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.”
One day after having their way against Jeddah, the Emirates American Football League (EAFL) Falcons were made to work for a 21-12 win over familiar foes the Almaty Titans.
Unlike the blowout victory less than 24 hours earlier, the Falcons were challenged by a team they previously edged 15-13 last June, but the hosts had enough firewpower to top the Kazakhs once again to sweep the weekend’s international slate at Zayed Sports City on Saturday night.
Running back Luke Norrey provided two of the Falcons’ three touchdowns in the game, first finding the end zone from 7 yards out on the ground in the opening quarter before adding insurance in the third period with a 15-yard run.
Norrey, who also had a 10-yard rushing score versus Jeddah on Friday, has enjoyed running behind the All-Star offensive ine of the Falcons.
“A lot of space,” Norrey answered when asked what he saw on his two trips to paydirt against Almaty. “That’s the joy of playing with the Falcons, these guys who we play against the whole season we’re playing with. It’s making the most of everyone we’ve got. The offensive line blowing people up makes it, I don’t want to say easy, but easier.”
The third touchdown came on the legs of Jay Hall, who converted a 10-yard run in the second quarter to extend the Falcons’ lead to 14-0.
Almaty, however, fought back in the second half with their own running back, Ulan Stybayev, finding the end zone twice on a 2-yard plunge in the third quarter and a 4-yard scamper in the fourth to narrow the gap to 21-12.
On the strength of Daniel Viranyi’s flawless kicking game – he converted all three extra points against Almaty and all nine for the weekend overall – and stops on both Titans’ two-point conversion attempts, the Falcons were able to keep the visitors at arm’s length.
“We knew Kazakhstan were going to be tough. We know they play hard and play with heart,” Norrey said. “They’re a lot more organised and can go for a while, but at the end of the day we got it done.”
The Falcons’ next opponent and destination is yet to be determined, but after starting their season with two impressive victories, the EAFL’s best are gaining confidence.
Said Norrey: “A couple more practice sessions and a couple more games, I think we could go anywhere and win.”
ROBINSON STRAPS ON THE PADS
The EAFL Falcons are not only comprised of the best players across the league, but all four men’s head coaches. Abu Dhabi Wildcats coach Tony Robinson, however, felt he could contribute more than by just standing on the sideline and actually put on a uniform to play in the win over the Almaty Titans.
Robinson was planning on playing from the opening whistle, but his pads didn’t arrive until halftime. At the intermission, he suited up and put on Samer Omar’s jersey before getting on the field in the third quarter.
While it was amusing for his players and fellow coaches, there’s no doubting Robinson’s playing experience, which includes NCAA Division I football with Georgia Tech and a brief stint with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs as a defensive lineman.
Those days appear mostly behind him though, as Robinson asked out of the game to catch his breath following his fourth play as Almaty, whether to test the coach’s endurance or not, went into hurry-up mode. Robinson didn’t leave, however, without recording a tackle for a loss and later came in as an offensive lineman.
“I think the adrenaline kicked in and I was on such a high on the first part of that series. I got very winded very quickly,” Robinson said. “As the game went on, I started to get my bearings a little bit and I got used to having a mouthpiece in and a facemask on and all that good stuff.”
Robinson loved being back on the field for the first time since his Kansas City days so much that he’s even considering making it a regular occurrence.
He said: “It felt amazing and it’s really kind of making me think about playing this season.”