Israel huddles up for tackle football

Young Israelis are ready to test their mettle on the gridiron, but will the newly-inaugurated IFL share the same lackluster fate here as baseball?

By RORY KRESS
October 11, 2007 08:49
football metro 88 224

football metro 88 224. (photo credit: Rory Kress)

"Yalla! Nu, huddle up!" Tensions are high as the men of the Tel Aviv Sabres begin to organize their top-secret game plan two hours before the opening scrimmage of the first season of Israeli tackle football. Sweaty heads pressed together, they bar the curious members of the press from advancing any further. "We don't take kindly to reporters around here," says the team captain with such self-assuredness, for a second, it would seem this was the glitzy NFL and not the IFL: the brand new Israel Football League. But looking at the Sabres clustered together at The Bapist Village playing fields, they look like little more than a ragtag group of young men, testing out an American sport on Israeli ground. Since April, however, the men of the Sabres, along with 80 other players divided into four teams, have been learning the ins and outs of this distinctly American sport, hoping to bring American tackle football to Israel for the first time ever. Fourteen female teams are also gearing up to begin their season. One thing that's already clear, watching the Sabres break the huddle and line up on an imaginary line to begin the play, is that they now know that without padding, they need to be extra careful. Asaf, 16, is sitting out and icing a distended, swollen kneecap. Usually his team's linebacker, he's going to be sitting on the sidelines this game. His injury has even scared off a few of his Israeli friends who do not seem to understand the aggressive game he has fallen for: "I try to convince them to come to my games," he says, rubbing his knee, "they think it's tough but that it's too dangerous. They don't want to get injured like me." Steve Leibowitz, founder of the league, explains that development of the Israel Football League (IFL) came out of the Israelis who had caught the "football bug" from a game they had only seen on television. Young men were playing in local parks without equipment, without padding and without experience. To form a legitimate tackle football league, Leibowitz decided that all players had to pass a course. "It's like Football 101: everything you need to know about football from the beginning." Eric Amkraut, a former football coach who made aliya from New Jersey to help run the crash-course, says, "We treated them the way we would treat high-school walk-ons." Part of that treatment included a two-day pre-season training camp. Two American football coaches from Tennessee also came to help sharpen the young men's skills. "The guys have come a long way.… When we first started, we had doubts," admits Don Peek, one of the American coaches who led the pre-season clinic. "There's a lot of potential. I'm excited about the next couple of years as we get more interest and more players. There's no telling how far this could go." Coach Peek, in addition to his pride and high expectations for the teams, maintains high hopes for tackle football itself in Israel. So will American-style football catch on in Israel? "Absolutely," Coach Peek told Metro. "It's a great team sport with great camaraderie. For the Americans [on the teams], it allows them to bring a little piece of home to Israel." Come November, the teams will play a regular season of nine games plus an exhibition and a playoff game. Finalists will play even more in the playoff round. The venues span the country from Tel Aviv to Haifa to Jerusalem. The Israel Football League is the second major American import in the world of Israeli sports this summer - it was also the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League (IBL). Though both leagues are dedicated to quintessentially American sports, founder Leibowitz insists that the IFL has a "completely different concept" behind it: the IFL is an entirely Israeli league, as opposed to the internationally imported talent that make up the IBL. Amkraut confirms that "Just about everyone suiting up for the IFL lives in Israel on a permanent basis. We're talking about a player base that's homegrown." Though Americans and the Israeli members of the IFL no longer question the sport, it remains a tough sell in a country with no history of the game. Coach Amkraut remembers the mixed reactions he received from his fellow Israelis when he told them just what he would be doing this fall. "They said, 'Really? There's tackle football?' And the answer was 'Yes!' 'With equipment?' 'Yes.' And now, they seem excited about it," though Amkraut admits that most Israeli have a "let's wait and see" kind of attitude regarding the creation of the league. Itay, wide-receiver for the other Tel Aviv team, the Pioneers, proudly details his love for the game. His friends, however, won't let him get away with his fanciful memory. Avihai, the tight-end for the team, interrupts to say, "You've only played the Madden games on the computer," and the guys playfully punch Itay's shoulder and laugh. The mix of ages on the teams also leads to some mockery over their barbeque lunch. Johan, who immigrated from Sweden only three weeks ago, waxes poetic about the game he never thought he'd play back home or in his adopted country. "I love this game," he sighs before his teammates can shove him as he admits he is 36 years old. "Still in shape, eh?" they tease and burst into peals of laughter. By the bleachers, the rest of the Pioneers put on their pads, looking more and more like a team as the pieces of their uniforms come together. Shmuel O'Neill, an immigrant from the US, sports a Trojans jersey cut off at the navel and the shoulders. For him, the IFL is a new opportunity to play a sport that did not give him so many opportunities: "I played for four years in high school. But I played the bench," he says before running off to the 50-yard line to join the rest of his team in their final warm-ups. Though the league has, according to American Coach Peek, exceeded all expectations, and been a "pleasure" to work with, the build-up to the start of the season has not been entirely smooth. In addition to the scrapes and bruises that are to be expected of seasoned veterans of the sport and fresh amateurs, there were also more private difficulties. In order to play, each team member had to purchase his own pads and gear according to the regulations of the league. As one would imagine, jock straps were an inevitable part of the ensemble - but the awkwardness of the protective item was augmented when the shipment of gear arrived from the US. "I guess the supplier just unloaded all their old jock straps on us," sighs Leibowitz recalling the day the garments arrived that no other team would buy. Finally the players take the field and the fans take to the stands. As the whistle blows, the ball spirals across the field and the tackling begins. An older Israeli man begins to grumble from his seat on the bleaches. "What kind of a game is this? It's just craziness," he says half to himself and half to the other Israeli spectators to show his displeasure. "I don't like it. It's too aggressive and there's too much fighting," he concludes. It is apparent that the aggressiveness of the game takes getting used to as it is seen live and in-person, and although they could not convince one man on the bleachers, the game's appeal to Israelis becomes clear when the helmets and the shoulderpads are peeled off. Men in kippot are playing side by side with men in tattoos as several children with peyot stand on the sidelines transfixed at the thrill of a new game in front of their eyes.


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