By Tom Hamilton
SHEFFIELD, UK — On a day when NFL playoffs were in full swing, Premier League champions Leicester City were hosting league-leaders Chelsea and the first backhands of the Australian Open were swung in anger, the Great Britain national American football team trials would have been low down the pecking order for global sporting importance.
But for the trialists — decked out in helmets and pads emblazoned with logos from clubs the UK over — and coaches on hand Saturday it was their sporting everything. There was no monetary reward or compensation, no glamour — just the goal of representing the Great Britain Lions.
It is a freezing midmorning at Sheffield Hallam University Sports Park. On one of their two synthetic pitches, an under-8 girls’ soccer match is being played out. Next to it, on Pitch 2A, 65 American football players drawn from the length and breadth of the country are doing their best to catch head coach Michael Callan’s eye.
Each of the 65 had their own reason for being there; the general overarching goal to force their way onto the Great Britain roster for October’s International Federation of American Football (IFAF) European Championship qualifier against Sweden.
Peaking over the back of the pitch were reminders of the city’s previous life as the centre of steel production in the UK. The village of Orgreave — the place where police and pickets clashed in a bloody confrontation which became an integral event in the 1984-85 miners’ strike — sits just three miles away as the cool, January air is broken by the copper of spiralling footballs and intermittent shouts of praise and annoyance.
The 12 coaches watch and judge.
This was as professional an amateur organisation you will find. The coaches received 150 applicants for the tryout with the majority coming from the UK’s top division — the amateur British American Football Association National Leagues (BAFANL). All players and coaches are there on a voluntary basis. It runs on sweat and toil, with coaches and operations director Tom Kharchi — who also coaches the Sheffield Hallam University team — sacrificing countless hours to spread the American football gospel while trying to improve the Great Britain side.
As for those 65 who were braving the freezing conditions in a bid to play for their nation, they had grown up on a dose of televised NFL Sunday Night Football or had caught the American football bug having been to one of the International Series games in London. Their common dream is to follow in the footsteps of Efe Obada, a defensive end who went from the BAFANL’s London Warriors to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad in 2015.
A more tempered reality offers a pathway that sees the talented players force their way into one of the semi-professional European sides. Among the 65 who were part of the combine in Sheffield, some had been paid to play overseas while others were still knocking on the door. All were doing their utmost to maintain focus with the back-to-back drills pushing them to levels of endurance some had never faced before.
The coaches took their groups off to various segments of the pitch, looking for any who can improve the already-settled 75-man Great Britain roster which meets this week in Nottingham to begin preparations for October’s game.
Centre Jonathon Moorhouse, 25, has already made the cut. He was there to support his friend Karl Davies, an offensive lineman who had played the position of prop in rugby league for Wigan St Patricks in a previous sporting life. For Moorhouse — who took to the game having attended the Jacksonville Jaguars’ game against the San Francisco 49ers at Wembley Stadium in 2013 — the eventual goal is to secure one of those rare contracts in Europe. While he chases that dream, he mixes football with his day, or night, job as a doorman and male stripper with The Dreamboys in Blackpool.
He is concerned about his neck having hurt it in practise for the Lancashire Wolverines in the morning, but he knows the bulk of the trialists well having played against them on the BAFA National Leagues scene.
“The Great Britain team is the most competitive it’s ever been,” Moorhouse enthuses, and he’s got a point as they are preparing for Sweden off the back of big victories over Russia and the Czech Republic.
It is just approaching lunch and defensive coordinator Wayne Hill is delivering a timely reminder to a reduced 63 players — with No. 64 in hospital with a dislocated finger and 65 nursing a bruised sternum. The remaining 63 have strained every sinew to impress.
“You need to give all your effort in every play,” Hill says. “You have to compete in every play; you have to showcase every rep, complete every rep. Leave it all out on the field. You’re being judged from the moment you arrived.”
The players all walk back to the clubhouse to empty their Tupperware containers of their packed lunches. Tuna pasta seems to be the trialists’ choice. Energy drinks are drained with gasping urgency.
Callan, an American from Connecticut, doesn’t have time to eat. He’s too busy speaking to his coaches, perched on the side of their tables, finding out if they have unearthed a gem. He’s impressed with kicker Mitchell Ward, who offers a new dimension because they did not have a specialist kicker on their 45-man squad for the wins over Russia and the Czech Republic.
Hill seems unimpressed with the defensive options — at that stage just three have caught his eye. Callan has been watching everything, even stray balls, leading to him shouting, “Lads move those away, we don’t want any broken ankles.”
“[The standard] is probably comparable to Division III college [level],” Callan says. “The nuances of the game here are quite different as you don’t grow up with the game. You stress the fundamentals and any football coach will tell you that. Their knowledge is just like any other footballer. They have to come in and learn the system. And the guys who pick it up quickest and are athletic are the most successful.”
Quarterback Brad Thompson, defensive back Sam Fossey and offensive lineman Stuart Butcher travelled to Sheffield in hope. Each tried different sports before becoming intoxicated by the camaraderie, complete team nature and excitement of American football.
Thompson — an estate agent in Leicester, husband and father — knows Callan well having played for Great Britain in 2013. He was dropped but is keen to force his way back into the reckoning.
Fossey, 24, had spent time in 2016 playing for semi-professional squad Treasure Coast Bengals in Florida. He now works in the Sheffield Nike store but plans to study for a teaching degree if the sport he loves does not become a profession.
And then there’s Butcher, a giant of a man weighing in at 359 pounds who has been playing for three years. He played rugby union in the same Saracens academy side as England star Maro Itoje before injury cut short aspirations of turning professional in that sport. But the different skill set required by his offensive line role in American football meant Butcher, 23, swapped one oval ball for another.
“I got approached by some guys on the street asking if I wanted to play American football,” Butcher says. “Within two weeks I was training and then by week three I was playing. The goal is to play for my country. I’ll keep training every week, trying to improve myself, and one day I might get to play in America or Canada.”
His talents have seen him play in Europe’s top division for German side Allgäu Comets. While he has nearly completed his university degree, running out for Great Britain is the dream.
All answer with the same three words when asked what making the Lions would mean to them: “It is everything.”
In the end 28 out of the 65 were invited to train with the Great Britain squad in Nottingham.
By Saturday evening, just Thompson out of the three has made the cut, with Fossey’s place in the balance and Butcher missing out. By Sunday midday, Fossey would be informed he too had missed out on a place in the training squad.
The elusive dream stretches another year for Fossey and Butcher. Thompson now has to prove he is better than Great Britain’s current quarterbacks.
It was a day of pride, anger, hurt, joy and exhaustion — amateur sport laid bare on the most picturesque of brutally cold days. Those involved do it for the love of the game and, like everyone else there on Pitch 2A on a day where dreams were made or broken, would not swap it for anything.
Tom Hamilton has been ESPN’s rugby editor since 2011. He was born in Bath but has New Zealand roots. He covered England’s tour of New Zealand in 2014 and Australia in 2016. He was ESPN’s man on the ground for the 2013 British and Irish Lions series and Rugby World Cup 2015.