Playing American Football in Cambridge

What’s it like to tackle an American sport in an English city? Davies Jackson Scholar 2010-2012, Nicholas Courtney, reflects.

Football in Cambridge

I’d heard that Cambridge had virtually any sport you could want to play; however, I couldn’t have imagined that would include full-pad, full-contact American football—a sport I always thought was viewed by the English as ridiculous or unmanly.  True, I found no team when I got here; but I found a physics PhD student from London who had played at two other universities and hoped to bring back the glorious old Cambridge Pythons, quite a team a decade ago.

I felt a bit guilty, passing on the chance to do fencing or a more Cambridge-esque sport to play the game I’d taken for granted my whole life.  However, I am incredibly glad I did so.

The team started off quite bumpy, our first year going by without a real full-pad practice, much less a game.  However, I was part of a small group of guys who decided to stick with it; we got two new coaches and we started the year ready to recruit.

I had always played football, but I had never been a team leader until now. I found that simply being American gave me authority, for better or for worse; this was only increased by the relative youth of the majority of the newly-recruited team.

Cambridge football

Yet I quickly found that there is something about football in the UK that is quite unlike what I’d grown up with.  In some ways, I was learning and re-learning as much as the converted ruggers and rookies.  The process took something familiar to me and made it meaningful all over again, and this engaged me in a way I haven’t known in a long time.

Academic work, especially at Cambridge, is so individualistic that it was a great experience to be part of a diverse team striving toward a common goal.

As it turned out, some of the best friends I’ve made at Cambridge were from the Pythons.  I got to know guys from all over England (and a spirited Hungarian), got to watch young guys discover a physically- and mentally-challenging game, take ownership of their roles on the team, lift each other up, call each other out, and deal with both victory and defeat.

I always like to say that American football is the truest team sport I’ve encountered; after this year, I can say it with new conviction.  And though I am sad to leave Cambridge, I look forward to watching a young team grow into the champions that this great university deserves.


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