How I Got Into….American Football

(problems uploading images again – sorry for lack of pictures this week).

It seems appropriate this week, as I’m about to attend my first NFL game live, to use my “How I got into….’ post to talk about American Football.

Whatever its successes and failures over the years, the launch of Channel 4 television in 1982 was a triumph. The first new TV station in the UK in 15 years, providing a 33% increase in choice of viewing, it had a remit to be independent and ‘different’. And in its early years it did that, creating a distinctive and bright alternative to the BBC and ITV who had been the sole choice of viewing for so long.

I was a University student in 1982, and watched the launch programmes on 2nd November (first programme: Countdown, a brilliant words and numbers game show that’s still running).

Channel 4 began showing American Football, the first time it had been broadcast on a regular basis in the UK. Prior to that I have a vague memory of seeing brief highlights of a game on ITV’s World of Sport, probably in the ’70s, which was possibly the Dallas Cowboys winning the SuperBowl. So having a new sport to watch sounded exciting.

There had always been something a bit exotic about American Football to those of us growing up in Britain. We’d catch occasional glimpses in movies or TV shows, enough to think “that looks interesting” but not enough to understand what was going on – it looked like two bunches of men in helmets crashing into each other, one of them occasionally throwing the ball and another one catching it. With no internet, and essentially zero transatlantic literature on the subject, there was nothing to do but wonder.

Channel 4 offered up a weekly highlights show at 6pm on Sunday evening (which I now realise meant the highlights were exactly a week late – the first Sunday games kick off at 1pm Eastern Time, which is 6pm in the UK), and the show only ran for an hour. But after years of wondering, it was enough to get me, and a fair smattering of other young men (I imagine it was almost entirely young men) hooked.

Part of the magic was the structure of the programme. The host was Nicky Horne, a DJ on Capital Radio in London, who took the ‘Everyman’ role – he was new to the game, personable, enthusiastic and wanting to learn, and thus represented the average viewer. His co-host was Miles Aiken, an American basketball player, who took the role of  ‘expert’, but because Football wasn’t his main sport he explained the game at a level that was understandable to those of who were new to it.

Each week, alongside the highlights, Nicky and Miles would explain some aspect of the game, a bit on the history (the SuperBowl was less than 20 years old at this point, but obviously the game went back much further than that), key players and, of course, the rules. They started simple and the viewers’ knowledge developed week by week. For me, that’s the perfect model to introduce a new sport – a local presenter who’s interested in learning, and not-too-expert expert who can explain the rules and the subtleties of the game as they go along without overloading it with too much knowledge too early.

At the end of the season we got live coverage of the SuperBowl for the first time (SuperBowl XVII: Washington “Redskins” 27, Miami Dolphins 17) and from the following season that weekly highlights show was a core “must watch” event.

I became a fan of the Washington NFL team in the 1982 season. It was a new sport, and you want to root for someone, and Washington seemed to stage dramatic comebacks to win games week after week. So I was already a fan heading into SuperBowl XVII, and then my team won! It’s been up and down since then – two more SuperBowls then nothing for years (and I’m writing this on Friday morning after watching Washington embarrass themselves on national TV against the NY Giants last night).

Sidebar: it became clear to me in the past year or so that it was unacceptable to me to be a fan of a team with an essentially racist nickname. I put the quote marks round the name above, and that’s the last time I’ll use it. The team, and particularly the owner, needs to stop defending the name and wake up to the fact that it is offensive and an anachronism and needs changing. I don’t consider myself a fan of the team any more. OK, off my high horse, back to the story.

I became a proper fan. I bought books, games, magazines – there still weren’t many things available in Britain, but I soaked up what I could find. And I’ve watched every SuperBowl since that first one (somehow I always seem to be “working from home” the next day, having crawled into bed around 3;00 am).

Channel 4 changed its team of presenters over the years – as its audience stayed with the show it didn’t need the introductory approach any more, so they drafted British former-Atlanta Falcons kicker Mick Luckhurst as host – not a great presenter, but you knew that he’d been there.

Channel 4 eventually dropped its regular coverage, Channel 5 and then Sky picked it up and I kind of drifted away for a while – apart from the SuperBowls which did continue broadcasting on a terrestrial channel each year.

But then my boys started to get interested, and we got Sky TV, and we started playing fantasy, so now I’m back. Sunday nights, 6pm till bedtime (“NFL Red Zone” – the perfect coverage for fantasy fans), plus picking up the highlights from the games I can’t watch live. Listening to American sports podcasts, reading books and articles – it’s now so much easier to follow sports from around the world than it was in the ’80s. And with computer games, especially the “Madden” series, you can get a deeper understanding of the game as well (though I haven’t played “Madden” in years – I was very good at “Madden 92” on Sega Megadrive, but the newer versions need too much dedication to get to be competent).

And at 1pm Eastern Time on Sunday afternoon I’ll be in M&T Bank Stadium (somewhere near the back on the upper deck) for the live experience.

This is one of those “How I Got Into….” stories that’s about something coming along at just the right time – as a 20-year-old student when Channel 4 started its coverage, I was the perfect target demographic, and the model they used for introducing the game to this new audience was just what we needed to see. Hooked for life.

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