I was struck by the very first practice I attended with Sandy Grossman on my first full day in Sri Lanka. There were four teams practicing at the same time on a large field in what appeared to be a public park where two cricket teams and a soccer team were also practicing.
Instead of players complaining about the things they did not have, they were all working hard and thrilled to be preparing with what they did have.It was also fascinating to me to watch the American coaches work to form a team with players who were not only still learning the basics of the game, but who also did not, in many cases, even speak English. In going from huddle to huddle, it was apparent everyone was speaking “football,” which is one of many testaments to the remarkable job these coaches have done. I knew before getting on a plane that this project had great potential, sounded exciting and challenging, but it was here in this broken down park where the sheer joy of these players confirmed the EFLI was really on to something. On another day we attended practice at Royal Stadium, home to rugby matches, which had a much better field to work on even though it was still not a true football field. The teams were all working in various parts of the stadium and taking turns running team drills using huge parts of the field at one time. After the Pakistan team had already used its “field” time, they moved out in to the parking lot to continue running formations and learning about different play-calls.
In my search to get player information for every team, I was introduced to the “coach” for Pakistan, Jamal, so I could learn about individual players. It was here where I had a real “moment” regarding much of what I believe the EFLI is about. Before we spoke about specific players, when Jamal learned I was an American here with television he asked a favor of me. Jamal asked me to please get a message to our President and our CIA. He told me to please let them know that he, his players and his people love America. He told me they are not terrorists and had nothing to do with 9/11. He was passionate and sincere about how they have made the trip here to Sri Lanka to play American football in part to prove how much they love America. He told me they have embraced this American game and to further prove how much he loves America he told me how he watches HBO. He told me he watched the movie “The Longest Yard” which helped him learn about football. It was a moment that, on one hand had nothing to do with football, but on the other, had everything to do with this football. It’s a moment I will never forget.
Every step of this journey has had an interesting turn, including preparing the playing field for our games. When we first arrived, before the goal posts had even been put down, the grass field inside a beautiful new track (which played host to the 2012 Junior Asian Games) was not large enough to accommodate a 100-yard field with two 10-yard end zones. The workers gathered to discuss things like dimensions, etc. I’m not sure they even knew what a “yard” was, let alone 100 yards. They have lived their entire lives in “meters.” There are no field elements like chalk or lime, but that has not stopped anyone here. The end zones and dimensions remain a work in progress (American coaches have spent hours trying to make adjustments to the field for a look and play the workers have not yet been able to create). The yard markers and lines have literally been hand painted. Many men, barefoot with the kind of hand brushes most of us would associate with perhaps painting a fence, there on the ground painting the lines across the field.. all the yard lines, all the hash marks, all the end lines, everything. No machine rolling the chalk down. Several men, stroke, stroke, stroke with hand brushes.
Regarding the television facilities, Sandy Grossman has created a legitimate television control room and studio from surroundings that would have made that fact unbelievable two weeks ago. He has molded a crew that not only knew nothing about football, but in many cases knew no English at all, in to a well-oiled network quality machine. This is another area where one can be very proud of what has happened here, especially when considering there probably isn’t a single crew in the United States that would work the kind of hours necessary to televise four games in one day/night under these kinds of conditions with the heat and humidity alone.
Seeing these players and coaches work through their various practice conditions, the stadium issues, three exhibition games and all the other preparation leading up to opening day, what happened on Opening Night was amazing. The games were competitive, the enthusiasm among the teams was tremendous and the opening ceremonies were outstanding. There were many places where history was made, but one which stood out to me came toward the end of the opening ceremonies. All eight teams were lined up on the field, five from India, one from Pakistan, and two from Sri Lanka. They all stood respectfully as the national anthems from each country were played, with players from the anthems’ country singing along. Once all three anthems were done and fireworks started going off above the stadium, the players from all the teams came together, started jumping up and down, high-fiving and embracing. When one considers the deep-seeded hostilities between countries like India and Pakistan which date back thousands of years, and how the last time a Sri Lankan sports team was in Pakistan there was a terrorist attack (2009?) which not only killed several people but has kept any Sri Lankan team from going to Pakistan since, the way all these teams came together in this ceremony was not a small moment. To me, it was historic in many ways.
Then add the athletic plays we saw during all the football, from the diving, all-stretched out interception in one game, to the end around run with an enthusiastic TD dance in another, to the defensive lineman who hit a quarterback so hard it stood him up and knocked him out (welcome to football!) it was truly a night to remember. A look around the stadium at various times showed fans having a great time. I don’t know if they were even aware of everything they were seeing, but they enjoyed what they saw.