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A Whole Different Ball Game

Brian Barry experiences American Football as an outsider looking in, and shares his account of Montana Grizzlies’ season opener.

Washington-Grizzly Stadium, home to the Montana Grizzlies, is the centre-piece of Missoula, a small city in the west of Montana. It seats 27,000 people, and considering that the population of the city is just under 70,000, it is fair to say that the city is completely enveloped with maroon on game-day. This is a proud football city; this is ‘Griz Nation.’

My initial first-hand experience of American Football came last week on successfully slipping around the security guards into the Grizzlies’ closed-doors training session in the stadium. On first impression, I must say that every preconceived stereotype which I had of the sport was true. An excessive rate of high fives paired with unnecessarily frequent shouts of encouragement are part of the parcel. The coach, reported to be on a seven-figure salary, commands serious respect from the players, who take a knee every time he opens his mouth.

The Grizzlies season opener was on Saturday against Appalachian State Mountaineers. It was also the first time the stadium would host a game under the newly installed floodlights; a big event for the University team. College sports are a completely different proposition in America to what I have been used to in Ireland. College pride is massive. Not only students, but locals for miles around are drawn in to support the teams. It could be compared to when UCC, my home university hosted the Fitzgibbon Cup final, the All-Ireland Final, creme de la creme of university hurling, in 2012. On campus, you wouldn’t notice that there was a massive game on across the road, to which the college’s elite athletes had committed their whole year. In Montana, it’s different. Supporters were flocking in from Friday afternoon. The stadium was surrounded by campervans come Friday night with fans arriving early to soak up the atmosphere and to kick off the long weekend with a few beers.

Game-day itself was another step-up. The campus was engulfed with maroon and silver. Everybody was going to the game, everybody in high spirits. Drinking in public was not only sociably acceptable, it seemed to be encouraged. We took part in the pre-game rituals at about 4pm, having a few beers by the river next to the stadium. Come 6pm, the stadium was thronged. Shouts of ‘GO GRIZ’ reverberated around the ground. For a relatively small ground, Washington-Grizzly Stadium can get quite loud. Pre-game festivities are a big thing over here too. The team mascot, Monte, made his entrance onto the pitch riding a motor-bike. There were skydivers flying in from all angles, and fireworks exploded after the national anthem. This all warms the crowd up to create an intimidating atmosphere for the opposition team.

The organisers did not spare a thought for ‘App State’ in coordinating their entrance. The Grizzlies entered the arena to a cacophony of fireworks and smoke machines, as the band made a guard of honour to clap them out. App State, on the other hand, made a rather low-key entrance, coming out a different tunnel. No music played for them. Hostile is not the word. Chants were heavily coordinated by the cheerleaders. One side of the stadium would be prompted to bellow ‘MONTANA’ before the other half responded ‘GRIZZLIES.’ The band played a big part too, piping up at any break in play. The stadium was heaving with noise. The ‘Griz’ scored the first touch-down and the ground erupted. A missed field-goal attempt stifled the crowd, but nothing was going to dampen the cheer. When the whistle blew for half-time, the customary exodus for hot-dogs and beer ensued. The half-time show was more appreciated in the student section, while the more hardcore fans exited to discuss the game before the second half.

It was a low-scoring match, finishing 30-6 to the Grizzlies. Job done for the team. Fans flooded the pitch afterwards to get pictures and autographs from the players, and also cheerleaders now that I mention it. We went home happy, and the town was thronged for the night with joyous Griz fans.

My first American Football game was an exhilarating experience from start to finish. A great day, and night, out. The next home game is in three weeks and I can safely say that I, for one, am getting my hands on a ticket as soon as possible. I’ve been converted; I’m officially an American Football fan. GO GRIZ.

Brian Barry. Sport is Everything.

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