Desert Ball: American football in the UAE

How the US national sport is making it big in the emirates.

Gareth Rees December 9, 2015

Have you ever heard of Chris Erickson? No? Well you should have. A Cincinnati boy, Chris now lives in North America, but just four years ago, on the field of The Sevens Stadium in Dubai, he secured his place in UAE history.

In March 2011, on what the man responsible for putting Chris on that field, Dustin Cherniawski, describes as a “freakishly hot day”, in front of a crowd of 1,000 spectators, Chris Erickson’s studded boot made contact with an oval ball, propelling it over a horizontal bar between two vertical uprights and writing his name in the annals of UAE sporting history.

The Sevens Stadium was built to host large crowds of sports fans and provide the setting for sporting triumphs; over three days each December more than 100,000 people flock to the remote arena on Al Ain Road for the Dubai Rugby Sevens tournament, the biggest event on the Dubai sporting calendar.

But Chris Erickson wasn’t playing rugby. Chris Erickson was taking part in the first game of organised men’s American football in the UAE between the UAE Falcons (now EAFL Falcons) and Turkey. His field goal, the final play of the game, represented the first points ever scored by a UAE resident in an American football fixture on home soil. Unfortunately, Turkey had already put 71 points on the eleven men – most of whom were new to the game.

“We got absolutely blasted,” says Cherniawski, now the General Manager of the Emirates American Football League (EAFL). “Right after that game, I thought, well that’s it, these guys are going to be so discouraged and that’s probably the end of football in the UAE. But we go into the locker room and they are all beaming, they were so excited. They said, ‘That was awesome, so much fun, we’ve got to do that again’. That was the start of it.”

Dustin Cherniawski was born and raised in Edmonton, the capital of the province of Alberta in Canada. He switched from ice hockey to football in high school and played his college ball for the Thunderbirds at the University of British Columbia, before being drafted into the Canadian Football League in 2005. He had a short but successful professional career, playing in defence, mostly in the free safety position, for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and was a key member of the team that won the 95th Grey Cup in front of a 60,000-strong crowd in Toronto in 2007.

When Cherniawski quit pro ball after that triumphant 2007 season, he was looking forward to “life after football”. He moved to Dubai in 2008 to work in green technology. But by 2010 the market had taken a nosedive, and a year later, having spotted a picture in a local newspaper of a group of men throwing a football around in Dubai’s Safa Park, the former pro footballer found himself with a whistle round his neck, coaching 30 or 40 passionate novices, many of whom had never worn a helmet or shoulder pads, as they scrimmaged near groups of fascinated picnickers and Frisbee throwers.

UAE American football league coaching.jpg Dustin Cherniawski, General Manager of the EAFL.

Shortly after that, Cherniawski met his current business partner and Vice Chairman and Director of Youth Football for the EAFL, American expat Patrick Campos, who back then was running his son’s struggling youth league at Al Ittihad Private School in Dubai’s Jumeirah neighbourhood. Campos invited Cherniawski’s gang of fledgling footballers to use the school’s facilities.

Kai Trompeter, a German with a love of American football fortified by a family link to the University of Alabama and its legendary team, Alabama Crimson Tide, who coached the UAE Falcons for their historical first game against Turkey, joined Cherniawski and Campos (Trompeter has since left the UAE). Then, in July 2012, with the support of a local partner, Sharjah’s football loving Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi – who went on the play in the first three seasons of the EAFL – the UAE’s first organised American football league was formed.

“We accidentally started a football league,” chuckles Cherniawski. “At the time it was something to do out of hours, but last year I quit my job and now I run the league full time.”

UAE American football league player head on.jpg Stefan Kirsten, Dubai Barracudas.

Three months after the foundation of the EAFL, the men’s league consisted of four teams (it still does): Dubai Barracudas, Dubai Stallions, Abu Dhabi Wildcats and Al Ain Desert Foxes. There were 240 players, 18 coaches, five officials and 10 teams in total. When one of the EAFL’s 17 officials blew the whistle that signalled the end of the third Desert Bowl championship game in March 2015, the league boasted 420 players, representing 43 nationalities, and 23 teams, ranging from the Under-12s PeeWee teams to the all-star EAFL Falcons, playing 97 games per season against both local and international opposition, in both the UAE and as far afield as China.

Pre-season training started in September and Desert Bowl IV, the biggest game of the year, will take place in March 2016. Desert Bowl III saw Dubai Stallions massacre Dubai Barracudas, playing their first championship game in the EAFL’s short three-season history. The score was 30-6, with Dubai Stallions’ star running back Davion Miller, named Desert Bowl MVP, scoring three touchdowns. It was the first Desert Bowl not to feature Abu Dhabi Wildcats, who had defeated the Stallions in Desert Bowl 1 and 11.

Tony Robinson, born in Georgia in the US, played college ball for Georgia Tech but tore his hamstring during a training camp with the NFL team Kansas City Chiefs, putting an abrupt end to his dream of a pro career. Robinson, who has coached college football in the US, arrived in Abu Dhabi in August, and is the new Head Coach of the Wildcats. I asked him for his first impressions of the EAFL. “It’s a melting pot of people,” he said. “You have some people who have played the game and who know the game, and others who are new to it.”

UAE American football league fumble.jpg Daniel Robinson, Al Ain Desert Foxes.

The stable of players Robinson is putting through their paces during pre-season training come from England, Germany, France, the UAE and Egypt, but the man charged with guiding the team to its third Desert Bowl championship game is impressed.

“The guys here are athletes,” he says. “But some of them are still learning what it takes to be an athlete in football. We’ve got guys here who can run like the wind, they can run forever, as long as they’re just running. When you introduce changes in direction, back pedalling, they start to feel muscles ache that were never awake before.”

The Wildcats have two 90-minute training sessions a week, with their new head coach and his two assistants, Bobby Admire (defence) and Perry Blackburn (offence), working on the players’ agility, footwork, speed, conditioning and skills. Robinson has already spotted his stars: fellow Americans Admire and Vivaldi Tulysse.

UAE American football league pass.jpg Perry Blackburn, Abu Dhabi Wildcats.

“This year was the first time the Wildcats weren’t in the Desert Bowl, so there’s positive discontent, a desire to work our way back to that game this season and at least give ourselves a shot to win the championship.” If Robinson and his Wildcats make it to that championship game, former military man Anthony Daniels, the coach who steered Dubai Stallions to their first Desert Bowl in 2015, hopes to be there to stop them from winning their third Bowl.

Born in Conway, South Carolina, Daniels started playing American football at six years old, and coached both little league in El Paso, Texas and high school football in Colorado Springs while still in the US military. He played college football for Wofford College in South Carolina and has been coaching the Stallions for two seasons. He says that the football being played in the EAFL is of a similar standard to high school football in the US (Cherniawski thinks division three college football is more like it).

“The best teams over here could probably compete against an average high school team in the US,” says Daniels. “I don’t know if they would beat them, but they would be competitive.” Not bad for an amateur league still in its infancy.

UAE American football league dressing room.jpg Haider Shah, Dubai Stallions.

As Daniels contemplates the start of the fourth EAFL season this month, which he hopes will culminate in a Dubai Stallions victory in Desert Bowl IV, he seems happy with his team, highlighting stars such as the hero of Desert Bowl III, Davion Miller, lineman Scott Sample, quarterback Chris Wentzel and wide receiver Saeed Suleiman; the standard of play; and the stadiums, which include Sports City in Dubai and Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi.

So what about the growth of the league? “The league is getting better as far as managing the football aspect of the game, but we still have a long way to go before we get a big audience in the UAE,” he admits. “But it is growing.”

Saeed Suleiman, who joined the EAFL at its inception in 2012, is fiercely loyal to the Stallions. He’s confident the audience for American football in the UAE is growing, not just from season to season, but from game to game. “Our fans are extremely passionate and you see the same loyal faces week in and week out,” says the 30-year-old Canadian, who works in marketing for Yas Marina Circuit when he’s not running plays. “We are also seeing a lot of new faces, new joiners and their families who come to support, which I think is amazing.”

The highlight of Suleiman’s stint in the EAFL was winning Desert Bowl III. “The atmosphere was electric with our fans screaming and the Stallions going wild during the trophy ceremony,” he recalls. “It was a long time coming and it felt glorious to finally be champions after our third straight trip to the Desert Bowl.”

Giving the players a taste of what it’s like to play at the top level, as he did, has been Cherniawski’s goal from the start. “We said, ‘Let’s have stats and video highlights, let’s do interviews with the players and put photos online, let’s give these guys an authentic American football experience’. That’s our battle cry.”

That also applies to spectators. For the biggest games of the season, such as the Desert Bowl and the opening game of the 2015/2016 season, which will take place over Thanksgiving weekend on November 27. The EAFL brings in cheerleaders, a DJ, and kids’ entertainment to add to the beer and burgers available at every league game.

The strategy seems to be working. Two-thousand people attended Desert Bowl III, and Cherniawski believes the league has moved beyond the stage where it appealed only to the players’ friends and family. However, there is more to do.

The EAFL’s youth programme has been a huge success, but due to the transitory nature of expat life in Dubai, it has not fed into the men’s game. “Our farm system is the youth league, and after high school the kids generally go away to college or their family goes back home,” says Cherniawski. “Very few kids stick around and advance. We’ve only been around for a few years, but you could count on one hand the kids who have actually carried on playing into the men’s division.”

Cherniawski’s proposed solution to this problem is getting more Emiratis involved in youth football as they are more likely to remain in the UAE. “We have a 16-year-old Emirati named Abdullah Mohammed al Alawy who plays offensive guard and defensive tackle for Abu Dhabi Scorpions,” says the Canadian. “This kid fell hard for football. He got in there on day one, took his first snap and that was it, he was hooked. Now he’s got all his buddies coming out. His parents are awesome. They come and support him, as do all his relatives. It’s great to see the Emirati community coming to watch the games.”

The EAFL is currently a non-profit, pay-to-play league, but its rapid growth is impressive, and Cherniawski has big ambitions. He says the aim has never been to turn the EAFL into a professional football league – though former NFL player Andre Sommersell only recently retired his Stallions jersey – but he does believe that by building the sport’s following, promoting star players such as Davion Miller and Chris Wentzel, as well as Dubai Barracudas QB Zavier Cobb, a former pro Arena (indoor) footballer, and securing more sponsorship – Budweiser and local restaurant Claw BBQ are already on board – the league can prosper.

“It’s a labour of love at the moment, but if we continue to push through and keep our noses to the grindstone, then not only can we build something that’s sustainable, but we can build a league that flourishes and becomes the epicentre of American football outside North America,” says Cherniawski. “That doesn’t really exist at the moment. There is no natural centre of gravity for American football outside North America. I think we are well positioned, both geographically and strategically to take advantage of that.”

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