Robby Lopez may have played his final game in the Emirates American Football League, but he’ll head back to Texas carrying extra weight after earning the league’s Player of the Year award.
The bruising Abu Dhabi Wildcats running back topped all standout players in the Men’s division for the league’s highest individual honour, beating reigning MVP and team-mate Vivaldi Tulysse, along with the Dubai Barracudas’ Luke Norrey and Zavier Cobb, as well as Jay Hall of the Al Ain Desert Foxes.
Players, coaches, referees and league officials came together for the fifth annual EAFL Awards at the Els Club on Friday to recognise excellence on and off the field.
There was little Lopez didn’t accomplish in what will be his first and only season in the Emirates as he helped the Wildcats reach the Desert Bowl, where they fell just short to up-and-coming Al Ain.
He’s also had a prominent role for the EAFL Falcons through their first two international clashes of the year, playing both sides of the ball in victories over the Jeddah American Football Team and Almaty Titans.
Lopez was appreciative of receiving the award, saying: “It means a lot, but in the end, I couldn’t have done it myself. I have to thank the team and the coaches for giving me the opportunity to play and show them what I can do on the field. Those big guys up front, they let me do what I do and we got it done.”
Lopez leaves for the US with fond memories and new friends.
“I hope everything goes well for the Wildcats. I wish nothing but the best for them,” he said. “As far as the league goes, I hope they continue growing, blow up and make it big.”
In the youth league, meanwhile, Kian Sohrabi of the Varsity Dubai Barracudas and Anant Singh of the Junior Varsity Dubai Stallions were named Player of the Year in their respective divisions.
Both players capped their season in style after winning the Desert Bowl and improved on the awards they earned last year, when Sohrabi earned Co-Offensive Player of the Year and Singh received his team’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Explaining what contributed to his improvement this season, Singh said: “For starters, I switched to a new position – quarterback. Last year I was switching around, playing one game at quarterback, one game at running back and mostly on the offensive line.”
For Sohrabi, he focused on his technique to become an elusive and explosive running back.
“I cut down some weight, I worked on my footwork, I looked at my tape after every single game to see what I could improve on and just continue to get better,” he said.
Player of the Year
Men: Robby Lopez, Abu Dhabi Wildcats
Varsity: Kian Sohrabi, Dubai Barracudas
Junior Varsity: Anant Singh, Dubai Stallions
Offensive Player of the Year
Men: Jay Hall, Al Ain Desert Foxes
Varsity: Damian Staga, Dubai Stallions
Junior Varsity: Thomas Toral, Abu Dhabi Capitals; Francesco Antonietti, Dubai Stallions
Defensive Player of the Year
Men: Alex Rodriguez, Dubai Barracudas
Varsity: Tomas Mourino, Dubai Barracudas
Junior Varsity: Sam Dabbous, Abu Dhabi Capitals; Sami Bushnaq, Dubai Stallions
Special Teams Player of the Year
Men: Daniel Viranyi, Dubai Barracudas
Trick plays, spikes and camaraderie highlighted the Emirates American Football League’s jamboree-style Pro Bowl as Youth players put their skills on display.
Saturday’s round-robin exhibition games at Dubai Sports City featured three squads – Hitsquad, Wolfpack and Sharks – competing in the Rudy Ruettiger Division (Pee Wee), the Walter Payton Division (Bantam and Junior Varsity) and the Vince Lombardi Division (Junior Varsity and Varsity).
With the Pro Bowl last held in 2015, this year’s event gave players a chance to strap on the pads again before the summer break.
“It’s kind of an opportunity for the players to have one more chance after the season ends,” said Hitsquad’s Sami Bushnaq. “It’s just a couple games where teams get to have fun and play with each other.”
Bushnaq, who plays for the Junior Varsity Dubai Stallions, was clearly having fun himself and it showed on one play when the running back dove over a defender.
For Hitsquad defensive end Jacob Bielss, the most enjoyable aspect of the Pro Bowl was joining forces with players who are usually opponents.
“It’s cool to be able to play with some of the best athletes on the field and play against your own team-mates,” said Bielss, who played for the Bantam Abu Dhabi Scorpions this season. “You get to meet new people and new friends, so it’s a really great experience for all these different athletes.”
The players weren’t the only ones enjoying the day. Coaches let loose with creative trick plays that included flea flickers, reverses, end-arounds, double passes and more.
And when the players did find the end zone, they didn’t hesitate to break out their best celebration – something they’re not allowed to do in the regular season – and spikes, as long as they retrieved the ball for the referees.
“Since it’s the Pro Bowl you can do whatever you want. You get to have fun,” said Bielss. “Trick plays were one of the main things people wanted to do because it’s just for fun, it’s not a serious type of event.”
While Jeddah American Football Team coach Abdullah al-Kidd is a realist, he’s methodically working on his long-term vision for the sport in the Kingdom.
The Saudi Arabia squad were in the UAE this past weekend to play against the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) Falcons in what was only their fourth game overall.
Relative newcomers to the sport, Jeddah had only previously played against Egypt’s GUC Eagles, Jordan’s Amman Barracudas and the Kuwait national team.
Their lack of experience showed, with the EAFL comfortably earning a 42-0 victory at The Sevens on Friday and it came as no surprise to Al-Kidd, who has been around the game since the age of five, played in NCAA Division I at the University of Idaho and attended three NFL minicamps.
“You just can’t fake football,” said Al-Kidd. “You might be able to fake other sports, but football is one of those sports that reveals your characters, reveals who you are and reveals your preparation.”
The lopsided loss wasn’t without some promising signs, however. One of the highlight plays came from Jeddah cornerback Taj Al Haj Hussein – playing in his first-ever game – who intercepted Falcons veteran quarterback Zavier Cobb and returned it to the red zone.
Jeddah couldn’t get on the board, but there were moments, particularly on defence, that gave Al-Kidd hope for the future.
“This is promising,” Al-Kidd said. “At the end of the day, I’m trying to lay a foundation that when I’m done, they have something to build on. They’ll tell you I’ve been so raw and explicit in trying to give them pure, pure football. I’m not trying to give them football that fits in their culture, I’m trying to give them real, raw football. It’s a process.”
The foundation’s construction began in 2009 and while most of the players on the current team are fresh faces, some have been with Al-Kidd since the beginning.
Years into the programme, opportunities remain few and far between with Jeddah existing independent of any structured league. For Al-Kidd, the greatest impediment to Jeddah’s development is a lack of regular scheduled games, which in turn saps the incentive for his players to put in the hard yards.
“Our issue is practice. I think if we could actually schedule some games, it actually motivates the guys to come to practice,” said Al-Kidd. “My coaches always used to tell me ‘you’re going to play like how you practice’. If you practice well, even if you didn’t have that many games, it’s in you. Things come automatically when you have repetition.”
The trip to the UAE is another stepping stone towards building commitment to the sport, especially with all of Jeddah’s players paying their own travel cost, as they have for their other international trips. There’s no sponsor yet, but it’s clear there’s enough passion to overcome obstacles like that.
“The more these guys see different teams and what different teams have to offer, I think it’s going to give them a taste for it,” said Al-Kidd.
“At the end of the day, some of the guys might say ‘I’m not a good player but I might be a good coach’. So absolutely, I think the more the merrier and that’s one thing I want to do in the offseason, focus on getting more games and focus on getting funding for games because this is all out of pocket.
“We’re going to use these games as a platform to schedule. We’re working to have more games and more opportunities.”