President's Blog: The Spirit

I recently had the pleasure to attend the inaugural Craig Ruggles Cup in Houston between the Baton Rouge Tigers and the Houston Lonestars. With the Cup being played in honor of the late Craig Ruggles of the Houston Lonestars, who tragically passed away not long after the 2013 USAFL Nationals, it was without question an emotional day.

The love and respect for Craig and his family was extremely evident from not only his teammates, but the visiting Baton Rouge Tigers. He clearly had a big impact on the Houston club, with many fond memories retold. The game was very lopsided on the scoreboard in Houston’s favor, but was still very competitive and hard fought. But something else (besides the tributes to Craig) moved me after the game.

It was the incredible spirit between the two teams, unlike anything I’ve seen in the USAFL before. These two clubs genuinely like and care about each other and there is a magnificent feeling of camaraderie between them. While they compete hard on the field, it all gets left there and once the game is over, there’s a strong sense of, “we’re in this together”. There were no groups after the game. Everyone mingled amongst each other and you could see they really enjoyed each other’s company.

I wanted to know where this culture came from and it didn’t take much digging to find out. The Tigers are ten years old this year and I think even their stalwarts, Rob Montanaro and Josh Cartmill will agree, they’ve always struggled. Existence is a year to year proposition as they’ve never really been able to break the 20+ active player barrier. They’re clearly a club the USAFL needs to help to ensure their survival.

The Lonestars are about the same age, but for their first five or six years they had even less numbers than the Tigers. Its over the last 4yrs, with some strong leadership from David Bryant and Dan Holwerda that they’ve started to blossom. After winning last year’s 3rd Division title and with over 30 active players, they’re clearly a team on the way up.

But they haven’t forgotten where they came from and the help that Baton Rouge gave them in getting them through those early years. They won’t hesitate to tell you that without the Tigers help through those formative years, they wouldn’t have survived. From what I saw, that’s something they’ll never forget.

I think rivalries are great and really important to develop club spirit and passion. There’s no coincidence that they also help club coffers in a big way. The richest clubs in the AFL have the biggest rivalries. Some of the lower clubs are so eager to have a “big rivalry”, they’ve tried to manufacture them. But it doesn’t work that way. They’re not something you can manufacture and are really a product of evolution (I’m sure Charles Darwin would be a fan).

There’s also a downside to rivalries. People hate each other (before they know each other) just because of who they support or play for. Its a harsh reality when you think about it. If that person had have chosen your organization, they could end up your best friend (or even spouse). In the US, rivalry transcends sports and for me personally, are no more evident than in politics, with Republicans vs Democrats. After a few years in the states, the red vs blue rivalry awoke me to politics and has never ceased to amaze me in its ability to demonize the other. Election years bring this to the fore and its a major reason why I no longer have cable tv. What’s ironic for me, is although diametrically opposed philosophically, I don’t see a lot of difference in how they operate once in power.   

So it makes me question the value of rivalry, at least for the USAFL at our stage of growth. I know there’s already some bitter ones between some of our clubs. Where did they come from? They haven’t had enough time to evolve and they’re certainly not helping any of our clubs financially, so were they manufactured? Do we need them?

I would certainly love to bottle the “spirit” that exists between the Houston Lonestars and the Baton Rouge Tigers and spread it amongst our clubs. Its such a great feeling and far better than an unhealthy rivalry. After all, we’re all here for the same reason, to spread and grow this great game. Let’s never forget that and that without other teams, we have no competition. So play hard, but after the battle is over, instead of finding ways to hate the other team, follow in the footsteps of the Lonestars and Tigers, find a way to like each other.

Its a lot like the glass half full or half empty philosophy? If the will is there, you can find something positive about your opposition.

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