Gridiron Grommit

“Everything hurts. The muscles in my arms, legs, butt, and hands ache. ­My fingers are purple and swollen and my forearms are spotted with bruises and scrapes. And we aren’t even training in gear yet.”

Matthew West

Grommit:

Noun.

A young or inexperienced participant, the term is often used in surfing or board sports.

See also: Rookie, Novice.

Everything hurts. The muscles in my arms, legs, butt, and hands ache. ­My fingers are purple and swollen and my forearms are spotted with bruises and scrapes. And we aren’t even training in gear yet. It’s been a month of sprints, ladders and agility training, all the while trying to learn plays in a sport that I’ve never even watched, let alone played before. And next week we start playing with helmets and pads. And full contact.

It all started when I foolishly expressed interest in a customer’s son playing American Football. ‘You should come down and check it out,’ he said, and before I knew it I’d been smashed into the turf of the world of Perth Blitz, one of the seven teams playing under the Gridiron West competition. My whole knowledge of American Football at that point was that it was played by huge men, wearing body armour, running into each other at full pelt, and that a guy called the quarterback could throw the ball. How was I, a tall, skinny guy, going to fit into a game like that? ‘You might play a wide receiver,’ I was told, the wide receiver being the person who the quarterback throws the ball to, who then attempts to dodge 200 kilogram men attempting to kill him and run into the end zone to score a touchdown. Instead, I was singled out by the defensive line coach, Dan Jolley (DJ), to learn to play a D-line end. The goal of the D-Line end is to stop runs, or get around the offensive lineman and murder the quarterback before he can throw the ball. And this meant I’d be lining up against the Blitz club president, Scott Smith, a hulking figure who has played for the State and represented Australia. Help.

Two For Flinching…

I’m staring through the face grill of the helmet on my head, sweaty hair matted against my forehead and fingers aching, trying to hold the majority of my weight in a three-point stance that I’m supposed to fire out of, into the helmet/head/body of a guy lining up opposite me. My heart is pounding so hard I’m sure it’s going to crack the chest-plate of the armoured pads I’m wearing, certain that everyone can smell my fear. My whole life of sports, the head has been sacred. High tackles are free kicks, but in gridiron, people lead with their helmets. It just feels wrong. ‘Set, hike!’ is shouted and I launch myself forward, then panic, throwing myself onto the ground and ducking below the opponent’s helmet, so the 150 kilogram guy ends up on my back.

‘What the hell happened there?’ the coach, DJ, asks.

‘I chickened out,’ I say, frustrated with myself.

‘Yeah you did,’ he says, ‘line up again, and just hit him, you’ll only get hurt if you don’t commit fully.’

‘Set, hike!’

Crunch. Our helmets collide and my hands shoot up, gripping his pads and trying to push him backwards.

‘Good, better, but you’re still getting too high. You’ll see it on Hudl when I put the footage up.’

That’s another thing, everything we’re doing is recorded by GoPro, commented on, and put up on a website called Hudl, so we can see what we’re doing right (very little), and what we can improve on (basically everything). It’s a strange feeling being recorded failing and failing and failing, but it is definitely useful to see exactly what you’re doing wrong. Every coach, and there are four of them, can comment on and highlight aspects they notice require attention or fixing. It’s a unique system after coming from a single coach sport where nothing is recorded or analysed.

The defensive line coach DJ isn’t what I expected, thinking of a typical gridiron lineman. He’s not a tall, large machine of a man, and so he is actually the perfect person to coach me. His philosophy of playing smart seems at odds to the game of gridiron at first glance, but is actually perfectly suited to the intricate, nuanced game. He’d been playing rugby in the eastern states and New Zealand, and since watching his first game he was struck by the physicality and the complexity. Enjoying the challenge of learning new skills, including completely different ways of tackling, DJ has gone on to represent Australia, beating Great Britain in 2009 for their first win in over ten years in Europe. Working for the Claremont Football Club (WAFL) as their strength and conditioning coach, he was invited to coach the defensive line for the West Australian Raiders (the interstate team), and has gone from there to coaching the Blitz D-line. Despite gridiron being a developing sport in Australia, he was drawn back into the coaching world by head coach Kev Wilson and his vision for the Blitz, and gridiron in WA in general.

To this uninitiated observed, gridiron is a brutish game that is about hitting the other person as hard as you can. My first impressions were not allayed all that much by the other members of my team, whose broad shoulders and just sheer mass were imposing to say the least. In reality, it is a highly technical and intricate sport, with teams memorising dozens, if not hundreds of plays where every player has a set route to run, and the whole eleven-man side performs it simultaneously. Or tries to. Every defensive player has a gap to hit or a zone to defend or a quarterback to sack, and trying to assimilate all this information in a short period of time is dizzying. It is like chess except the pawns are trying to murder you and if they desired, they could probably press you over their heads.

Game On Game One…

Game one is tomorrow and I’m filling my pants. And I’m excited as hell. We’re lining up against the reigning premiers, the Rockingham Vipers. The forecast is for thunderstorms and that means it’s going to be fought in the trenches. Where I am. No-one is going to throw a slick pigskin, so it’s all going to be run plays, and I’m going to have to out-muscle 160 kilogram players. No worries.

Game one aftermath. Everything hurts. Again.

Thankfully the rain held off for the most part and so the game wasn’t a muddy, bloody slog, but it was a steep learning curve once again. In training, even during full contact, your teammates don’t want to hit you to hurt you, but in a game, while not openly encouraged, very little is done to discourage it. I lined up against a towering figure of muscle, and being 6’7”, someone towering over me is tall. According to DJ, he was one of the best linemen in the WA competition, so the fact he didn’t push me around too much was seen as a success. Unfortunately, the Vipers were too much for the Blitz, and we were defeated 12–0, with two touchdowns made but no conversions scored. Although disappointing, the loss was tempered by the knowledge that Rockingham had won last season’s grand final 50–0. In a day of firsts, I got absolutely obliterated while attempting to sack the quarterback. He ran out of the protection of his pocket on my side, and I saw a chance to do some damage, so I charged at him, tunnel vision making me oblivious to the blind-side hit I was about to receive. One moment I’m on my feet ready to lay down some hurt, the next I am on my arse, unsure of how I got there. Luckily, I suffered no major injuries and jumped straight back to my feet, a little unsure of what happened, but still ready to hit the QB. But the play was over and we lined up again, ready for another play by the Vipers offense. The head coach, Kev Wilson, awarded me one of the ‘best afield’ awards given out after each game, for surviving my first pancaking. ‘You won’t be blindsided again will you?’ he said, as the team laughed.

Speaking with Scott after the game, a key component of my improvement hinges on my stability, or lack thereof. I asked if he’d done any other sports, and he mentioned that he’s now ‘dabbling in powerlifting, as it translates well for gridiron.’ ‘Gridiron is fairly unique, but being that strength and agility is a requirement, it can help a lot in other sports. The high anaerobic output can detract a lot from aerobic sports,’ he says, limiting the usefulness of gridiron as an offseason sport for Australian Rules players, although there are a few that play for Blitz in the offseason. ‘It’s tough to mix them,’ Scott says. Advice for my lack of stability revolved around single leg squats (known as pistols) and medicine ball squat throws, building core and leg muscles to counteract the unstable environment of defensive line, and just gridiron in general. Livestrong.com says that court games, such as basketball or squash, are good for training, with squash in particular requiring short bursts of speed and lots of twisting and turning, moves that are used frequently in football.

According to Livestrong.com, ‘playing defensive line on a football team requires a mixture of strength, agility and speed.’ Elitefts states that ‘the American football defensive lineman is one of the most unique athletes on the face of the earth. It has long been said that the average football lineman engages in the equivalent of approximately 50-65 car crashes every game.’ This was what I’d signed myself up for? Coach DJ says it’s the position with the greatest opportunity for fun though, crashing through the offensive line and creating havoc in the backfield, sacking quarterbacks and putting the fear of god into them.

Starting as a grommit with me this season was the other defensive-line end, a man named Wolf, who hails from New Zealand and a rugby career. He came to gridiron because he’s watched the game for years, supporting the Seahawks, and he thought it looked fun to jump into a suit of armour and smash people. Strong as an ox and about half as pretty, Wolf is the battering ram of the Perth Blitz D-Line, destroying the slow offensive linemen who he goes up against, recording plenty of sacks on the quarterback and generally pushing other teams around. Unfortunately, working up North, Wolf has only played one game this season. Next week he looks to star against the Wolverines, the team just above us on the ladder.

Money Talks…

American Rules Football is a huge industry in the United States, with the NFL’s president estimating that by 2027 the game would generate US$25 billion in revenue. That’s billion with a B. The average team in the National Football League is worth US$2 billion, with the Dallas Cowboys worth a whopping US$4 billion dollars. In 2014, The Cowboys brought in over US$260 million in revenue, and attracted, on average, 90 000 fans at every one of their games at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. The rare times, other than the Grand Final, the AFL even manages to come close to this number show you how big the NFL really is. This means that the Dallas Cowboys are now worth the most out of any sporting team in the world, with Real Madrid ($3.26 billion) and the New York Yankees ($3.2 billion) lagging behind.

This is based hugely in the television revenue taken by NBC, CBS, Fox and ESPN, and the dominant ratings of each. The league shared $4.4 billion dollars in broadcasting revenue alone, beating Major League Baseball ($1.1 billion) and the National Basketball Association ($974 million) combined. But you just have to look at the smaller teams, not the Dallas Cowboys or the Green Bay Packers, but look to the Buffalo Bills, who play in a ‘small market in Western New York’ and who were sold for $1.4 billion dollars to billionaire businessman Terry Pegula who outbid Jon Bon Jovi by $350 million in 2014. This is almost double the $770 million that the Jacksonville Jaguars sold for in 2011, showing that in just three years, the price of a struggling NFL team has jumped dramatically. The money of the National Football League is immense, and despite small competitions around the world, the sport is based firmly in the United States.

In contrast, the West Australian competition consists of seven teams, and a large portion of these teams have players going both ways, that is playing offense and defence, due to the lack of team numbers, or injuries. And injuries play a significant role in Gridiron. The sport is full contact, and I mean full contact, and the pads and helmets tend to give players a longer leash in regards to hitting hard and hitting high. So far this season, in five games, there have been three season-ending injuries, and every training the numbers turning up in casts on their wrists, ankles and legs grows. My worst injury, so far, occurred in the second game, and left me unable to walk or sit down the Sunday after. Charging in to the offensive line, the (blessedly) smaller than me lineman decided to ‘cut’ me, diving at my legs to cause me to hit the turf and essentially taking me out of the play. In doing this, his helmet collided with my leg and corked the muscle, and despite weeks of ice baths and foam rolling and stretching, the muscle still niggles when I perform certain motions. I’ve been informed that against a larger, stronger, faster opponent, cutting is a viable tackling option, as a direct and effective way to bring their knees to the ground and cause a down. Solid advice I’m sure, but just as with using my helmeted face as a battering ram, trying to take out a guy’s knees or legs just feels wrong.

So far this season, Perth Blitz has notched up one draw and four losses going into the bye round, giving us a chance to recover and go back to the drawing board. The inclusion of three long-time players who have been on holiday and the return of two injured players seeks to ignite a fire into the heart of the Blitz, so hopefully this weekend will be our first win. Gridiron has been challenging, physically, mentally, but also just getting over my own preconceptions of the sport. Yes, the sport is played by giant strong men and women, but it is played by smart men and women. The plays are intricate, the movements and strength required are situation unique and every muscle in my body hurts, particularly my brain. I can already see the improvements in myself: I’m fitter, stronger, and have made some great friends. Would I recommend gridiron for friends looking to take up a new sport? Maybe not. Am I going to play again next year? Absolutely.

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