Flag football has its own little niche among mostly Americans in Grand Cayman mainly because they are starved of playing the full-blown gridiron version here and it’s an ideal alternative.
The male bonding sessions every Saturday afternoon pit eight teams against each other at the Triple C field off Outpost Street who battle it out for island bragging rights. This abridged version has flourished since introduced here eight years ago.
Properly structured with a Western and Eastern Division, matches are as intensely fought as a full-blown NFL match and despite less physical contact injuries are a common occurrence judging by the number of walking wounded dotted around the touchlines. There is fierce rivalry in the nine-man game and tempers often explode, even at match officials. Thankfully, match referee Arthur Screaton has a long history in the game and keeps a tight ship so dissent is relatively rare. Some players get far too wound up and let their emotions run away with them.
For many though, it is nothing short of bliss, a perfect stress reliever after a hard week’s toil. Rohan Dennis used to play good old British regular football in his Jamaican homeland, but now prefers flag football. ‘I started with Burger King about six years ago and moved on to AL Thompson Hammers,’ he says. ‘In flag football you don’t need as much stamina because it doesn’t rely on endurance as much. I’m a linebacker and often only get to play in short bursts.’
Hammers are defending champions this season but have only won once in nine games, mainly because key players are always missing for various reasons. When one player got married, almost half the squad attended. Then a couple of their best players missed a number of games to compete for Cayman in the Island Games in Greece. Long-term injuries have also blighted their selection options too. ‘All eight teams will make the playoffs next week and we’re going to change up our formation and come back much stronger,’ insists Dennis who lost to Digicel 6-0 over the weekend.
He is a single parent and daughter Sabrina always turns up to the male-dominated, testosterone-fuelled matches. Sabrina, 10, likes the friendly atmosphere of the women supporters and few kids that come along. ‘It’s fun and really interesting,’ she says. ‘I like to watch the game and even though I don’t understand all the rules I would like to learn.’
Next Level Nitemares can boast the strangest fans – Ally, Bob and Roti – who always wear team colours of yellow. They are dogs. Amber Valinski is ‘mum’ to Ally and Bob. The family comes to watch her husband Matthew Colton. ‘This is a sporting event that’s a lot of fun,’ says Valinski, an American. She feels there aren’t many spectator sporting events she can enjoy on the island apart from cricket which she doesn’t understand anyway. ‘This is just as much fun as gridiron. It’s not true though that because it’s not full contact there are not injuries. If you look around there are a lot have cuts and bruises and even concussion and dislocated shoulders are not rare.’
Patrick Bourque is in his first year in flag football for the Hammerhead Sharks. The Canadian heard about the sport, went to a practice and was promptly selected as a wide receiver. ‘I don’t get to play as much as some of the others but it’s the only place I can play.’ He has a strong hockey background from Canada which helped build up his legs.
He’s noticed that players from various sports bring different strengths to flag football. ‘The soccer players have plenty of endurance and the basketball players can pluck the ball out of the sky. Flag football is definitely one of those sports people should come to but don’t know much about it.’
Happiest player in the Hammerhead Sharks side is Olney Thompson who scored the only touchdown to give his side a 6-0 victory over Maples and Calder. Thompson’s score came after a fabulous 60-yard run after an interception by Dave Gibbs. It was all the more satisfying because Thompson celebrated his fortieth birthday on Saturday. ‘I’m going out with my fiancé tonight to celebrate,’ he beams. ‘I’ve played volleyball indoors and beach for Cayman and gridiron at college in New York and just do this for fun. I’m a running back and love jumping over everybody.’