From dusty gridiron to the Kimchi Bowl

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From dusty gridiron to the Kimchi Bowl

GUMI, North Gyeongsang

In the middle of a soccer field covered with sand and pebbles stands the heart of the Gold Ravens, the Kumoh National Institute of Technology's football team.

"If you practice like that we can stay here all day long!" the burly man barks out at his players. It seems to be the standard litany of the day.

Nam Seung-hyun has been playing football for six years. By default, that makes him the coach. It is a logical choice; after all, he's seen the most games.

Never mind that before joining the team, Nam had never played football -- or even touched a pigskin. None of the Ravens had played on a gridiron because Korea has no known high school football teams aside from those at foreign schools.

Their short history did not stop the Ravens from aiming high to become the country's top football team in the Kimchi Bowl, the local equivalent of America's Super Bowl.

In 1995, a 36-team college league and a 21-team amateur league were consolidated into one federation by the Korea American Football Association.

Every year in the third week of January, the winner of the colleges' Tiger Bowl battles the winner of the amateur title, the Seoul Super Bowl, in the Kimchi Bowl.

All right, so we're not talking about Joe Montana or even Carson Palmer here. But in this corner of Asia, at least, they're top dogs.

With an annual budget less than some midget leagues -- 3 million won ($2,500) -- the Ravens hardly seem prepped for the honor of becoming the country's best.

Aside from helmets and uniforms, the team's supplies consists of little more than a couple of bandages and first aid kit, and two worn Rawlings footballs.

So the team improvises. Instead of tackling sleds, they use punching bags. Instead of a weight room, they work out by dragging a couple of tires with a rope tied around their waists. Kicking net? Naaah. A soccer net does the trick.

After some stretches and a few laps around the track, the team turns to the business of learning a cross pattern, nicknamed "Big Cross." Then, on a passing play, a receiver drops a ball fired at him by the quarterback. Coach Nam shakes his head in disgust.

"Didn't I tell you guys?" he shouts. "We can stay the whole day until we get it right!"

Sixteen players have turned out for the day's practice -- just two-thirds of the roster. According to coach Nam, game injuries and military duty have robbed him of a complete roster.

In an extreme case, a football team can operate with 11 players, provided they all play on defense, offense and special teams. The Ravens are only slightly above this minimum quota, and so one player must wear different hats. "We don't have any star players for a specific position," says coach Nam matter-of-factly. "Everyone has to play at least two or three positions."

Even the weakest division of American college football would never fear such a dire player shortage. Ironically, the dearth of players seems to work in the Ravens' favor.

"Actually, it's better since you can go out and play almost every down," says Kim Chi-hoon, a senior who until last year played both guard and linebacker. "Well, I used to play like that before they gave my guard position to a freshman who is better than me this year."

Without a fresh pool of high school players to choose from, the Ravens recruits players through connections. Being a friend of a Raven and having the desire to play is sufficient to get on the roster. Hence, one wonders how important positions such as the quarterback are filled.

Coach Nam explains: "Basically, in freshman year we teach some basic stuff such as blocking and tackling. After that everyone has a chance to try out for different positions."

Kim Chi-hoon, who has been playing since his freshman year, recalls how chance led him to play a sport he had never heard of.

"I was a freshman visiting a nearby college where they were playing this game," he begins. "I sort of got interested so I walked up to a meeting of the team at my school and said I wanted to play." Ignorant of the game's rules -- aside from guessing that carrying the ball was important -- he asked whether he would get to touch the ball a lot.

Sure, he was told. He did not realize that as a linebacker, he would spend most of his time chasing the ball.

With a big laugh he says he did not mind the white lie; after all, it introduced him to a sport that he loves. A senior, Kim is now team captain and responsible for recruiting. "I tell them (recruits) exactly the same thing," he says sheepishly.

Helping offset the equipment shortage and sordid field conditions, camaraderie keeps these players' spirits high. Almost no one walks out on the team despite the physical pounding their bodies take. On -- and off -- the field, these guys are nuts about the sport. Even their computer game of choice is John Madden Football.

These guys' enthusiasm will have to carry them along, for the Ravens' pint-sized budget won't grow anytime soon. Football is still as alien as E.T. to most Koreans, and colleges are loath to invest in teams without any fan base or chance of becoming popular in the near future.

Football has seen little growth since being introduced to Korea in April, 1947, at Seoul National University.

A shortage of players and equipment did not allow for enough teams to establish a league. When the Korean War broke out, the sport was abandoned. In 1958, the U.S. Army donated some equipment to seven colleges and the country's first official championship took place four years later. Since1976, football has gained some ground as ex-players spread the gridiron gospel.

Today, the Ravens rank among the sport's most spirited boosters. As long as they're on the field, these players seem happy. So what if there's no grass on the field.

"Soccer? I like to watch but this is the sport that I'll play until I can't play anymore," says coach Nam as other players nod their heads in agreement.

If the Ravens must hang up their cleats some day, they can do so in peace.

Last Sunday in Busan, they beat the Seoul National University Scholars, 7-6, in the Kimchi Bowl and clinched their first championship. A perfect note to end the season? Almost. "The only thing I miss are the cheerleaders," says Song Jin-suk, 22, a freshman linebacker.

And, of course, a right tackle.

By Brian Lee
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