By Stephen Gaffney
It's an unusual place to dwell. On one side, you are the committed follower of one of the most exciting, thrilling and popular sports on Earth. On the other, you are a fan of a boring, complicated and overly long sport that ranks far below a wholly amateur sport in terms of popular interest. The place is that of the Irish NFL fan.
There is a fascination with America in Ireland. It's easy to understand. We have a long history of immigration, a longing to claim a legitimate connection to JFK and a somewhat more tangential connection to Obama. We share a language, a turbulent but ultimately jovial relationship with the British and a relatively common cultural outlook. We watch their movies, worry about their economy, discuss their TV programmes and listen to their music. Similarly, Americans seem to have taken to some parts of Irish culture, most noticeably the annual St Patricks Day (or usually St. Paddy's, never under any circumstances 'St Patty's') celebrations. The crossover between sporting interests, however, has not been as easy.
The most obvious problem arises from the proximity of our two nations. Ireland is five hours ahead of New York and a whopping eight hours separates Los Angeles from Dublin. It takes commitment to follow the Bradys and LeBrons of this world from such a distance. This is where one of sport's most appealing aspects comes into play. It almost always has to be consumed as a live event. We live in an age of instant opinion through Twitter and Facebook. Social media has altered the way we consume live television dramas such as Homeland and Breaking Bad and, to my eyes at least, made the experience a richer one. It pales into comparison, however, when judged alongside the viewing of a live sporting event. Live television is still a recorded document, a relic that has been constructed and modified, and ultimately produced, for the viewer's enjoyment. Live sports are happening almost right before our eyes with no set conclusion or ending in sight.
And this, in a strange way, is one of the, admittedly minor, reasons for my devoted following of the NFL. For the first time last year I watched playoff basketball and it nearly ended up turning me into an insomniac. Most games started around the 2am mark here and often didn't finish until past 5am. The same is also true of playoff baseball. I plan to watch Lebron's journey to claim his second ring this year but some serious thought will have to be put into my sleeping plan. The 1pm and 4.25pm Sunday timeslots the NFL use translate to acceptable viewing times in Ireland. The afternoon games usually go past the 12.30am mark and are quite often filled with Cardinals or Raiders games, which is unfortunate, but once you commit to the early games, you're not turning off.
This new hobby of calculating time zones is still a relatively new one. I must confess to having only developed an interest in the NFL in the last two years. My first real encounter with the sport came from, like so many other Irish fans, time spent in America. It would be almost impossible to cultivate a love of the game without it.
There has to be an initial spark, a fleeting glance of Tom Brady in his luscious silver helmet, the commandeering sight of Peyton Manning organising his offensive line, the starry-eyed wonder you feel when you first encounter the mountain of stats involved in almost every ‘play' (the use of play as a noun is also initially confusing) or maybe just a simple invite to drink beer and watch an unusual foreign sport. However it hooks you in, it's hard to remove yourself from its iron grip.
For me, it's the specifics and precise details involved in American football that make it so appealing. I come from a background of loving sports as simple as football (soccer) or Gaelic football (our own indigenous game). Where eleven or fifteen men respectively battle it out for two halves to put a ball in the net or, in the latter case, in the net and over a bar. Yes of course American football is of a similarly simple concept but the difference lies in the way it is viewed by the newcomer. It takes a maximum of two minutes to get some one up to speed on the basics of soccer and about five minutes for Gaelic. It took me about three months of watching and reading about the game before I felt in anyway confident to converse in NFL speak. Even now there are words and phrases I still haven't quite got to grips with, things I put on my never ending list of items that must be googled; like, what EXACTLY is a bubble screen? How does one recognise a ‘hot route' from say a ‘cold route?' Why does Aaron Rodgers shout "319" so insistently throughout games, and what is up with that red blotch on Peyton Manning's forehead?
Ok I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly. Often times, watching a game raises more questions than it answers. And I love that. I love that there is so much to learn. I love that Bill Barnwell uses a new stat based acronym every week in his column that needs further research. I love the way that enjoyment of NFL seems intrinsically linked to gambling. There's nothing quite like that here.
In a lot of ways comparing any cultural interest from a country like America to a similar pursuit from a country like Ireland makes no sense. Much as we share many similarities there are obvious differences between our cultures. Gaelic football for us is deeply rooted in our history, and was an important development in the so-called cultural nationalist movement that emerged in Ireland in the early 20th century. It is also closely linked to a deeply cherished parochial community spirit. It thrives on volunteerism and fundraisers in the local church. There are no owners or shareholders. It could not be further removed from the huge salaries and extravagant lifestyles of NFL stars where money and specifically ‘guaranteed money' rules all, where franchises can move cities and immediately rebrand themselves. These are alien concepts to the Irish fan.
So after a season where I spent an ungodly amount of time watching, reading and gambling on American football I now realise it has trumped all other sports for me. Interest in my still beloved Liverpool has, I have to say, dwindled (a shocking confession). I almost never watch any other Premier League game that doesn't involve Liverpool yet I spent a Tuesday morning watching the replay of the Titans Jets game through my game pass subscription. Maybe it will pass, maybe I will grow tired of the long games, maybe I will develop an obsession with one team and lose interest in all others, maybe this team's fortunes will nosedive and bring my enthusiasm for the sport in general down with it, but right now it sits alone and glistening atop my list of sporting interests.