From Second Row to Second Down

My first 12 months in football. Let me set the scene for you; It’s Mid-December 2010, cold as hell outside and nothing to do on a Saturday night even with my Rugby match being called off in the morning. What do I do? What any other self respecting 18 year old would do – scour xbox live arcade for a cheap fix to pass the time. After a few minutes of flicking I come across Madden NFL Arcade, a 5-on-5 mini football game for about 50p’s worth of points. I downloaded it with the mind-set of  ‘A bunch of girls running round in circles with big pads on, this could be fun’. Within 5 minutes of playing I was on YouTube searching for NFL’s Biggest Hits – and seemingly hooked for life.

Yeah, I’m not even going to lie about it, I became a football player through getting completely owned by the computer at a comedy football game. Makes me glad I never bought a copy of ‘Figure Skating 09, The Spandex Edition’ anyway.

The first training session I attended was in January 2011 and I actually skipped a rugby game in Fleetwood to be there. Partly because only 2 players had turned up for training that week and I was annoyed, but mainly because I had to satisfy the voice in my head asking if football was all it was cracked up to be on the computer.
In the pouring rain I was made to do burpee’s, sit ups, star jumps, sprints, stand in the worlds most awkward body positions, run in oddly named routes whilst the worlds most fragile QB pelted balls at me and an angry sounding coach from Chorley shouted ‘C’MON MAN’ every time a ball was dropped. (Not to mention someone having a fit, which scared half of the guys to death). But the minute I ran my first slant route, saw the ball fly in a perfect spiral straight into my hands, I fell in love – and everything people loved about the sport made sense.

I’ve not played a single minute of Rugby since that session.

Pre season was definitely an odd feeling. For the past eight years I’d walked into Rugby training sessions knowing exactly what to do, which line out to call, who should be at what ruck and setting up the next Queen running play. I’d gone from ‘6-3-5-4-2-7 Tight’ to ‘3-4 Cover 2, Mike Blitz’ in the space of a week.  That was a much bigger change than I expected.

Now I was a blank slate in a world of what seemed to be 20-year veterans, ex-university players that almost knew how to tackle and everyone else in between. Being a junior I learnt to play a little bit of everywhere with a main focus on 2 or 3 positions. It was a lot to take in and I couldn’t walk up and down the stairs properly after the first few sessions of standing in a linebacker stance, let alone having to learn a proper 3-point stance (against my will) for the O-Line. But I was making friends left right and centre and having a craic I’d pretty much lost in the midst of the Rugby season. Life was good and for 3 hours 12 until 3 every Sunday, this had become the highlight of my week. When training expanded to twice a week, I suffered from literal Nerdgasm’s! (For those of you who don’t know what a nerdgasm is, imagine back to when you first got colour television and you’ve just about hit on the head).

I’m going to time warp a little bit, and jump to the start of the season. Titan’s juniors had lost a lot of returning players from the year before and thanks to the will power of the team manager and the fortunate folding of another local club, we’d managed to scrape past the 25-player minimum registration barrier. So it’s safe to say we were going to hit the first game at a disadvantage. What was supposed to be an eight game season was instantly reduced to five thanks to the folding of two teams, and we received our only W’s on the season in the process.
The first game of the season was set for Leeds away. I had no idea if they were any good or not, and I didn’t really care. I enjoyed the fact that to me the whole ‘oh my god, they won the cup last year, they’re awesome’ pre-game self psyche-out had gone and I could just focus on my own game. Last minute pre-game checks and play through were done, and I was named a Captain, which probably meant more to me than the coaches realised.

I’ve always had butterflies before opening kick off, regardless of the sport or the time in the season, but this time it was different. It was an excitement more than nervousness; the voice in my head was going ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but it’s damn sure going to be fun’. No matter how many skeleton drills or practice scrimmages you do, nothing can prepare you for that first game, when it’s finally you versus other people and the coaching is all gone for the next 2 hours. It felt odd, like the first time you ever look at something with 3D glasses on and it took me a few minutes to gather myself and get acquainted with how things were going to work on the pitch. Once it clicked, it felt brilliant – I was taking on offensive linemen, made a tackle in the backfield, got a pat-down, returned a punt (by accident) and best of all I was actually good at it! We lost that game, but I didn’t care. We put out our best performance of the season and beat them in the second half 6-0!

Sadly the season got progressively worse results-wise and I had to miss the second game due to an interview.

Our third game was against Gateshead at home and my worst nightmare had come true, I had to play defensive end, or so I thought. I’d practiced a little bit before the game but that was about the extent of my knowledge of what to do physically, despite knowing the playbook by heart. I got on to the pitch and the first play of the game I’m lined up shading the best Michael Oher lookalike in the world in their Left tackle. The ball was snapped, and a split second later I’m in the FB’s face and pressuring the QB. This was the most fun imaginable on the football field! After months of griping and complaining about having to play line, I’d become overwhelmed with passion for the position. Gateshead played an Option offence, so if I got remotely around the corner the ball was in the opposite direction – but I still managed to come away with two sacks and three tackles! I’ve also classed myself as a DE ever since. Yeah, we lost this one too – a pattern is emerging I know.

The following Sunday, we’re up against Leeds again with the reverse fixture of the opening game of the season for us. This time I’m at Outside Linebacker and in the words of Coach Murdoch, ‘You’re going to be Blitzing every play, have fun!’. The defence (myself included) didn’t put out the best showing possible. We struggled to maintain outside contain and when we did the person in the backfield had disappeared. I managed to come away with another sack and three tackles, two injured knees and a t-shirt tan I’m still dealing with to this date.

In the weeks post this game, we had a rubbish turn out to training, something we’d struggled with all season – but this was taking the mick. Coach Stretch did his best and got us to play a little bit of 5-a-side football with the numbers we had. But for me it was a disaster. I tried to run a fly route and my Achilles tendon partially ruptured – there was my season over instantly. I was absolutely gutted, but there was nothing I could do to prevent it – just accept it and move on.

Final game of the season was Lancashire Wolverines away at their anniversary event. I was stood on the sidelines with my crutches for this one, but I was still allowed to walk out as a captain that made it a little bit sweeter. We had a makeshift side, people playing out of position and quite a few people not even bothering to pitch up. This was the hardest game of the season for me. We got torn apart that game with a devastating result, and to stand on the sideline helpless to it is the worst feeling in the world. I let the players know how I felt at half time with an Alex Ferguson inspired hairdryer, that JP still quotes to this day. We didn’t end the season on a high, that’s safe to say. But my passion was not quelled in the slightest.

Since the season finished I’ve attended Football University Camps, Combine testing events down in London and spent my whole off-season making myself a better football player as well as getting other football related things into the pipeline for the future!

I’m also now a permanent fixture on the committee as the club’s Welfare Officer and hoping to clinch myself a starting spot on the Senior team defence, and avoid the abuse a rookie is undoubtedly going to get the best I can.

Roll on the 2012 season.