RIP Alexander Kovrigin – the Man Who Introduced the Game to the USSR – 1958-2021

The American Football community in Russia is in mourning as the news was announced last weekend that Alexander Kovrigin, the “Man Who Introduced the Game to the USSR” had passed away at the age of 62.

Kovrigin, a native of Ozersk, a small town in Chelyabinsk region, was many things – a coach, a grandfather and a teacher – but he was also the man who brought American football to the Soviet Union.

Alexander served as a marine in the Soviet army in the late 1970s. The commander of his squad who previously guarded intelligence officer Rudolph Abel knew the basic rules of American football and organized his assigned soldiers to play it as a hobby.

As the legend goes, the Soviet marines even showed off their skills to their American counterparts during the crisis of 1978. The only obstacle was — the Soviets didn’t have a proper football, so they used a rugby ball instead.

Alexander Kovrigin, front row middle, poses with Federals, 1988, after defeating rugby team

After discharge from the military, Kovrigin returned home and taught rugby to local kids. Only in 1987, when Perestroika had already started and the United States had become something different than just an enemy to the local press, he had this idea to create the first American football team in the USSR.

December 15th, 1987 is basically the date American football was born in the USSR. That’s when a group of 14-16 year old boys from Chelyabinsk-65 (previous name of Ozersk) had their first football practice in a local school — with no proper equipment and on the wooden floor of school gymnasium.

The idea caught on with local boys. They used hockey pads and motorcycle helmets with manually attached masks. A team from an Oklahoma school that had visited the Soviet Union in the late 80s, took some of it to their museum — players were amazed by the handmade equipment.

In 1988, Kovrigin told the Soviet Rugby Federation that he managed to create an American football team. And eventually they played the very first football game — Kovrigin’s team “Federals” versus a rugby team, the “Fili” from Moscow. Rugby players were much better athletes but had no clue about the rules (their first impression was — games are basically the same so we’ll win anyway) and forfeited after three touchdowns.

Coin toss prior to game between Federals and rugby team, 1988. Note motorcycle helmet on rugby team representative. Alexander Kovrigin is partially obscured

That game brought attention to the new game and helped Kovrigin to officially register his team in the Rugby Federation as the first ever American football team in the USSR.

New teams started to appear — in Siberia, in Kharkiv and of course in Moscow. Athletes from different sports tried this new exotic game and that’s how the first Soviet superclub, the Moscow Bears, came along.

Kovrigin didn’t tie his whole life with football. In 1993, he moved to Vilnius and his team couldn’t hit next level without money coming in. But the sports grew in other cities even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The biggest accomplishment of American football in Russia was winning the Junior European Championship in 2002.

But even if Kovrigin and the game parted ways, he will always be known as the father of American football in the USSR.

It’s ironic that the most American game in the world came to their enemies at the time through a closed Siberian military city. And in the 1990s, this game was used to bring two nations together.

Rest in peace, Alexander Kovrigin. The whole football community of Russia and nearby countries will miss and remember you.

Ilya Kravtsov
After being involved in bringing American football to his hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia, Ilya would go on to play in the Japanese X-League, helping his side Tokyo Bullseyes advance all the way to the top tier of the league and become the only non-corporate team in X-1. He's currently the defensive coordinator of St. Petersburg Griffins, as well as the head coach of St. Petersburg Valkyries.
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