THE grunt and grind of American Football is growing in popularity across Peterborough, which has its own team. The Saxons are steadily making progress in the league after a whirlwind ride from Boston and Spalding to its current base in Stanground. Deputy features editor John Baker met up with club chairman Mark Kerr as he prepares to take the club into its tenth season.
IN a sport where marquee nicknames over the years have included “The Refrigerator”, “Big Ben”, “The Hotel”, and “A-Train”, you wouldn’t expect shorter people to have a chance.
So when 5ft 6in 12-stone Mark Kerr walked through the door I was a little surprised that we were not too far off level terms, speaking as someone who is only 5ft 1in tall.
The chairman and sometime quarterback for American Football team the Peterborough Saxons believes that the pads and helmets are great levellers in the USA’s number one sport.
On February 6, 111 million US people watched Super Bowl XLV, the largest viewing figure in the history of American television.
Twitter and Facebook accounts across the world were deluged with updates from The Green Bay Packers’ 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Texas.
Mark (29), who saw the thrilling match with fellow fans in the early hours of the morning, can even remember when he first watched the sport and what he had been doing that day; visiting a UK attraction with glitz and glamour of its own.
He said: “I was about four years of age and had been to see Blackpool illuminations that day.
“I got back and turned on Channel Four and the American football was on, and it was amazing.
“I was watching it and bouncing off the walls; I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at but it seemed like robots.
“My team is the Denver Broncos and at that time (hall-of-fame player) John Elway was there. Watching a marquee player like that made me think that it was what I wanted to do.
“It’s the ultimate team sport. The nearest sport you can compare it to is rugby, but if you have the ball in rugby it’s all in your hands.
“But in this sport it’s blocking, obstructions, running – everyone has to do their thing to perfection.
“With my frame I wouldn’t last five minutes on a rugby field but the pads and equipment here are an equaliser.”
Peterborough Saxons does have a few heavyweights in its ranks, including 6ft 4in, 24-stone offensive line Dan Harriss from Sawtry.
Other players include several Americans who are stationed at RAF Alconbury, university students, and self-employed businessmen.
And then there’s the other side of the dollar; the youth set-up.
Mark said: “We have currently got 32 youths and it’s a really diverse group, from well-to-do families all the way to young offenders.
“Some of them have quite troubled backgrounds, but they have clear guidelines and know what is and isn’t acceptable. Some of them have anger issues, but this is a positive way of channelling that.
“If we had not put that youth team together I might have taken a break from the sport because it’s been so challenging, but seeing the kids enjoy themselves is one of the most rewarding things.”
Both the youth and senior teams play in the British American Football Community Association Leagues.
The 2011/12 season is the Saxons’ tenth anniversary, and it’s been a long road which saw them reside in gridiron pitches in different counties, let alone grounds.
Mark admits that when the team was set up in 2002 in Boston they clearly weren’t ready.
“We were just a youth team, all 18-year-olds, but we had no choice than to play seniors,” he said.
“It was a grim time because suddenly we were up against men, and we got beat up – you could call us crazy. We had 18 or 19 guys and would come up against teams with 40 guys
“We played at Spalding Rugby Club for a while, and the Castle Sports Complex for a year.
“In our first three seasons we won six games and lost 24. We lost all our games in 2004/05, picked up debts, and got a call from Castle Sports saying we couldn’t play our games there any more because it was too much hassle marking out the pitch.
“So we sat down and said do we keep on as we are, or do we pull our fingers out and do something?
“Steve Rose then took over coaching and I took over as general manager. I was living in Peterborough but had been travelling for eight years, so the first thing I did was try and move the side here.
“We drove anywhere that had a patch of grass including Werrington rugby club and Bretton, but most of the time we’d barely got the words “American Football” out of our mouths before they said it was too much hassle.
“Stanground College was largely the only place that showed any interest and they have proven to be a very special venue. We have our very own field and they have been wonderful.”
Another pivotal factor in the ongoing growth of the team was recruiting senior head team coach Chris Wallis, who had been out of the game for a year but had a wealth of experience.
Mark said: “He brought everything together and we registered 75 players in our first year here. To go from 25 to 75 was huge.
“We only won three out of ten games, but our record has improved every year since.”
The seniors finished third in Division One South East last season, winning five and losing five.
At the moment they are busy with pre-season preparations before a juicy league opener on April 10, their biggest game of the fixture calendar away at Cambridgeshire Cats.
Mark said: “They are champions and won nine out of 10 games last season, but the one they lost was to us at the Stanground. It was a very good feeling to take away their perfect season.”
Because the set-up is self-funded players pay £260 a year to take part in the league, as well as paying for pre-season games. Each game costs £700 to run.
But Mark obviously thinks it is worth it, and talks passionately about the game, slipping in an Americanism when required: the defensive line is pronounced dee-fense, of course.
“That’s how it’s said, so that’s how we say it,” said Mark.
“When we are training we still do star jumps that someone saw in a film about American football somewhere – I’m not sure there’s any place for them in 2011.
“On a Sunday afternoon you will hear lots of ‘way to go baby, yeah!’ One or two take it even further!”
The club knows it has other responsibilities and links with the community to help get the Saxons’ name well known across the city.
“That was a strength from day one. We knew we had to go out and put ourselves on the map,” said Mark.
“We wanted to get involved and give something back, and in the last three years we have been to about 70 different events, from handing out flyers at Peterborough City Council youth events to marshalling the Midnight Walk.
“We can then go to sponsors with a portfolio saying that their logos will be present at all the events where we get out and about.”
Reasons why American football is better than our football... and reasons why it isn’t
1) A fair transfer system: The NFL Draft is an annual event in which the 32 National Football League teams select new eligible college football players.
It’s the NFL’s most common source of player recruitment, and to make things even fairer any “expansion teams” - new or promoted sides - get priority choice.
It means that the fresh talent is not automatically hoovered up by the giants of the game.
Then there’s the salary cap; Each club has an overall cap for wages, so that if a team wants the best individual player wage sacrifices will have to be made elsewhere.
2) Merchandising: NFL relies on the shared revenue model established under the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which means that teams evenly split various sources of revenue, including all revenues derived from NFL Properties.
This means that even though the Dallas Cowboys sell more merchandise than the Browns, Bengals, and Titans combined, each team still receives the same amount of revenue derived from NFL Properties.
3) Community: When two English football teams with rivalries play each other a pub can become a bearpit, and the terraces a cauldron of swearing and vitriol.
Contrast that with these American fans speaking to their local newspaper pre-Super Bowl about the events they had planned for families: “We’ll be having a drawing for the King or Queen of the Super Bowl.
“They’ll win a leather recliner and get to sit right up in front to watch the game. They’ll also win a $100 gift certificate and a case of Miller Light.
“We have a lot of reservations already and will be serving hot dogs and sauerkraut, and potato salad.”
1) Injuries: It’s not a sport for the faint-hearted.
This is an excerpt from a special report by USA Today: “For all the NFL’s appeal, its playing fields almost certainly are the most dangerous workplace in America.
“According to the NFL Players Association, 352 players were placed on the season-ending injured reserve list this year - 21 per cent.”
Mark said that sometimes games and practices are played where the quarterback, the main playmaker, cannot be tackled.
But he added: “The first time you get wiped out you are not used to it and you wake up staring out of your helmet.
“There is a huge responsibility to coach technique, because when two guys run full pelt into one another there’s nowhere to go, so we need to know their bodies are prepared. But some of the nastiest injuries could happen in any sport.”
2) Complexity: To the casual observer most games resemble a WWE Royal Rumble.
A whistle blows somewhere and humongus men in armour smash into each other, the ball a trifling concern in a sea of behemoths.
Essentially, one 11-man team has possession of the football. It is called the offense and it tries to advance the ball down the field-by running with the ball or throwing it - and score points by crossing the goal line and getting into an area called the end zone.
The other team is called the defense. It tries to stop the offensive team and make it give up possession of the ball. If the team with the ball scores or is forced to give up possession, the offensive and defensive teams switch roles.
To go into the finer details would take many more pages!
3) Equipment: Requirements for playing UK football – two or three lads, four jumpers and a £3.99 ball from a garage.
Requirements for playing US football – Many more lads, each with shoulder pads (probably £50 or more) and helmets, and some with gloves, boots and shirts.