Outside the sun gleams against the astro-turf in an almost magical glow; the twinkling white lights speckle against a myriad of white and blue and yellow lines, each one slicing the emerald almost-grass into ever-smaller sections destined to forever be untarnished, unblemished. It is perfection.
A splattering of fans move in to a large white room as the half-time whistle blows. It’s lined with two rows of beige tables, with a coffee machine against the back wall, a pile of paper cups that teeter on the edge of collapsing. Everyone is here of their own volition but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at them; they stare down at their shoes or tap away at their phones – anything to pretend their not in this bland purgatory. It is the lovechild of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and a hospital waiting room.
My attention is drawn to a woman in her mid-fifties who stands at the back of the room. She seems to know that she’s out of place here, perhaps even embarrassed, as she shuffles towards her husband and whispers, “They’re really into this, aren’t they?”
She’s talking about the Hampshire Thrashers – Southampton’s British American Football team. It’s not immediately obvious when you enter Test Park, the brand new £3M development from Solent University, but what these fans are witnessing is not sport, but a bizarre theatre. Just like in the NFL each player’s name is called out before the game and they run out on to the field – their team-mates forming a guard of honour and slapping each other as they run through it. But this isn’t a grand entrance, the kind that you see in the pros with a Tannoy announcing each name. This is a roll-call – a register. There is nothing spectacular about this, nothing unnecessarily extravagant – the hallmarks of American sport; this is merely perfunctory.
And that’s what makes this spectacle so unusual; everything is just how you see it on television, how you see it in America, but just… a little bit off. When #57, Paolo Memoli, walks over to the sidelines to talk to a fan – something he does throughout the game – he looks the real deal. His black and gold jersey, his helmet and golden knee-length trousers are almost indistinguishable from their New Orleans Saints doppelgangers, and unlike the hordes of fifty-something pot-bellied insurance salesman you see you on six-a-side night down at the park he has all the physical attributes; he’s tall, muscular and agile. But then he takes off his helmet and speaks.
“I think I broke a fingernail,” he says in a ridiculously posh English accent. It’s so jarring to bear witness to, so incredibly strange that it just shouldn’t be; it’s almost a burlesque parody of American football rather than the real thing. But even if the profligacy of the NFL isn’t here, the spirit certainly is. Late in the third quarter a chant echoes around the place, “Who needs [Thrashers Wide Receiver Kyle] Latore?!” an endearing reminder of how paradoxically alien and familiar this event is – the fans, mostly friends and family, know these players as people, but also as sportsmen. Another fan talks with his friend about the Thrashers’ play-calling late in the game; with first-and-goal on the one-yard line the coach called a pass play which backfires horrendously. The fan’s complaint of “What’s [the coach] doing?” is reminiscent of so many radio call-in shows from over the years.
What is remarkable about watching not just the Hampshire Thrashers but the entire British American Football Association system is that these are no-one’s jobs. Everything and everyone that has happened is purely down to a mutual love of this sport, so at times it’s hard to imagine this is a national competition with hundreds if not thousands of members. A field-goal misses wide left and disappears over a fence just like so many times in my childhood; but then you see a player go down injured and paramedics rush to the scene and treat him.
If only the game itself had come close to matching the enthusiasm and effort. The Exiles muffed three punts, both teams turned the ball over countless time and the game was constantly interjected by petty penalty calls, neither team capitalising on the other’s mistakes.
What ensued was a thrilling game of unpredictable mayhem.
The Thrashers led 13-6 in the final minutes before the Exiles got into the endzone – a play which was met by stunned silence and brought the deficit to 13-12. At this stage most teams would kick the extra point and go into overtime, and to reiterate how easy extra-points are: the average conversation rate in the NFL is 99.5%. In this game the teams made a combined 1 from 3.
The Exiles therefore decided line up for a 2-point conversion and potentially the win – and for the first time all day there was palpable tension in the air. For one moment it didn’t matter about the English accents, or the lack of spectacle, or the poor play – as for one play, one moment three hours of sport and hundreds of hours of work came down to a few seconds. This was no different to the NFL, no different to College football – it was simply 11-on-11 in a battle of physical and mental strength. For one moment this wasn’t theatre, this was sport – and no matter what level it’s being played at victory and defeat mean everything. To paraphrase that lady, everyone was in to this. Exiles Quarterback Zac Ritchie stood under centre, received the snap and dropped back to pass. Silence. Two yards would bring victory. Ritchie turned, handed the ball off to Running Back Wesley Eversley – it was a draw play. A trick play. Eversley took the ball and dived for the endzone. But at that moment, in perfect unison the Thrashers defensive line met Eversley, whose legs continued to churn but who was moving nowhere. He was stood up and thrown backwards. The attempt had failed.
The crowd went wild. All fifty-four of them.