American Football, Baltic style

  • 2015-08-05
  • By Victor Shestopalov

“Hut! Hut! Hut!” – try to shout these three words; short, hard and without the pause. Sounds like a mad dog barking, doesn’t it? Well, that’s exactly what the Latvian pioneers of American football were called – Mad Dogs. What will follow here today is the story of how those junkyard beasts are slowly becoming respectable lions. Playing for the top Latvian American football team, they are now called just that - Riga Lions. And, by the way, if you can bark out “Hut, hut, hut” just as I’ve told you how, you already can play some American football. Welcome to the family!

Brotherhood – that’s what American football usually looks like in one particular community. Guys can hit and mug each other during the game or in practice, but after the battle, they are part of one big, sports family. And in Riga it’s no exception. Founded back in 2011 as a flag football team, Mad Dogs (as they were known back then) played semi-organized, almost backyard football for several years. It has all changed pretty fast with the foundation of the Latvian Federation of American football in early 2014. Adopting one of the city’s main symbols, they dropped their dog tag and changed the team’s name to Riga Lions. They’ve made it a goal to promote American football in the whole of Latvia, and across the Baltics.

Believe it or not, this place has turned out to be ripe with football aficionados. Of course, when people can watch every NFL game on mobile devices, it’s much easier to recruit players. I remember, back in the day when I used to play, you basically had to go door-to-door to beg someone to try out the sport. Nowadays, guys who play basketball, run track or lift weights are very welcome to make an American football team. Based on the very different physical roles expected from players in different positions, everybody can find themselves a role in American football: whether you’re small, fat or slow. The progress of player’s development can be especially swift if you’ll add some American coaches to the mix, like in the case of the Riga Lions team.

It doesn’t hurt that those guys play and practice in a pretty nice sports facility. Looking like a decent American high school arena, the stadium is conveniently situated in Riga’s downtown — 63 Krisjana Valdemata street — parallel to one of its busiest streets.

Doing football drills to the tune of cars passing by, those guys kind of advertise themselves to unsuspecting town folk. And, if you drive by, you’ll have a lot to marvel about. American football has it all: brutal, almost combat-like fighting on the line of scrimmage by the behemoths of a players; fast running and elegant catching by the most quick and agile athletes; bone crunching tackles by the mean and ferocious guys, playing defense; and everything in between.

With a roster mostly full of young Latvian players, one Lion - who mans the most important position on the team - stands out. 31-year old Russian quarterback from Kaliningrad Stanislav Maksimov usually shouts those magic “Hut! Hut! Hut!” words prior to the start of every offensive play. And it happens not only in practices, but during official games as well. After losing the first one to more experienced, Estonian Tartu Titans team, Maksimov led Lions to the victory over Belarus’ Minsk Pagans – 28:8 in early May. This championship is poetically called Baltic Sea League and is a result of cooperation between Latvian and Belarus American football Federations. For a time being it’s the only American Football tournament in Eastern Europe that has participants from three different countries: Latvia (Riga Lions), Estonia (Tartu Titans) and Belarus (Vitebsk Lynxes, Grodno Barbarians and Minsk Pagans).

Your home team Lions will play two more games during 2015 Baltic Sea League regular season this summer. On August 9, they will travel to Grodno, Belarus to take on Barbarians. And on August 29, the Lions will wrap up the regular season against the Vitebsk Lynxes in Daugavpils. And that’s a great move to play one game away from the capital to promote American football all across Latvia. League semifinal games are scheduled for Sept. 19 and 20, if they make it that far.
So, even if previously you thought that American football is nothing more than some rugby-wannabe-kind-of-sport, I hope you’ve changed your mind by now. Maybe you even got hooked on this game of titans.

If so, you might want to leave Oct. 10 of this year free in your schedule. On this particular date Baltic Sea League will have its inaugural championship game. It will take place in Riga, on that very nice stadium I’ve told you about. And one can all but hope, that under the roar of their passionate fans, the day will be won by those young and ambitious Riga Lions.