The Barbarians Are Coming; Belgium Holds Its Second Annual American Football Combine

Two years ago, Belgium did not have a national American football team. On Sunday, June 21st, The Barbarians held their Second Annual Combine, where almost one-hundred players participated in agility drills and skills testing to determine which ones would make the 2015 national roster.

In two years, Belgium has made significant strides in building a national football program. Last year, each Belgian club team selected three players to attend the Combine whom the club deemed worthy of making the national team. Wide receiver and defensive back, Ruben De Ruyter, saw first-hand some of the difficulties in creating a team.

De Ruyter said;

“We had some growing pains in our first year. Not enough players at some practices, no budget for jerseys so the players had to buy their own.”

Since then, the team has played two international friendlies, one against Kuwait and one against Holland. This year, the Barbarians will play a friendly against Slovakia and Poland and then, in October, they have a qualifying game against Holland to see who will go to the IFAF European B Championships.

For this year’s combine, anyone who wanted to participate was invited. 143 players registered, but due to injuries and players preparing for the Belgian Bowl, just under a hundred attended. However, the purpose of the Combine goes beyond creating a national team.

Head Coach Lee Rosky explained.;

“The Barbarians’ mission is to increase the level of football in this country. It [the Combine] gives the opportunity to a guy who doesn’t stand out on his team to show us something.”

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The Combine, according to Rosky, is more than a step towards making the national team. It’s a step towards making Belgian football players better players, and, in the process, building an attitude towards football that will carry the national program forward. Defensive Backs Coach, Christophe Olenaed, echoed these sentiments.

“We are not on the highest level of American football on a European level yet,” Olenaed said, “but we look for players who are willing to commit to learn and grow, and to disseminate this back to their respective clubs.”

This message was not lost on the players. De Ruyter described the Combine as “a place where you come in contact with great players and coaches, and if you pick up stuff quickly like I do, you can learn a lot of football in a short time and  then work on it on your own time.”

The morning session of Sunday’s combine began with agility tests, the 40-yard dash and positional drills. After lunch, the players were in full pads, again doing positional drills, one-on-one’s, pass skeleton, and the day ended with the Oklahoma drill. When asked to reflect on the success of the day, Coach Rosky said, “It was flawless, high energy and intense. The coaches were more involved and they really took the lead. That’s the next level we have to take this to.”

Rosky singled out the final Oklahoma drill as the highlight of the day. They had two groups working between two sets of pads and all the players formed a circle around them. Whoever wanted to go next jumped in and gave it everything they had, but the players who were on the team last year set the tone.

“We have a core of guys who are veterans,” Rosky said, “and they made it clear that they were the nucleus.”

After the Combine, coach Olenaed commented on how impressed he was with the attitude of many of the players.

“I was surprised how many players came to express their gratitude for this day,” Olenaed said. “The most common phrase was ‘even if I do not make the final cut, the level of learning I had was outstanding.’ That is exactly one of the main reasons we are running this.”

When talking to Barbarian coaches and players, the two words that continually arise are “teaching” and “learning”. The football program is really about allowing players to learn the game and have that much more love and respect for it, with the belief that that is what builds a program. However, all of the Barbarians have their sights set on facing Holland in October and making it to the IFAF European B Championships. De Ruyter summed up well what it means for a player to put on his national team’s jersey for the first, and maybe every time.

“It didn’t really dawn on me until the first game that we were representing our country,” De Ruyter said. “It’s an honor to represent our beautiful country even more so because it’s with the sport I love.”

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Mark McGowan
Mark McGowan lives and works in Brussels and is an avid follower of American football.
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