A passion for pigskin: One man’s American football dream
“We usually consider 50 to 0 a humiliating score,” Mr. Nam said. “Past that point, the winning team usually gives the losing team a break.” The Japanese team, however, showed no mercy. By the time the game was over, the Koreans were thankful that the score hadn’t gone over 100.
In the late ’80s, both teams had been evenly matched, which is to say equally unprepared. But Japanese athletes began to take interest in the sport in the following decade, forming more than 1,000 clubs, of which 390 were registered with the Japan Football Association. In comparison, Korea had a paltry 35 college teams and nine social clubs.
“The Japanese start learning [how to play] American football in middle school,” Mr. Nam said. “They’re able to absorb the latest strategies and training methods because they have a well-organized system.”
Compare that with the Korean experience: Players don’t encounter the game until they go to college, the games have no spectators and there are few sources of funding for what is one of the most expensive sports around. Each player’s pads and equipment can cost around 1 million won ($1,020), which breaks down into 300,000 won for the helmet, 200,000 for the shoulder pads, 100,000 for the ball and 120,000 for the uniform, not to mention the shoes, pads and training equipment.
“I heard it was impossible to get equipment in the ’80s, so the guys would secure second-hand equipment from U.S. army bases sold in Dongdaemun,” Mr. Nam said. “Or they would ask senior members going abroad on business trips to buy it there.” These days, sports stores in Seoul, Busan and Daegu stock football gear and anything not in stock can be ordered online.
“Early American football resembled ‘military football’ back in the 1860s,” he said. “There was no safety equipment whatsoever. Everyone just chased after the ball. It took more than 100 years for football to evolve into its current form in the United States. It’s also been evolving in Korea, despite everything.”
Mr. Nam had no interest in the sport until 1990, when he was a freshman at Seoul National University, majoring in landscape architecture. He saw a poster on campus, which read: “Recruiting members for the greatest male sport on Earth. Free alcohol and meals for a year.”
“I joined the team solely to look cool,” he said. “But once I started playing it, I became seriously hooked on football.”
The immediate problem was grasping the strategy of the game. Though the rules are relatively simple, American football requires a great deal of planning and coordination. Mr. Nam said that college teams in Korea are taught the game by the seniors, who learned the same strategies from the previous senior class ― forming a closed loop. All schools seemed to face the same problems: no source of new strategies and no one who would know how to teach them anyway.
“It took me five years to finish a guidebook in English,” he said. “The terminology was difficult and I had no prior knowledge of strategies.” When he became a senior, Mr. Nam was able to re-read the book for a third time and apply the strategies. The results were impressive ― his team came in second place in a national competition.
Hoping to end the cycle in which institutional knowledge disappeared with every graduating class, Mr. Nam decided to stay on as the team coach after graduation. As the national team’s defense coordinator during the game against Japan, that decision turned out to be a psychologically costly one.
The Japan game was not a complete loss, however. The Korean team realized, in its state of shock, that it needed to radically rethink its practice, tactics and organization. Mr. Nam said the problem was that Korea’s teams were primarily alumni associations linked to their universities. His recommended solution was for the alumni teams to break up and create new, professional ones. It was a controversial step.
It wasn’t until May 2005, after many twists and turns, that Mr. Nam was able to form his new pro football team: the Seoul Vikings, composed of alumni from several schools. He even managed to land a sponsorship ― 50 million won from Haewun Land. “On weekends, we met by the riverside at seven in the morning for practice. We still had 20 members show up for practice when it was literally pouring one day. I treated everyone to a huge meal that day.”
As time passed, the team began to play in perfect harmony, and they went on to beat the other four teams in the league to win the 1st Korea National Football League championship (the league was formed last year), the first professional football championship in Korea. This was a remarkable feat, considering the Seoul Vikings were formed only that year.
If the Japan game was a low point, the sudden popularity of Hines Ward, the half-Korean pro-football player who was named the Superbowl’s most valuable player, has shot Korean football up to a new high point.
“I can feel that the public has turned its attention to football,” Mr. Nam said. “A lot of people have asked me what strategy it is that Ward used to score his touchdown. What the Korean Football Association has tried to do for over 10 years, Ward accomplished on his own in a single day.” He said he believes the current buzz will help him lure more sponsors to the league.
Two problems remain. One is that people see the sport as dangerous. Insurance companies, for instance, are reluctant to cover football players, as the sport is classified in the “most dangerous” category along with auto racing, hang-gliding and ice hockey, he said. “Everyone thinks American football is a dangerous sport, but in reality, it’s not,” Mr. Nam said. “You don’t see many injuries out there. In my 15 years of play, I saw three instances of arm injuries and a collarbone injury. The worst you suffer is a bruise. I’ve never been hurt. I think football is safer than soccer or rugby, because in football there’s protection gear that’s been developed for over 100 years.”
The other problem is that many people just don’t get the appeal of the game.
“Everyone asks me what I find so appealing about football,” he said. “I tell them baseball is appealing because it leaves room for the imagination. You have to guess what kind of ball the pitcher will throw, or how the hitter is going to bat. The same goes for football. You have to guess how many yards are left, whether it’s a long pass or a short pass, and all these other strategies come in to play. The list is endless. You just need to know the rules. It’s not complicated at all.”
by Baik Sung-ho