Israel huddles up for first season of tackle football

Players in the Israel Football league train for the season opener. (Photo: Yehuda Boltshauser)”Yalla! Nu, huddle up!”It’s just two hours before the opening scrimmage and the Tel Aviv Sabres are looking like little more than a rag tag group of …

Players in the Israel Football league train for the season opener. (Photo: Yehuda Boltshauser)”Yalla! Nu, huddle up!”

It’s just two hours before the opening scrimmage and the Tel Aviv Sabres are looking like little more than a rag tag group of young athletes shouting out a hybrid of English and Hebrew slang.

On the grassy expanse of The Baptist Village sports field in Petah Tikva, the players form a dense huddle in the shade of a tree and begin plotting their next play. Without uniforms or padding, the Sabres are careful not to injure themselves, avoiding tackles and almost daintily blocking each other as they switch on and off for who is on defense and who is on offense.

The Sabres are one of four teams that make up the inaugural season of the Israel Football League (IFL), the first American-style tackle football league in Israel. Over 80 players, from ages 17 to 40, have been training since April, attending clinics and workshops in preparation for the November season.

Steve Leibowitz, founder of the league, explains that development of the Israel Football League (IFL) derived from National Football League games which are screened regularly in Israel. Young Israelis who had caught the “football bug” were playing in local parks without equipment, without padding and without experience, says Leibowitz, an American immigrant who has been living in Israel for decades and who has previously introduced a touch football league to young atheletes.

The teams – with representatives from Haifa to Jerusalem – will play a regular season of nine games plus an exhibition and a playoff game. And spectators, who may miss rooting for their favorite NFL or CFL teams, will be able to cheer on the Israeli version for a symbolic entrance fee.

To form a legitimate tackle football league, Leibowitz decided that all players had to pass a course. “It’s like Football 101: everything you need to know about football from the beginning,” Leibowitz told ISRAEL21c. “We treated them the way we would treat high school walk-ons.”

The course in question was taught by Eric Amkraut, a former football coach who made aliyah from New Jersey. Part of that treatment included a two-day pre-season training camp.

“The guys have come a long way… when we first started, we had doubts,” admits Don Peek, one of the two American coaches from Tennessee who led the pre-season clinic. “There’s a lot of potential. I’m excited about the next couple of years as we get more interest and more players. There’s no telling how far this could go.”

The IFL is the second major American import in the world of Israeli sports this year – it was also the inaugural season of the Israel Baseball League (IBL).

Though both leagues are dedicated to quintessentially American sports, founder Leibowitz insists that the IFL has a “completely different concept” behind it: the IFL is an entirely Israeli league, as opposed to the IBL’s dependence on internationally imported talent. The IFL hosts a range of talent and ability, and no member of the team receives compensation for his participation.

“Just about everyone suiting up for the IFL lives in Israel on a permanent basis. We’re talking about a player base that’s homegrown,” said Amkraut.

While the players and coaches seem gung ho, the concept of American tackle football in Israel – where soccer reigns supreme – could be a tough sell.

Amkraut remembers the mixed reactions he received from people when he told them just what he would be doing this fall.

“They said, ‘Really? There’s tackle football?’ And the answer was ‘Yes!’ ‘With equipment?’ ‘Yes.’ And now, they seem excited about it,” although Amkraut admits that most Israelis have a “let’s wait and see” kind of attitude towards the creation of the league.

At the Tel Aviv Pioneers’ practice session on the same field as the Sabres, a 16-year-old linebacker named Asaf has to sit out, icing a distended, swollen kneecap. During his break, he speaks of how he wishes for a wider communal recognition of his new-found talent:

“I try to convince them to come to my games,” he says, rubbing his knee. “They think it’s tough but that it’s too dangerous. They don’t want to get injured like me.”

Over a barbecue lunch, some of the inexperienced players good naturedly tease one other. When Pioneers wide receiver Itay proudly recounts some of the games he’s played in, tight end Avihai interrupts him. “You’ve only played the Madden games on the computer.”

By the bleachers, the rest of the Pioneers put on their pads, looking more and more like a team as the pieces of their uniforms come together. Shmuel O’Neill, an American immigrant, sports a Trojans jersey cut off at the navel and the shoulders. For him, the IFL is a new opportunity to play a sport that did not give him so many opportunities.

“I played for four years in high school. But I played the bench,” he says, before running off to the 50-yard line to join the rest of his team in their final warm-ups.

Finally the rest of the players take to the field and the fans take to the stands. As the whistle blows, the ball spirals across the field and the tackling begins, the once rag tag group of athletes proves itself transformed into a bona fide football team. Even so, an older man begins to grumble from the bleachers.

“What kind of a game is this? It’s just craziness,” he says, half to himself and half to the other spectators. “I don’t like it. It’s too aggressive and there’s too much fighting,” he concludes.

It’s clear that in its first year, the Israel Football League is going to be engaged in an uphill battle.

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