Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What Britons Play When Cricket Seems a Bit Tame

By George Anders, Wall Street Journal, 6/27/85

LONDON -- There are reasons to be tired of Yankee things. U.S. tourists clog British byways. Rock, the drug culture, and other American imports menace the young. The dollar is too big for its britches.
At the same time, a popular new British pastime on weekends is . . . .

Playing American football.

"I saw the game on television, and I was enchanted," says Frank Dunster, a trader in British municipal bonds at Akroyd & Smithers. Weekdays Mr. Dunster is impeccable in pinstripe/foulard; weekends he is manager/part-time linebacker for the Stock Exchange Stags, one of 38 American-style football teams in Britain.

Purists may question if people who say "enchanted" can be the genuine gridiron item. But Mr. Dunster, despite his years (34) and size (five feet seven inches) gives his all, charging downfield at a south London stadium in search of ball carriers, tackling hard when he finds them, and yelping with glee when he recovers a fumble.

Some of the British footballers, especially the rugby veterans, could hold their own in an American football scrum. "When people hear we're from the Stock Exchange, a lot of them don't take us seriously," says Alex Wilkinson, a 220-pound financial-futures trader. "They think we're a bunch of public-school pooftahs. We show them a thing or two."

Some of the British players, in fact, are scornful of all the padding and protection for thighs, hips and shoulders that goes along with the American game. "You get better bruises in rugby," says Robert Mapstone, an options broker/running back.

American football British-style has its special features. The 10-game schedule is played in the spring and summer. "We know football should be played in the autumn," says Mr. Dunster. "But rugby and British football (soccer) would take away all our supporters then."

Only three Americans are allowed per team, and they have to wear a taped letter "A" on the back of their helmets. "It makes them seem like second-class citizens," says one British spectator, not seeming overly concerned.

Except for the American ringers, most of the Stock Exchange Stags had no football experience. Coach Mark Stanton, an American, recalls the first time he threw passes to the wide receivers. "They would try to knock the ball down with their heads," he says. "That's what they were used to, from soccer. We had to teach them to catch the ball."

The fans have a little trouble following the nuances of the game, too. In one recent tilt (Stags vs. Harlow), the referee signaled a penalty. Fans turned to page 11 of the program, where the signals were explained. "That must be intentional grounding," one man decided. "I don't think so," his neighbor said. "That was the kickoff."

The platoon system of American football proves baffling. A young man in the crowd explains to his companion, a woman in a sun dress, why a mutual friend isn't on the field at a given time: "He's on the defensive team. They specialize in defense. They only go on when the other team has the ball."

"Oh, right," she replies, still looking puzzled.

Keeping score presented a problem in the Stags-Harlow contest. The stadium's rugby scoreboard was broken, and the cricket scoreboard wasn't adaptable to football (throughout the game, it incongruously read: "Blackheath, first wicket, 99 runs").

As it turned out, the Stags won, 34-18. The players shook hands, then retired to the pavilion for gin and tonics or English bitter beer, and for conversation with an American visitor about why they fancy the bruising Yankee sport.

"I was looking for something else violent to play," said Mr. Wilkinson, an old rugby hand, "and along came football. It's a lot better than croquet.

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