Much razzmatazz as US college football foes clash in Aviva

American College football is back in Dublin, with Boston College facing Georgia Tech

 

I do not claim to be an expert on Irish sports – my dear wife Robyn would likely contend that that label can be extended far more broadly – but it would appear that today’s American football game at Aviva Stadium is something equivalent to a black-and-white television in a store full of plasma screens.

Different and unusual, but perhaps not what you plan to spend your money and time on. Robbie Keane’s farewell match (which I had the privilege to witness), the start of the rugby season and the All-Ireland hurling championship match don’t leave a lot of time for a game you’re not familiar with between two teams that I will forgive you for not recognising. (If it helps, US secretary of state John Kerry graduated from Boston College’s law school, while Georgia Tech’s most famous alumnus is probably golfing great Bobby Jones. )

But, if you can spare a few minutes, I’ll attempt to explain what’s going on. There are about 750 US colleges and universities that field American football teams, out of about 4,700 in total. Boston College and Georgia Tech are in the top tier of about 125 schools (there’s scant interest in the schools beneath these) and play in a league called the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is centred in the southeastern US (Boston is in the northeast, and the short explanation of why it’s in the ACC is money.)

American football at this level is a strange animal. I’m not sure another sport in our country engenders the sort of loyalty that this sport does. It’s particularly so in the southeast states, which is where Georgia Tech is located, in Atlanta.

Tribal bond

The most popular teams draw in excess of 100,000 fans for home games in stadiums far larger than the biggest professional venues. The coaches of public school teams (like Georgia Tech; Boston College is private) are often the highest-paid public employees in the state. Fans know and care deeply about their teams’ recruiting, the process of persuading the best high-school players to attend a particular school.

Perhaps the best player in today’s game, Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas, is from Alabama, a state where the fervour runs deepest. A highly-regarded player in the state, he had made public his plans to play for the University of Alabama, but changed at the last minute to Georgia Tech. As a result, his father’s cleaning service lost the business of Alabama fans indignant with this betrayal.

An Alabama fan became infamous a few years ago when he went to the rival school’s campus and poisoned a much-loved stand of oak trees – and then called into a radio show to brag about it.

Fans often see games and rivalries as morality plays – their own team full of virtue and effort, the other team a band of cheaters and idiots.

From the Georgia Tech camp –whose team I cover – today’s game might be seen as a match-up of intelligent and earnest engineers from the south (Georgia Tech’s strength is its engineering school) against snooty elitists from Boston.

Complex

Explaining football’s allure is a little complex, as it can appear slow and plodding and the rules are complex. But, it’s a game that celebrates physical strength and toughness, while also requiring speed, cunning and teamwork. It’s the game America chose in the early 1900s and has handed down since.

At its core, the game is about pushing your opponent backwards and taking his land, for better or worse something of a theme in American (and world) history.

As far as today’s game goes, it’s the first game of the season for both Georgia Tech and Boston College. Georgia Tech, also known as the Yellow Jackets, has traditionally been stronger than Boston College, nicknamed the Eagles, but both teams were terrible in 2015. As a result, it’s critical for both teams to start the new season off well. It’s fairly crucial for either team’s chance of winning the league championship.

But, somehow I’m guessing the fate of this year’s ACC championship isn’t keeping you awake at night.

Why else might you be interested? The level of play is a cut below the professional standard, but the difference would not be distinguishable to the average Dubliner. The game is surrounded by spectacle: cheerleaders, marching bands, fans singing school fight songs and mascots. The sport shows off speed, collisions and stunning co-ordination and agility. Some players are as big as 159kg (25 stone) and the swiftest – including Thomas – are almost as fast as Olympic sprinters.

But if you’re not, I won’t be offended. I confess I know embarrassingly little about Kilkenny’s hurling team and even less about Tipp’s.

Ken Segiura covers Georgia Tech sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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