American Football subtly similar to league

Despite the Denver Broncos defence rushing at him, New England quarterback Tom Brady gets a pass away. 	Photos: GETTY IMAGES
Despite the Denver Broncos defence rushing at him, New England quarterback Tom Brady gets a pass away. Photos: GETTY IMAGES

AMERICAN Football is a game that has confused many an Aussie during the years.

In fact, most of us only pay attention to it briefly when the Super Bowl winner is decided each January.

While on a recent holiday to America I got to take in a match between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

The location of the stadium was the first thing that struck me.

It's about 35 kilometres south-west of Boston, the nearest major city - but that is for a very good reason.

In Australia we are used to having most of our major sporting venues in highly populated areas (think the SCG, MCG, Etihad Stadium, ANZ Stadium, the Gabba).

Having stadiums in highly-residential areas leaves little room to do all the things you want when you go to a game - shop, eat, drink and have a tailgate party - an American tradition.

Surrounding Gillette Stadium is a virtual city comprising a hospital, luxury hotel, a couple of sports bars, clothing shops, restaurants and basically anything you could want in a major city.

But realistically its a plaza set up on the side of a highway between Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.

It's fun but the real football experience starts by finding yourself some hardcore tailgaters.

Basically, a tailgate party is where fans arrive at the stadium car park prior to kick-off, grill some hot dogs and hamburgers, sink a few beers under a tent set up behind their vehicle, and enjoy each other's company.

"It's a tradition for a lot of football fans. You don't do it in Australia?" Dan Flint from the nearby town of Norwood asked me.

"We only get eight home games a year so we come early, sometimes four hours before the game starts, have something to eat and drink and then go in to the game.

"Because there's so many people here, when the game is over we generally come back to the car, set up again and have a few more drinks and more food until the traffic clears and then we go home.

"It's a long day but it's a fun day, especially when the team wins, and it's something that gets passed from generation to generation.

"My dad brought me to tailgate parties when I was young and now I bring my kids with me. Hopefully they will do the same when they grow up and start having kids."

As a Patriots fan, to watch a game and have a Budweiser or two at a tailgate party was a 'bucket list' item and one that I'm glad I did.

The atmosphere was such that I think even a non-follower would enjoy watching a live game. What's not to like about plenty of loud music and more than 65,000 loud American fans enjoying a good game of football, eventually won 31-21 by the Patriots.

Before leaving for the USA I was lucky enough to make contact with the Patriots and through their vice-president of media Stacey James, got to take in the game from the press area.

Interestingly, the media over there get a 45-minute timeframe five days a week to interview players in their locker rooms prior to practice or post-game.

It was an interesting place to be as some of the players look like they've been carved from stone while others are simply built like a brick outhouse.

I asked a couple of the players if they knew much about Australian sport.

The first things they all said was "you play rugby down there right?" and "they don't wear any helmets or padding?".

While the NFL is thought of as a sport for big, quick men, there is no denying the admiration they have for our league and union players.

"It's crazy that they don't wear any of that gear but from what I've seen they tend to use their shoulders a lot more when they make tackles," Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker, whose primary job is to catch passes, said.

"Here a lot of the time the helmet is a weapon and it's a weapon that gets used a lot. I'm not as big as most of the guys here but I reckon my speed would be suited in rugby to help avoid some of that contact, same as in the NFL."

Rob Gronkowski is the closest thing American football has to an all-rounder, having to run the ball, block for his quarterback and catch passes, so he's used to physical contact.

But the 6'6" 120kg tight end stopped short of saying he would try any of our football codes.

"No way," he said with a laugh.

"Some of what I have seen of rugby on television is insane. It's a cool-looking sport but those guys are crazy.

"I don't know the rules of the game that well but I do know those guys must be pretty tough to go out there and do what they do."

For most Americans, their knowledge of Australian sport is as much as most Australians' knowledge of American sport.

While the differences between American Football and rugby league or union are obvious, the similarities are subtle.

Over there they have specific position players and teams for offence and defence.

In the NFL a player with the skill-set of Jonathan Thurston would be a quarterback and his sole job to throw passes, no tackling or kicking required.

Where rugby league players have a set of six tackles to try and score, they have four plays (called downs) to progress 10 yards, at which time they get a fresh set of downs and their march down field continues.

If they can't do that, depending on field position, they will either punt or attempt a field goal.

When you have the ball, your defence is on the sidelines sucking on Gatorade and having a rest and vice-versa when the opposition is in possession.

There are players whose sole job is to block and protect the quarterback (whose role is similar to our halfback) and some guys who spend just a couple of minutes on the field per game, which even though it's only four 15-minute quarters can take upwards of three hours to complete.

Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, a Romanian-born former soccer player who I found out speaks five languages, kicked the ball three times during the match - that was it.

But he did it well, continually kicking deep and pinning the Broncos close to their own end zone and denying them field position.

"It's a good day for the team when I don't have much to do and if I have to make a tackle, then something has gone seriously wrong," Mesko said.

"If I'm out there kicking too often it means we are giving up possession and not scoring so three kicks is good.

"I also hold the ball for our kicker Steven Gostkowski when he attempts field goals or points after touchdowns so I much prefer being out there to do that. It means we're hitting the scoreboard."

Punting is the position in which a number of Aussies have made their mark in the NFL.

Former AFL players Ben Graham and Saverio Rocca are the most recent punters to make their mark in what is a high-pressure world.

"Those Australian Rules players come over here and even though they have to adapt to a different ball and kicking style, they have a big advantage because they know the mechanics of how to kick a ball properly," Mesko said.

"From what I have seen of that game on television when I was back in Europe it takes a lot of skill and they bring that over here and there's more and more Aussies making it now."


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