It was the school's annual Club Fair and the psychology club, the ultimate frisbee club, the student government association and the film club were among those holding court, amiably recruiting as many students as possible for the upcoming year. As an eager exchange student looking for new experiences, I was the clubs' dream candidate.
Wandering past the women's rugby club, a sign read: Stirling University American Football Club. American football? It's my favorite sport back home, but I had never played it to any degree of effectiveness, unless you count my incredible catch in my backyard in fifth grade, running through my mom's garden. People still talk about that. But besides a brief stint playing offensive line in middle school (where even a lamppost could have made the team), I had never tried to play for a real team.
Not that I was sure this was a real team. The kid behind the booth was smaller than me, but he assured me that the team was actually real -they had real helmets, real uniforms, real pads, and sometimes, real referees. I showed up to my first practice and found a good number of devoted players already working out and doing drills. Then, the captain of the team approached me. He was a large-bodied English "bloke" named Allistair, and he had the kind of leadership smile that made you want to run 50 laps for him right there.
"You American?" he asked.
"Can you catch?"
"That's better than last year," he said roughly, and walked away.
This Scottish team, I soon found out, didn't exactly have a history of winning anything. First of all, due to the Scottish weather (read: rainy and stormy), approximately half of all the games scheduled per year were canceled. And even if you did play, the field (or "pitch") was usually a large canvas of mud and the rain and wind usually made any semblance of an offense impossible. Stirling's arch-rival was Glasgow (Scotland's largest city), and because of Glasgow's size and recruiting ability, they always seemed to win the big games, and left Stirling sitting in the mud. In short, we started the season in the lovable position of pathetic underdogs.
Not that the team didn't have spirit. What we lacked in talent, we made up for in the incredibly ability to make fun of people, places, things, and mostly, ourselves. The team was quite diversified, so there was a large selection of things to make fun of there were Scottish players, about 9 Americans, several English, one guy from Northern Ireland, and one player who was possibly Finnish or Swedish or Danish (we weren't exactly sure; he didn't talk much). There was even a girl on the team. Her named was Rachel, and she was from Southern California, and she could talk her way out of (or into) anything, which explained how she got on an American Football team in Scotland.
Of course, out of this group, the Americans took most of the beating. When Pablo, also from California, tried to lead the stretches one day, Scottish defensive lineman (and resident jokester) Kieron screamed out from behind the crowd, "Americans - trying to take over the world again!"
And God forbid we fumbled the ball, missed a tackle, or got flagged for a penalty. One day, I had a bad practice and dropped a couple of passes.
"I thought you said you were American?" one guy said.
Although we were teased a lot, we soon learned that the Scottish, more than any culture in the world, uses teasing as a form of affection. And we were teased a lot.
I got my nickname in December, when I famously drank too much at a team party and fell asleep in the bathroom; a linebacker nicknamed Mung had to pull me out. I was forever christened "Sleepy" thereafter.
It was our camaraderie that really pulled us together. As a team, we would go out drinking, practice twice a week, see each other in classes, have BBQ's, and go to European League games together. As a team, we would face all the flack being an American football player in Scotland got you from the rugby team and the real football team. And with the help of the Americans, some seasoned players, and one amazing running back who was the white, skinny version of Barry Sanders, we had some decent talent. We also had a guy who, for one game, painted his face with warrior paint and looked like a member of KISS. The Scottish had never seen anything like it on the field before.
Amazingly, we won our first four games before facing our rivals Glasgow. As I stood on an artificial-turf pitch, with a pub in the distance and the rain coming down in icy cold pellets, it finally hit me: I am playing football in the middle of Scotland. Studying abroad is all about putting yourself in new situations and foreign cultures. Playing American football in Scotland was "new" piled on "foreign" with a layer of "irony" and a healthy dash of "for the hell of it." Even though we lost that game, and another game in Glasgow, it didn't matter.
More amazingly, Glasgow lost a few games that year too. At the end of the season, Stirling and Glasgow were neck and neck for the Scottish Championship. The chance for Stirling to win the championship was unprecedented. It came down, fittingly, to a final game: We had to win versus Strathclyde to be champions.
On that day, the 27th of February, 2000, it was raining again. By that time, we were so used to the rain that the sun would have ruined our game plan. It was one of those breakneck games, with both teams being equal, scoring right after each other, until finally, our star running back found his way into the end zone once again that season. And when a linebacker named Dave batted down a pass by the opposing quarterback, and cornerback Johnny (who called himself Deion) caught the ball, it was officially all over. There, on another artificial pitch in rainy Glasgow, Scotland, Stirling had won the Scottish Championship.
It didn't matter that when we took an eight-hour bus ride to Leicester, England, to play in the British Playoffs, that we lost 54-0. We didn't even come close to scoring. I'm not sure that we even completed a pass. But we didn't hang our heads much. Instead, we all hopped on ferry to Belfast, to party with the Irish. And to sing in the streets. And to make fun of each other a lot.
Photo by Danielle Hylton