The Cavaliers Charge Forth! 30th Anniversary of Full-Contact American Football at Oxford University
OUAFS in 1991, marking the first year of full-contact American Football at Oxford University
A personal journey to when this all began
Dr. Robert “Blacko” Blakytny
Having grown up in a northern former mill town that had once been a world centre for that industry, and where the rugby league team then as now again played in a higher league than the soccer team, it was rather a disappointment when coming up to Oxford with the only option of the Union code rather than the League code originally founded “up north”. So I made do as an undergraduate with continuing with athletics. The relatively recently established TV Channel 4 to be trendy and push for younger audiences started showing “alternative” sports. The Indian tag sport of Kabbadi was “interesting”. But then along came the inspiration of the early Sunday evening highlights of the previous week’s NFL (American football) games. That caught my attention, with many aspects mirroring rugby league (the lining up to start a play, tap start/centre snap, play stopped on a tackle, a certain number of plays to achieve a try/touchdown, and when not achieved the kick downfield/punt, a fumble leading to a turnover, field goals and goal/extra point after a try/touchdown).Then there was the added extras of the forward pass and blocking plays on the offensive side. Watching the myriad of alternative plays encompassing the entire team moving in tandem gave me the impression of a chess game out there on the field. The fact that at the time rugby league and not union was professional, the toughness of the northern game reflected that of the hard hitting in American football. This was definitely a sport for me. However, there was no immediate option to play this “new” full-contact sport at the university, rather Australian (Aussi) Rules, as also shown on Channel 4, Saturday mornings. This was more like the Union code, and with the son of a national UK manager for a famous Australian beer brand studying in Oxford, there was suddenly official sponsorship for a varsity oval match. With no full-contact American football on offer, I decided to give Aussi rules a try, enjoying the three straight varsity successes while there was sponsorship.
Then came the fateful day, when looking at the college sports noticeboard, presumably to check whether I would be on the soccer team that week, a notice for American flag football that was advertising for players for cuppers caught my eye, and I thought why not give it a try. On a wet, cold, miserable and muddy day, cuppers was played and we almost made it all the way. Still, it was great fun (despite a broken finger!) and cuppers was a showcase for recruitment to the Oxford University American Football Society (could not use “Club” as OUAFC was the university soccer team), originally founded in 1988 to play the flag game.
Dr “Blacko” Blakytny, sporting his #72 in 1991 and 2021
In my first year with the OUAFS, during which it was due to become kitted for the full-contact game, I played a one-off flag game with the university team, which we duly romped home with. The victory made us all the more impatient to be able to finally kit up. Then finally in 1991, the reconditioned helmets and pads arrived thanks to the contacts of our American coach, the Revd. Jerry Jones. The deposit was 100 pounds, while the rest of the kit we paid for ourselves. A lot of money at the time for everything together, which would easily have covered a pair of dining tickets at a summer college ball. It was difficult to get cleats, so we made do with soccer/rugby boots. I used my dimpled goalkeeping gloves. Practice was Saturdays on a bit of rough ground fairly central owned by one of the colleges and open to the public. It was not particularly well-maintained. I once twisted my left knee in long grass, the next day going up to John Radcliffe to have fluid drained off!
We needed a name for the team. The Cavaliers came about as during the English Civil War, Charles I held his royal court in Oxford, which was thus the royalist capital at that time. “Cavaliers” was the nickname for the royalist army, in particular, the dashing and flamboyant cavalry…perfect! Then came the day of the first Varsity Bowl, our one full-contact game for that academic year. We were fortunate to have available a marked pitch up at Cutteslowe Park, North Oxford, which was then the home pitch for one of the two city teams at the time, the F14 Tomcats, for which I would later play. The fact the Cambridge was an established team in the national student league, maybe they underestimated us in our first time out in full padding. Anyway, first blood to the Cavaliers with a runaway victory!
Finally, we joined the student league for our inaugural season of 1991–92. There were no divisions then, just the North and South conferences, the final being the match-up between the champions of the two conferences. In addition to the rugby boys, many Americans took this one-off opportunity to pull on kit again that they probably thought they would never do again. At the time the league limited us to 5 “Americans” on the pitch for any one play, who had to be marked with a clear “A”. A Canadian teammate was not so keen on this, but it was explained that it meant the “Americas” as in USA and Canada, and which I believe also included Mexico! There were no rules on how the helmets should look in terms of a standard colour/logo. While the reconditioned helmets were dark blue, others had their own personal helmets. Our QB and my fellow St’anner Andy Fielding had his Patriots helmet while our small but extremely mobile blond-haired, blue-eyed tailback from Minnesota was suitably attired with a purple Vikings helmet. Our home pitch continued to be up at Cutteslowe Park. Being a public park, before the match we had to all walk the pitch to ensure nothing had been left behind by local canine population! There were real no facilities, so we had to change on the side-lines and embarrassingly we had to bring home-made sandwiches and supply snacks and drinks for the opposition for post-match refreshments. When we played away there was always facilities where we were in contrast well fed and watered post-match.
Before the season officially kicked off, we played a preseason warm-up game against the Tomcats, which we only lost narrowly after a tough match, which boded well for our first season. However, I picked up heavily bruised ribs, forcing me to miss out on our first ever league game, being restricted to helping with the chains (responsibility of the home team). I was chomping at the bits to be on the field. We went behind to the Cardiff Cobras on a disputed call, and inexperience on our side. With Cardiff in the national red of Wales, this touchdown was like the proverbial red rag to a bull, and we subsequently ran out winners. As in the last verse of Streets of London by the folk singer Ralph McTell of “the old man outside the seaman’s mission, memories fading with the medal ribbons that he wears”, much of my memories of the rest of that first season have been lost to the mists of time. However, some recollections remain, like the shock of losing our league game that season to Cambridge, when I think we may have been overconfident, to totally humbling them in the actual Varsity game and thus a second successive Bowl victory. On the day before the away game at the UAE Pirates in Norwich, I travelled to Cambridge with our American tailback in a flashy Porsche driven by our Aussi rules teammate for the Aussi Rules Varsity, was back in Oxford that same evening, and met the rest of the squad to travel to Norwich early Sunday morning. That game we started with a little trick with a switched QB that confused UEA and set us up nicely for the first touchdown for another win. Indeed, the only other game we lost in the regular season was to the then mighty Southampton Stags, the hot favourites for the College Bowl, which they did indeed win after a 100% season. On completing a winning season (6-2) as fourth in the South conference, came the play-offs away to the first placed Stags. First drive of the game they just couldn’t stop us. In the end it needed pass interference to end our drive, which was initially called against them, and I was close enough to see it really was a foul, which would have left us at first and goal. However, after protestations to the match referee, the call was reversed, from which we sadly never came back. Still, a winning first season, a second varsity game in the bag and the play-offs was a pretty good start for the Cavaliers.
From a personal view, there was the added bonus at the post-season dinner of being awarded the Most Improved Player (MIP). This still sits proudly on my office shelf together with my MVP for my first game for the Tomcats. Thanks to my t-shirt celebrating the thumping of Cambridge in the third Varsity Bowl, when stopping off in Chicago in 1997 on the way back from a conference, my local friend there from college was not only able to get me into the Soldier Field stadium, the home of my team the Bears, on a day without tours, I was even able to have my photo taken in three-point stance on the hallowed turf, well at least on the side-line.
The first logo used by the OUAFS and Blacko's Most Improved Player trophy.
On the 30th anniversary of both going full contact and joining the league, it is great to see the Cavaliers live on in the Lancers. However, also somewhat saddening in that after all these years and even the established status of being a half-blue sport, the team still does not have its own official field and has to get by on a shoestring.
Of all the sports I have participated in, from college darts, an athletics blue, through Sunday League soccer in Germany and playing in the world’s largest annual “rounders” tournament when I lived in Sweden, it will always be the memory of stepping out on the gridiron and the first contact with the opponent after the referee’s match-starting whistle that gives me the biggest goose-bumps. I am sure there are many of you out there, who too remember that feeling of being out on the pitch whenever they see a game. I ask former players, especially my fellow Cavaliers, to help support those who desire to also play this magnificent game but may struggle in these times of university fees and student debt.