It was a time of nicknames such as ‘The Fridge’ and ‘The Diesel’, and when Joe Montana, Dan Marino and John Elway were as well-known to British sports fans as our top footballers. Now, as Channel 4 approaches the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of an American Football Super Bowl on a British TV channel, interest in the game is on the rise again. MIKE KELLY reports
AFTER the events of January 30, 1983, British sports fans were told, like them, the Queen had become a supporter of John ‘The Diesel’ Riggins.
Riggins was a 240lb running back for the Washington Redskins. In Super Bowl XVII his team was 17-13 down with 10 minutes to go against rivals the Miami Dolphins.
In American Football vernacular, they were on fourth-and-one on the Dolphins’ 43-yard line.
For those not familiar with the game, each team has four ‘downs’ to move the ball 10 yards. The percentage play was to punt the ball deep into Dolphins’ territory.
But this was not a time for caution and the team decided to hand the ball to Riggins to make the one yard required.
He had one chance and if he didn’t succeed it would be a ‘turnover’ and the ball would be handed to the Dolphins in fantastic field position just shy of the halfway line. In other words, failure would have more than likely cost the Redskins the game.
How the bosses at Channel 4 must have hugged themselves in delight at the drama. The station had only been formed the previous year with a remit to be innovative and so they had taken a chance with broadcasting American Football live.
It was a big risk. While the game is divided into four 15-minute quarters, with adverts, timeouts, penalty reviews and Cecil B DeMille-style half-time ‘extravaganzas’, it often takes around four hours to complete from the first to final whistle.
And as we were to subsequently learn, Super Bowls are more often than not exceptionally dull affairs dominated by one team. But not here.
And in Riggins, there was a rugged hero for viewers to latch on to. When he took the ball on the 43-yard line he was met at the line of scrimmage by a Dolphins defence man. However, he proved no match for the power of Riggins.
He saw open field and ran the 43 yards to the end zone for a score to put the Redskins ahead – a lead they did not relinquish. The next day a bleary eyed British television public went to work having been entranced, and a few of them decided they wanted a part of the action.
Numerous American Football teams were set up in the UK, including the Newcastle Browns, which became the Newcastle Senators then the Gateshead Senators – a team now in its 25th year. There is also in existence the DC Presidents, based in Durham.
There from the start was Gary Marshall. Now 58, in his time he was a celebrated place kicker, pushing Scotland rugby legend Gavin Hastings close for the position with the Scottish Claymores in the World League of American Football, founded in 1990.
“I was a better American football kicker, but they chose Hastings for commercial reasons. Who in Scotland had heard of Gary Marshall?” he admits.
However, there were no such problems for him on his native Tyneside.
“There were two teams which started in Newcastle who competed on either side of the Great North Road,” he said. “One played at Gosforth rugby club the other at Northern, called the Newcastle Browns and the Trojans. What a great name, the Newcastle Browns,” he chuckled.