Friday 19 July 2019

Croke Park lights up as sport and theatre collide

Action confounds sceptics as American football clash brings us sport as theatre

Penn State players hoist the Dan Rooney Trophy after defeating UCF 26-24. Croke Park Classic 2014, Penn State v University of Central Florida. Croke Park, Dublin (Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE)
Penn State players hoist the Dan Rooney Trophy after defeating UCF 26-24. Croke Park Classic 2014, Penn State v University of Central Florida. Croke Park, Dublin (Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE)
Sam Ficken
Opening kick-off, Croke Park Classic 2014, Penn State v University of Central Florida. Croke Park, Dublin, where Aisling Crowe writes, "the sparkle and the show are an integral part of the spectacle." (Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE)

Aisling Crowe

'Give em that old razzle dazzle, razzle dazzle em," was Billy Flynn's advice in Chicago and Croke Park sure was razzled and dazzled yesterday by the stunning spectacle of college football.

It was a jaw dropping, awe inspiring sight when first glimpsing the transformed interior of the stadium before the University of Central Florida clashed with the Penn State University. It was Croke Park but not as we know it. The surreal panorama spread out before your eyes. A shrunken pitch surrounded by athletic cheerleaders, acrobatically somersaulting into dangerous positions, marching bands putting a brass spin on some classics including the theme tune to The Sunday Game and flagbearers, mascots and whatever else was needed in the way of support.

The truly awesome scene was in the middle of the pitch where 200 athletes prepared to begin their college season, hopes and dreams spread out before them and the glory of last season behind champions University of Central Florida. Place kickers and field goal experts practising their punts into a mini goal net at the side. This was a home game for the Knights to kick off the season but they were a long way from Orlando. Still they managed to bring some of Florida to Dublin 1.

This was sport as theatre, an unrivalled spectacle with the full Broadway treatment, no soya milk substitute but full fat college football.

The clock counted down the minutes to kick off, and a parachutist clad in the Penn State blue and white landed in the middle of the pitch. The UCF Knights parachutist went missing in action, his radar slightly wonky. He came up a little short of the pitch and landed on the train line behind Hill 16. Saturday afternoon shoppers suffered the convenience that shadows the commuter daily as trains were delayed while the errant knight was rescued.

As the Dublin Gospel Choir came to the final bars of their stirringly haunting acapella rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, a low rumble emanated from the clouds. The stands shook with the vibrations and the air throbbed with the thundering roar of two American Air Force F16 fighter jets that flew over the stadium as the anthem grew to a crescendo. Shaken from their stunned silence, the crowd applauded the military machines and eyes turned skywards, half in hope that they would return for the end of Amhran na bhFiann but they were probably halfway across the Irish Sea by then.

The NFL may be America's game but the college version is giving it a run for its money. Apart from the fighter jets, this entertainment is what fans are treated to at every college game. Penn State's home ground, the Beaver Stadium, seats 107,000 people, the fourth biggest stadium in the world and when it is full, the third largest population centre in Pennsylvania.

The power football exerts on America's imagination is iron and it wasn't difficult to understand why. An exuberant, effervescent celebration was in full swing since earlier in the week and the crowds making their way to the stadium from the city centre kept up that friendly, joyous atmosphere. Good natured chants emanated from the various watering holes on the way out of the city centre and towards Croke Park.

This may have been a spectacle but it was also a serious sport. Every tackle, every intercept, every pass that found a runner was greeted with a roar the like of which is usually only heard when the referee blows the final whistle in an All-Ireland final.

Anyone with dismissive attitudes towards American football would have had their prejudices seriously challenged by the on-pitch action. The first collision from the opening kick off saw the helmet of one of the Nittany Lions fly through the air, knocked from a head with the force of the impact.

They know how to ramp up the drama to DEFCON 5 on the pitch too and the Nittany Lions were denied an opening touchdown by the video review. Forced to replay the third and down, running back Zach Zwinack barged his way over and this time the score was genuine. The extra point was tacked on by place kicker Robby Liebel and Sam Ficken added a field goal in the second quarter.

UCF's first points came through the boot of an Irishman. Growing up in Cork, Sean Galvin dreamed of running out onto the hallowed turf, the blood and bandages around his ankles. He fulfilled those childhood imaginings but in a way he could never have conjured up in his wildest dreams. His family moved to Florida ten years ago but yesterday Galvin returned, ensuring there was a Corkman taking to the field in Croke Park.

Superbowl half-time shows are legendary, almost as eagerly anticipated as the football action, but what could Dublin do to delight the crowds? The answer: hurling with a twist, explained by Donal Og Cusack. Last year, Super 11s made its debut and formed part of an Irish cultural visit to Notre Dame University. Yesterday, it was back for the delectation of the travelling fans. They were enthralled by the skills of the Munster and Leinster teams but it was another slightly surreal note on a day punctuated by them in the home of Gaelic games.

The Nittany Lions had the football for longer during the first half but the game ignited in the third quarter. Behind by ten points when the second half started, the Knights reduced the deficit to just three but Penn State roared back, Geno Lewis getting on the end of a 79-yard pass from Hackenberg and strolling to a touchdown that restored his side's ten point lead. The defending champions, the Knights, were not about to have their honour impugned and early in the final quarter Josh Reese set up a tense and thrilling last ten minutes with his touchdown to bring it back to three. A third field goal of the afternoon for Lions kicker Sam Ficken stretched the advantage back out to six but with less than 90 seconds on the clock UCF struck back.

Eye Of The Tiger blared over the speakers as the Knights plotted their next move and the Lions schemed to thwart them. It was fourth down and ten with the pressure on when coach George O'Leary pulled them into a huddle. The pre-planned play worked to perfection and wide receiver JJ Worton tied the game with his first touchdown. The conversion was added and the Knights were ahead for the first time in the game.

America's fictional sports dramas condition us to expect one final desperate bid for glory and as Penn State sought the perfect position for the winning field goal, you half expected the action to switch to slow motion and the agonised face of Friday Night Lights heroic coach Eric Taylor to linger on the screen. There were five seconds left to play and Penn State were 36 yards from goal when head coach James Franklin called a time out. Whether he told Sam Franklin 'Clear eyes, full hearts, can't loose,' or spoke other words of wisdom in that final huddle, it worked as Franklin's kick sneaked inside the post to give Penn State a late and dramatic victory.

They followed Flynn's advice to the letter in Croke Park with razzle dazzle to beat Banagher but the sequins were not some frippery tacked on as a distraction. Sport and theatre collide with spectacular results in American football. The sparkle and the show are an integral part of the spectacle but there is real steel behind the stardust that was sprinkled on Dublin yesterday.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Kerry back to their best, Connolly’s return and Cork’s baffling inconsistency

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport