valued Player award last season, but as part of the victorious Abu Dhabi team, he says the most important trophy was the Desert Bowl.
"The highlight of the season had to be winning the first ever Senior Desert Bowl. I'd trade all of my individual awards for a championship," he states.
Hailing from Virginia, Williams has been playing football for 11 years. "When I heard about the EAFL, I knew I had to join. I never would have thought that I would be able to play football in the UAE, but the EAFL proved me wrong," he says.
With college football ambitions, Williams is looking forward to the season ahead.
"I will be playing in the adult league this year and hopefully walking on to a team in college. I hope to be able to attend Virginia Tech and play for them," he says, cheekily adding "Oh and by the way, Go Wildcats!"
There is no faulting the enthusiasm surrounding the sport in the UAE, which appeals to a broad audience in terms of both players and fans.
"We currently have over 35 nationalities represented on ten teams," says Gay. "I believe [that] once people in the region see the game grow, they will be drawn in very rapidly. The controlled aggression nature of play is unlike any other sport they have ever witnessed. In addition, the strategy of the game is enticing and requires a degree of intellect to follow. This will take the game to new heights in the region."
- by Giselle Whiteaker
Ok all you loyal BAMA Fans, here is a little something I like to show you just to get your juices flowing before the Crimson Tide Kick off their 2013-14 season. Let's not forget last year and the year before and what those teams did. We won it all, because that's what we do at BAMA, win Championships. This is the best video that captured the 2012 season. Good and the Bad. You heard it here first just like you heard it here first from me last year and the year before that. The... BAMA train is a coming...so either you get on board or get ran over by a bunch of crazed Red Elephants. PERIOD. Its BCS National Title game or bust and at BAMA we don't bust. We win.
For those of you that don't know what all the fuss is about with Alabama Football Fans just watch this video then watch the VA Tech vs Bama game today on ESPN 5:30cst. I am in Dubai and I will be up at 1:25am waiting for the kick off. Why? Because I bleed CRIMSON BABY. RMFTR!
The banana boat is coming........the banana boat is coming.
By the way, my prediction in this game for VA TECH..........is PAIN, LOTS of PAIN.
Roll Tide! Go BAMA
EAFL training clinics will begin in Dubai the first week in Sept. Several pro ex NFL and CFL players will be on hand to run the training stations and show players how its done. The EAFL is moving extremely fast. I plan to bring players from the USA to Dubai and play in the next couple of years. Stay tuned..... www.eafl.ae.