Durham Saints: wellbeing in American football

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In November 2019, Ben Sharp began a transformative journey. Roughing it up as a striker for St. Mary’s in the bottom division of college football, he yearned for change. He therefore set a new ambition, one aiming beyond the confines of college sport: to play for the Durham Saints, one of the best American Football teams in the British university system.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever taken up in my life,” Sharp tells Palatinate. “My mental and physical health have improved. I can’t express how welcoming the club is and how much more structure I have to my life. This year I had my deadlines done quicker than ever before, despite all the training and gym sessions!”

“My mental and physical health have improved. I can’t express how welcoming the club is and how much more structure I have to my life.”

Sharp’s story is truly inspiring. He speaks openly about how mental health issues have been his biggest demon, causing him to drop out of university in 2017. Now entering the final year of his degree after restarting in 2018, he credits the Durham Saints for giving him a new lease of life and applauds the club’s values of kindness and inclusivity.

“Everyone mingles. My first fundamentals training session was taken by an American scholar who spent an hour one-on-one with me. You would think that somebody who has played since the age of eight wouldn’t have time for somebody who has hardly played at all, but he did, and that sums up the club.” Sharp is quick to underline other appealing highlights to being a Saints player. “The socials are really lovely. Every Sunday, we get together in the Library Bar and watch the American Football games. And we eat chicken wings!”

Such friendliness is both natural and fostered. The squad combines experienced players who have had trials at NFL clubs with accidental players who initially attended training thinking it was rugby. Such an apparent polarity could be a problem at most teams, yet Club President Will Evans emphasises the conscious effort to nurture and value every player.

“We’re going through a paradigm shift as a club. There has been a substantive effort to change how we view training and interaction. Yes, we’re a high-performance club, but anybody can join. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re like or what experience you have,” says Evans.

Evans once had doubts about his own suitability for the sport, having previously competed in cross country and tennis. “Back home in America I would never have dreamed of playing football just due to my body size. At the beginning, every single day, I felt like I was the weakest in the weight room. But the Head Coach, Jonathan Rooney, encouraged me to keep going, and it’s totally different to the American stereotype of jocks and lad culture. Nobody is pressured to drink to their grave or go on aggressive nights out. Senior players would come up to me all the time and support me with my training. It’s a family.” Fast forward one year, and Evans is the club’s President.

The camaraderie within the club has bred results on the field. Last season, the Durham Saints won the Premier Division North for the second time in three seasons. This qualified them for the national playoffs, where they dispatched the University of East Anglia Pirates 33-0 in the quarter-finals. They were due to host the Birmingham Lions for a chance to qualify for the national final in Nottingham, but Covid-19 got in the way.

The curtailed season also meant that Sharp did not get to make his debut. “Although I didn’t get a chance to get off the bench and play, I wouldn’t change a thing about the experience. It’s a very intellectually challenging game because you’ve got to learn the plays and tactics. It can be hard at times. Can you imagine somebody taking up university-level rugby at the age of 18? It’s unrealistic for a new guy to walk in and be an instant star, so I’m just happy I’ve been around the team and look forward to playing in future.”

The season ahead promises to be very different, with no competitive matches being played before 2020. During Easter Term, the side will play local fixtures against teams from different tiers. But last year’s President, Sam Bird – affectionately known as “Birdy” – is full of positivity for the restructured season ahead.

“This year there are opportunities to develop homegrown talent because we’re in a local league. We’re not having as many American scholars coming in this year so we have open spots to develop homegrown talent. This is a year where we can get everybody’s skill sets to a much higher level by giving them more game time,” says Bird.

“We have some of the best coaches available. Our success almost amplifies as a culture that we work to make people feel welcome and hopefully we can integrate new talent this year. I’d encourage freshers to give it a go and get involved.”

President Will Evans is working hard to upkeep the team’s connection with each of their players. “We’re working on a comprehensive training plan for each player with exercise targets at home based on experience and body weights.” While technical training sessions will go ahead, squad members will only be able to train with others in the gym once per week, so communication is vital.

But what about flimsy-muscled skeletons, such as the one bashing away at this keyboard? Surely a sport as physical as American Football couldn’t possibly accommodate somebody who last set foot in a gym for their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award? All three vehemently dispel my misconception.

“There’s a position for anyone and lots of diversity in body types,” says Sharp. “I’ve struggled a lot with body confidence and wasn’t sure I was cut out for it, but it doesn’t matter if you’re nine stone or twenty stone of pure muscle. You don’t have to come in with superhero fitness. It’s just about being willing to learn.”

“There’s a position for anyone and lots of diversity in body types. I’ve struggled a lot with body confidence and wasn’t sure I was cut out for it, but it doesn’t matter if you’re nine stone or twenty stone of pure muscle.”

This sentiment is echoed by Bird, who calls himself a “big guy” at the opposite end of the spectrum. “I’m naturally strong but I’d never been to a gym. I still dread the lifting sessions every week because they’re not natural for me. But we’ve built an atmosphere where everyone can be their best self.”

“The way the sport is, the big guys play against the big guys on the field and the little guys play against the little guys. Somebody like Will isn’t going to be tackled by somebody like me very often at all. Okay, maybe once in a blue moon, but how often do they come around?”

The stage is set. While it is unclear whether sports trials will be on any time soon, I’d urge potential sportspeople to reach out to Durham’s clubs and find out how to get involved. The personal benefits are numerous and, who knows, maybe one day you will lift a trophy as a club President.

For more information about Ben’s experiences, you can listen to a three-part podcast on Purple Radio on Demand: ‘From D team to DU’.

Image: Durham Saints.

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