How the world sees American football: Foreign students throw the pigskin

For a day, overseas kids try their hands at a US sport not widely understood in many of their homelands

Ammara Ahmad, originally from Pakistan but with family living now in Saudi Arabia, tosses a football.
Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

ATLANTA — The student-athletes running through the tunnel onto the field at Georgia Tech’s famed Bobby Dodd Stadium were not the usual mix of football players with brawn and speed. There was no thundering of 110 pairs of cleats. These players were a mix of sexes and a jumble of gear (loafers, a leather jacket, a little jewelry).

They were not American, either, but a medley of Germans, Chinese, Saudis, Pakistanis and other nationalities. They were getting a taste of the notoriously physical sport, which is an international symbol of American culture famous throughout the rest of the world, though played by very little of it.

The scene was part of a football clinic for Georgia Tech’s international students, most of whom play a different football and would rather kick a ball than catch it. They grew up on what Americans call soccer. In a 90-minute clinic on the emerald green carpet of Georgia Tech’s 55,000-seat football stadium, myths were busted about the American sport, an elbow was scraped, and perhaps, some distrust and distance were erased between students with varying degrees of athleticism.

The glee of Maximilian Bushe of Berlin could have been used for a billboard to advertise the clinic. He had run a pass pattern as if he were a wide receiver in the American game. He snatched the ball thrown to him and scored a make-believe touchdown. He was overjoyed, almost breathless as he stood with the ball he held out in front of him with two hands. The Georgia Tech football players — the real ones helping conduct the clinic — made a boisterous scene of cheering around him for his catch.

Then Bushe did what any good American football player would do. He did an end zone celebration, a little dance.

“I am just surprised I caught the football,” he said, smiling wide. “A little bit is OK, right?” he asked about celebrating. No, not really. In the NCAA, what he did would earn a yellow flag and 15-yard penalty for excessive celebration.

The clinic was full, with 120 students signed up for the event, coordinated by the Georgia Tech football program and the student government association. Only about 80 participants showed up, not only because of rain but also because it was nearing the end of the term and exams were approaching. For 90 minutes, they had a closer look at the American game as players sought to break down stereotypes and myths that exist overseas about the sport.

“Back home, they think it’s boring, and that’s totally wrong,” Bushe said. “We don’t know anything about it in Germany. We just see it in the movies — somebody has the ball, and 20 people jump on him and pile up in a big, big tower. Once you get the whole game, it gets really interesting. You watch the game and cheer for your team, and it’s awesome.”

In the middle of a drill for wide receivers called clip and hinge, one student turned and was surprised to see a friend participating in the clinic. “What are you doing out here?” the student said to the other.

“Having a blast,” Jerry Lung shouted back. “Having a blast.”

Cheerleaders direct a mix of foreign students to the annual football clinic for Georgia Tech’s international students.
Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

A less patient coach could not have pulled this off. Tech’s Paul Johnson has enough wit and charm to turn a student clinic into some fun. In a college lecture setting before going on the field, he started running down the list of highlights of the Georgia Tech program over the previous 120 years. He said the Yellow Jackets’ first victory came against bitter rival the University of Georgia. There was a smattering of applause because some of the international students understood the significance of beating the college’s bitter rivals.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he said. The students who had been silent then joined the applause too.

Johnson started to explain penalties. The yellow flags in football are like the red and yellow cards in soccer for infractions. “Holding is holding,” he said. “Unsportsmanlike conduct is being a jerk.”

After the lecture, the students in the clinic tried on helmets and shoulder pads in the locker room before charging out onto the field through the same passageway Tech players rumble through before a game. Once on the field, they took turns trying to kick the ball through goal posts, running into tackling dummies and catching passes.

The football clinic had some grittiness to it. Ammara Ahmad, a student from Pakistan, slipped and fell on the artificial surface, made slick by the recent rain. The slide burned some skin on her elbow, leaving a red mark. Just like in a game in front of 40,000 fans in Bobby Dodd Stadium, an athletic trainer was immediately at her side. She got a bandage applied to the scrape and clearance to continue playing.

Ahmad, who is in the master’s program for supply chain engineering, saw her first American football game at Oklahoma State several years ago in its annual game, known as Bedlam, with rival University of Oklahoma. She was enthralled by the pageantry. “It was fantastic,” she said. “It is so easy to get wrapped up in the game.”

The American game, some discovered, can be as much about brain as brawn. “I thought, ‘A lot of fighting, a pile of people.’ After today, I think it is good. It is strategy too. You see the movement and how it works. It is not boring,” said Rajeh Alsaadi of Saudi Arabia, who majors in material sciences. “My friends see it on television and think it’s boring. If they ever watch it and see it here, they will like it.”

“I thought it was boring until I got to the field. Then I heard the cheer, and now I like football,” said Abdulrahman Alsalhi, also a Saudi engineering student. “In Saudi Arabia they think it is fighting and there is no strategy. There is strategy, and you must have a good body to win.”

The foreign students use the same equipment that their varsity classmates use for practices.
Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

Said Bushe, “It is a lot more than just big people hitting big people.”

The converts considered the quarterly breaks in football, four a game, an upgrade from the single halftime break in soccer.

“The breaks really help. In soccer, you have no breaks. Sometimes the whole game is flat,” Bushe said. “In football, you have your breaks and get your beer, except here at Georgia Tech, you are not allowed. You watch it, you have another break, you go the restroom, get another beer and watch on. I really love football, and I am going to miss it when I am back in Germany.”

Jesús Gomez, who is from Venezuela, said although soccer and baseball rule in his country, he has adopted the Dallas Cowboys. He believes he has some idea about what it takes to be successful at football.

“You need to be a strong man. You need to eat a lot of food because you need to be strong man,” he said.

The program had an aim beyond sports education and showing off an American sport to an international audience. It is pitched also as an opportunity to narrow a divide that exists on many major college campuses where high-profile athletes live in a well-protected bubble and the rest of the student body lives in the library, the dorm and the classroom.

“The football players at Georgia Tech wake up at 5 a.m., work out for their sport, go to classes, then practice and then study and have challenging classes just like other students,” said Peter Thomas, the chair of the athletics committee for the student government association. “This clinic allows some interaction with football players, and maybe students will not be so intimidated. Perhaps they will have an occasion to talk to a football player on campus and have a better understanding of each other and realize they are not so different.”

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