By Nick Burt
It’s 7.15am as I rock up to the Platt Lane Sports Complex in Manchester on a beautiful but fresh Saturday morning in early September. 30 minutes previous my phone had lit up with a text message from Austin Bradshaw. Along with the rest of the team he’d arrived at the field straight off the red-eye flight from Boston.
I navigate the white lines of the car park and I can see Jags’ staff busy unloading a number of large white vans littering the area closest to the domed indoor facility. A vendor swings open the awning of a food van. Krispy Kreme. Get in.
Amongst the vehicle count is a modest-sized motorhome, surrounded on one side by a group of people in matching red jackets. Massflag All-Stars. We’re the only team here. There’s a guy in his sixties cooking bacon, while the rest of the team sit around on chairs under the awning. As I clock Austin I assume for a split-second that he’s hired the motorhome and driven it from the airport, picking up on the way all the food – and beer – we’d need for the day.
As I quickly discover, the motorhome belongs to Austin’s father, David, who’s been enlisted by Austin to look after us for the day. But the thing is, if you know Austin, and know how resourceful he is, you’ll understand why my assumption wasn’t outrageous. If you know him, you’ll also understand why he now owns and runs one of the biggest and most successful flag football leagues in America.
In Manchester, though, the Massflag All-Stars had all-expenses-paid tickets to Super Bowl LII to compete for and win. By the end of the opening round games of the Jaguars Se7ens Cup, we’d heard a few disgruntled whispers from other teams about our presence. We understood. We expected it. Let’s be honest, we were there to take away their chances of going to the Super Bowl, and our being there took everybody by surprise. It was understandable.
What took us by surprise, however, especially with such a significant prize on offer, was that there were no other teams like us who’d had the same idea, from America or otherwise. Save for us, every team in the tournament was UK-based. While the tournament coincided with European Championships and GB trials that undoubtedly ruled out some would-be participants, perhaps other teams simply didn’t know about it? Perhaps the tournament wasn’t advertised across enough channels? Who knows?
The reason Massflag were there was because Austin happened to be reading the Morecambe Bay Storm website and found a link to the Se7ens Cup. If you haven’t yet guessed, Austin is English, born and bred in Morecambe Bay in Lancashire. Despite calling Lynn, Mass. home for the past 14 years, he’s no stranger to the UK game, having played kitted football for Derby University and in the senior league for the Birmingham Bulls for a number of years. But it was flag football that allowed Austin to indulge in his inherent entrepreneurial spirit, establishing various flag football teams including an unofficial England team that he took to international tournaments in the USA, The Bahamas, Dominican Republic and France to name a few.
It was this same spirit that saw him set up the NSFFL (North Shore Flag Football League) for ages 4-16 in 2004 in Massachusetts after he’d moved there to teach at a high school. Initially operating with 10 teams, the league now accommodates over 7,000 kids and regularly hosts coaching clinics with current NFL players and coaches, holds charity fundraiser events, and organises enormous tournaments the size of which make a full house at Wembley look small.
Five years later in 2009, Austin had expanded, adding a league for adults called Massflag. That league now attracts around 1,000 players, and it’s from which the Massflag All-Stars team is chosen and with whom Austin travels to international tournaments around the world. The Jags Se7ens Cup represented another date on the calendar.
For Austin, part of his motivation comes from proving others wrong. From sheer bloody mindedness. If, for whatever reason, anybody tells him that he can’t do something, he’ll find a way to prove them wrong. Austin isn’t the kind of guy to waste words. So when he says he’s going to do something, he does it. There’s no talking about it.
As an Englishman running an American Football league in America, it’s that tenacity that serves him well. His fellow countrymen assume it’s easy because he’s in America, while Americans are bemused that he’s not running soccer leagues. Nevertheless, Austin continues to thrive where countless others, including ex-NFL players, have failed.
The running of the leagues is non-stop, which means that offering that many players the luxury of playing all year round doesn’t come without sacrifice. Luckily, Austin has an incredibly supportive American wife in Janel who, in Austin’s own words, “puts up with a lot”. But after 14 years they’re still going strong in spite of having to continually compete with the game.
The most incredible part of the story is that even after 13 years, the NSFFL and Massflag leagues remain non-profit organisations. And his involvement in and impact on Massachusetts’ North Shore communities is immeasurable. I actually don’t think he fully realises what he’s doing for these kids. Or for the adults for that matter, providing a platform for them to continue playing organised football, which is something that’s usually denied to them once they’re done with high school or college. And in light of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) – the degenerative brain disease now associated with contact football – more and more players are turning to the non-contact version to get their fix.
Despite his success stateside, Austin has roots here and he has done his bit for the British game. He understands the situation. So the point of the story is this: while it may have seemed that some ‘professional’ American team had shown up to crush every team in their path, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Like us, the Massflag All-Stars pay to play and travel to tournaments, including for the two trips to play in the Se7ens.
While I made up one of the four experienced European players that included Austin, a mandatory stipulation put in place by the Jags as part of the entry criteria, we are all amateurs with varying degrees of experience. But one of the things that separated the American players from every other player at the tournament is that they get to play and compete year-round, a factor that automatically gives them a distinct advantage over players in the UK.
In the end, the majority of teams were incredibly receptive to us. We weren’t there to highlight the differences in playing standards or show anyone up, and we certainly didn’t revel in beating teams by multiple scores. That wasn’t going to help anyone. We hope we carried ourselves with humility, and we hope that other teams took some positives from our being there. Even with my playing experience and despite that I am now far from my prime, I learned a lot from playing with them. They made it look easy.
To state the obvious, flag football is a stripped-down version of the 11-a-side game, but the principles here apply to all formats. For instance, that Americans start playing and are more aware of the intricacies of the game from a ridiculously young age is an obvious and substantial advantage and one that I fear will always starkly separate the UK and US game. Conversely, if we’re lucky, we might get to pick up the game in our early teens. More likely these days, given the success, popularity and growth of the university league, it’s our late teens.
Corey, our quarterback, is smart and quick and can buy so much time behind the line of scrimmage, which means that the defense can only cover us for so long. That, coupled with a strong, hair-trigger arm means that we could be in a phone box and he’d still get the ball to us.
We also had the distinct advantage of speed, to which I had my eyes opened when I played with the team in May at the Big Bowl in Germany. And just so we’re clear, when I say ‘we’, I’m most certainly not including myself in that club. So while Corey might on occasion draw a play in the dirt, it’s the reason why we can get away with not using a playbook, employing instead the more clichéd ‘get open’ philosophy. There’s no reading what we’re going to do because we don’t even know.
I have no doubt that we would be exposed if we came up against a team that matched or bettered our speed and abilities, but against UK opposition, it’s another factor that separated us. Structure is a good thing, but not at the detriment of reaction and instinct, which is where, in my opinion, many UK teams falter. Overly prescriptive plays don’t allow for any improvisation, or simply the room to sometimes ‘wing it’.
Of course, these are just my observations. Others may see it differently. Regardless, upon what served as a worthy and successful homecoming for Austin, I hope that we demonstrated a level for which to aim that in turn will contribute to improving the general standard of play everywhere in the UK. After all, as well as growing general participation rates in the game with events like the Se7ens Cup, that is the Jaguars’ intention for the UK.