You can’t handle the truth!
Bringing American Football to Oxford
by Peter J Church BA (Oxon), MLitt
Unlike the silenced military courtroom, digesting the chilling words of Jack Nicholson, I believe today’s Oxford Lancers are ready for the story of the past. We had A Few Good Men, a few ringers, a couple of superstars, and the spirit to rampage a fledgling Light Blue team in the Inaugural American Football Varsity Match of 1989. I was there from the start, in many ways I choreographed the journey, and I am ready to tell the truth… the whole truth.
Oxford University American Football Society – Inaugural Varsity Match Winners 1989
The story begins with the New England Patriots, the greatest franchise in NFL history. Before 1985, the Pats had been garbage, but that season something changed. They discovered an indomitable spirit that led them to their first Super Bowl, as a wild card team. On 26 January 1986, the Pats lost Super Bowl XX to the Chicago Bears with their rookie lineman, William “The Refrigerator” Perry. They were hammered 46–10. I had watched the highlights of all their playoff matches on Channel 4. I had discovered a new sport; and the Patriots were my team.
I parcelled up this passion for the NFL in my luggage when I arrived at Oriel for Matriculation in October 1986. At Freshers’ Fair, I searched for the American Football club, but alas, the NFL tentacles had not yet infiltrated the domain of the Oxford undergraduate. I was determined to find a way to bring the sport to Oxford. For a couple of years, these plans remained on the back-burner, as I discovered the De Quinceyan pleasures and pains of Oxford; and the NFL was confined to an annual Super Bowl party in the Oriel Beer Cellar. When I started my final year in 1988, and the haze of College life had lifted to reveal a significant gap in the timetable of a Philosophy and Theology student, the time had arrived to bring American Football to Oxford University.
Peter Church #39 in 1989 and 2022
The first stage was to organise and host a Seven’s Flag Tournament at the Oriel College sports ground. I created some posters and reached out to contacts who might be interested in entering their College team. We had solid interest from Keble, Queens, Exeter, and Merton. The Tournament was a great success. Sadly, Oriel lost in the semi’s; and I vaguely recall Keble won the final, led by their US college player, Galunic. The most important outcome of this Tournament was that it created a network of enthusiasts, who became the key advocates and organisers of the emerging University club – the leading cast included Phil Mabbs (Merton), Andrew Openshaw (Queens), and Duncan Forbes (Keble). There was one other central protagonist in creating the club, but alas I can only recall his first name – Simon – and I think he was at Worcester. He is not on our Team photograph in 1989, and it was 33 years ago!
Galunic ready to take a snap during the 1989 Varsity Match
The wheels of industry sprung into motion, and we started the initial steps of creating the club. Our application to register an official club with the University authorities hit one stumbling block in the name, since the initials OUAFC clashed with the inferior hobby, but unfortunately more long-standing pastime, of football. So we became a Society – OUAFS. We did, however, secure a start-up grant of £250 towards some kit and equipment. The official home ground was the Oriel sports pitches. And the first Committee was self-appointed, with me as Founder President, which was as grandiose as I could negotiate, Phil Mabbs as Treasurer, and the student now identified by the sobriquet “Simon” as Secretary. Nothing has changed – AKA Simon did all the work and took none of the credit.
I was busy wallowing in the pain of losing my own Seven’s Tournament on our home ground, so I needed a new strategy. The solution, as so often was the case for Oriel students, was discovered in The Bear, our local public house facing the College gates. Over a pint or twenty, we signed up a former Marine and accomplished American Football player, Chris Dorsey, the barman, Jason Spallini, and their biggest customer, in both meanings of the word, the 20-stone BT electrician, Big Al. Was that cheating, I hear you ask? Well, I managed to persuade (coerce) the Oriel JCR to enrol them as Honorary Members on the undertaking of glorious victories for the College team (and discounted beer at The Bear). And they all played in the Varsity Match, so don’t tell Cambridge or we may have to return the metaphorical trophy.
The 1989 Varsity Match was played as flag football.
The next step was to appoint the coaching team. Simon and I met with the Reverend Jerry Jones, who had been recommended as Head Coach. Jerry agreed to take on this role and also to coach the Defense. The Offense was coached by the PG student, Galunic, who also moved from his US College starting position as a Defensive Lineman, to Quarterback, primarily as the only player on the roster who could throw the back with any modicum of accuracy. For what it is worth, I played Free Safety, with the number 39 shirt for sentimental reasons. I still have the shirt, but not the sentimental reasons.
Peter Church (Founding President) playing as Free Safety (39)
There were two other matches that I can recall prior to the Varsity Match. Oriel played a friendly against Merton, which sticks in the memory as I was malevolently flattened by Duncan Prior attempting to catch a punt return. I lost half-a-tooth and ended up with self-diagnosed concussion after several post-match double-whiskeys in The Bear. The University Team played one Friendly Match against Hull University, who I believe were the only other early adopters alongside Oxford University. We won comfortably, and if we didn’t, that’s how I remember it.
Around this time, Corinthian Tom (Simon), Jerry, and Peter the Logician (me), made a road trip to Cambridge to negotiate terms for the Inaugural Varsity Match. I think the discussions must have gone something like: “we will play at your ground, if we are allowed ringers”. As Jack Nicholson said: you have the luxury of not knowing what I know…
The Varsity Match was immense. Again, quoting Nicholson: we used words like honour, code, loyalty. But we knew what they meant. We played with spirit. Cambridge were hapless. The victory was never in dispute, with the Man of the Match, our US College star QB, RB, Coach, everything – Galunic.
The teams recognise a valiant performance and a resounding victory for Oxford
So my one regret is we only played with Flags rather than Medieval Suits of Armour. My greatest privilege is to have played for the University at something – I didn’t take my ball home, I just made up my own team. My greatest pride is that, in some small way, I have left a Legacy that now flourishes as the sponsored by Oxford University Lancers American Football Club please get involved. If I hadn’t started it, someone else would have, perhaps in 1990. But I was there, and I helped create tremendous joy and comradeship, and added something to my CV. I still have the picture of the First Ever Varsity Winning Team. It has pride of place on my office wall in Bangkok; and I smile everyday when the memories flood back. Oh, to be young…