American football in Dubai
Dubai fans of the famous Superbowl can now play real American football. Poppy Pedder catches up with Hall of Fame celebrity coach, Rex Stevenson
For all you American expats, the name Rex Stevenson might ring a bell or two. You may know him as the coach who is celebrated in football’s Hall of Fame because of his amazing 6:1 win ratio and more than 30 years of experience. And for those who haven’t heard of him, well, you soon will.
Why? Because Rex is helping set up the new American Football Academy here, which is aiming to inject a bit of the sport (that seems to be virtually non-exsistent in this country) into the lives of youngsters living in the UAE. From early next month, kids aged seven to 18 will be able to don their crash gear and join training sessions and matches at the Universal American School. In the not-too-distant future, the AFA (American Football Association) is even looking at holding leagues and special football camps in Dubai to develop students’ talents and find the region’s best players.
So why the UAE? After all, it’s hardly the centre of the universe when it comes to American football. ‘Well, don’t you think that’s a very good reason to start?’ asks Rex. ‘In fact, did you know that there are about four million kids playing football back in the United States? Actually, football is here. But it’s very hard to find. There aren’t any full-fledged leagues or anything like that. And the UAE hasn’t got a team to represent it internationally.’ The AFA, he explains, is keen to improve the game’s presence in the region – not just among expats, but among Emiratis too.
‘There are just so many reasons why the game is great for kids and teens,’ he enthuses. ‘They learn about teamwork but also about how to achieve success individually. It builds both confidence and a competitive nature. Kids need to train the body as well as the mind.’ That’s all very well. But what about the physical aspects? American football is hardly a non-contact sport. In fact, it looks pretty barbaric at times with all that smashing and crashing into each other being positively encouraged. Rex points out that it’s no worse than rugby – and at least the players wear body armour, which he then insists I try on. And actually, once I’ve maneuvered myself into the Dynasty-esque shoulder guards, comical padded trousers and helmet (with a face guard) I do feel pretty invincible. Rex completes the experience by giving me a couple of sizable thumps on the head, which barely even tickle – and I admit I’m convinced of the safety. ‘As long as every player follows the rules carefully, no child should get injured during a game,’ he says.
So how do you begin teaching students a sport that’s entirely new to them? ‘We balance work into two categories: class work and field work,’ he explains. ‘It’s so important that players know what they are doing, so we teach them all the theory and the basics in the classroom. But obviously we have field games throughout the season, that’s the whole point of it all!’ And will Rex be the only coach at the Academy? ‘We’re hoping to build up a team of coaches here. And later on we’ll be giving some of the older players the chance to become coaches themselves. Kids will love that, having younger coaches who are actually playing the sport. The bond will be closer, I think.’ Regarding age groups, he explains, ‘We have the Mighty Mite’s for seven- to nine-year-olds (girls can attend this class if they want. It’s safe to say that if they join the older groups they’ll get squashed by the boys); Pee Wee’s is for nine- to 10-year-olds – and so on. There are classes suitable for all ages and sizes – and we’re raring to go,’ he laughs.
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