Today, Ravenhill or the Kingspan Stadium in south Belfast is the undisputed home of Ulster Rugby. The game of rugby union has been a fixture since Ulster ran out against Leinster in January 1924 but during the Second World War, Ravenhill hosted American football... a whole different ballgame.
The first-ever game of American Football in Ireland took place on 14th November 1942. Ravenhill Stadium in Belfast played host to this first match of the sport in the European Theater of Operations. United States military adopted the names ‘Hale’ and ‘Yarvard’ and ran out onto the hallowed turf in front of an estimated crowd of 8,000. The team names paid tribute to the renowned Ivy League Colleges of Harvard and Yale.
Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A. was the first place to see American football played under soccer rules. In 1875, a game against McGill University of Montreal, Canada spawned the game we know today. Harvard played soccer rules in the first half while Montreal played rugby rules in the second.
From 1876, the game evolved into what is recognisable as American football today. One of those first games was between Harvard and Yale. The colleges became instrumental in standardising the rules and growing the sport’s popularity.
Despite the huge following in the U.S.A., the game was largely unheard of in the United Kingdom and Ireland. A headline in the local press summed up the Northern Irish reaction to the spectacle.
8,000 Irish fans puzzled by U.S. football game.
Most of those 8,000 would have undoubtedly been fellow American servicemen. They had been arriving in Ulster since January 1942. For the non-Americans in the crowd, the game day souvenir programme spelled out the rules.
As you view American Football for the first time, I am certain you will be impressed by its similarity to your great game of “Rugger”. In both games the teams start with a “kick off” and both teams attempt to place the ball behind the opponent’s goal line. In both games the “run”, “pass” and “kick” are the agencies used to place the ball there. You have your “scrummage” or “scrum” while we have our “scrimmage” which we do not call “scrim”. We also have “place-kicks”, “drop-kicks” and “punts” as do you.
After one team has “received” the “kick-off” it may run with the ball, pass it backward or kick it. The election usually is to run with it. The ball carrier runs until he is thrown to the ground or run out of bounds. Our field is 100 yards long and 160 feet wide. When the ball carrier is “downed” the ball is put in play from “scrimmage”. Two lines of players are formed facing each other, the rules requiring that the side putting the ball in play have at least seven of its eleven men on the line. One of these “linemen” “snaps” the ball back between his legs to one of the four men back of the line who may then run with it, kick it, pass it backward or pass it forward if he does so from a point at least five yards back of the line of scrimmage. When the forward progress of the ball has been stopped or a forward pass has become “incomplete” a “down” is counted. The side having the ball has four “downs” in which to advance the ball ten yards. If on any one of these downs the ball has been so advanced “first down” is declared and the team in possession of the ball again has four “downs” in which to advance the ball ten yards, On any one of these “downs” the team carrying the ball may elect to punt it. The punt is used when it is felt that the chance of making the required ten yards is not good.
Players of the team in possession of the ball may not use their hands on their opponents, however the ball carrier may use a “straight arm” to ward off an opponent. Players of the defensive team may use their hands to push or pull opponents out of the way in order to get at the ball carrier. Neither side may hold opponents other than the ball carrier.
When the teams have lined up for “scrimmage” no player of the team carrying the ball may move forward until the ball has been “snapped” to a “back” and no player of the defensive team may move across the “line of scrimmage” until the ball has been “snapped”. If he does he is “off-side”.
Scoring is by touchdown, six points; field goal, three points; try for point after touchdown, one point and safety, two points. A “touchdown” is made when the ball is legally in the possession of a player on, over or above his opponent’s goal line. A “field goal” is made when a player drop-kicks or place-kicks, from scrimmage, the ball over the cross bar and between the uprights of his opponents’ goal posts. After a “touchdown” the team scoring may “try” for point from scrimmage by a run, a pass or a “field goal”. For this play the ball is placed on the “two-yard” line. A “safety” is scored when the ball is “down” in the possession of a player behind his own goal when the impetus which placed it there was supplied by the team defending that goal.
There are eleven players each side named: right and left end, right and left tackle, right and left guard, center, quarterback, right halfback, left halfback and fullback.
There are four officials, the referee who works behind the offensive team; the umpire who works behind the defensive team, the head linesman, who works along one side of the field and the field judge, who works well back of the defensive team. The man carrying the box with the figures on it is the head linesman’s assistant and the figure on the side of the box facing the field denotes the number of the current down. The men you see carrying the two stakes or poles with the wire attached are also assistants to the head linesman. The wire is ten yards long and is used in determining whether or not the team having possession of the ball has made its required ten yards in four downs. The pole nearest the side carrying the ball marks the spot as which that team first received the ball and the other pole marks the spot to which it must be carried to make “first-down”.
Generally speaking, no linemen except the ends coming around behind their own team may carry the ball and no one but the men on each end of the line and the men in the backfield (the backs) may legally catch a “forward pass”.
Players wear heavy protective equipment. There are some fatalities in our football game each year but these and serious injuries have been greatly reduced by the use of proper equipment.
There are many rules and they are quite complicated, but these will be explained as they come up from time to time throughout the game.
The members of the defensive team may play any place on their side of the “line of scrimmage” but the offensive team must have seven of its members on the line and must have its backfield men at least one yard back of the line if they are to be eligible to carry the ball.
During the Second World War, the number of young men in the armed services grew rapidly. Many of them included collegiate and professional footballers from across the U.S.A. Nineteen current or former National Football League players were to die during the conflict between 1941-1945.
An unnamed sportswriter explained the ties between football and the military in the early 1940s.
Football is a body-toughener. Football lights the fighting spark in fighting men. It develops aggressiveness, teamwork, stamina, physical and mental coordination under active stress, and therefore it holds a foremost place in our national wartime training program. Teams by the hundreds are in formation at various Army camps and posts and Navy bases. The greatest participation in the history of the sport will be entered in the records of 1942.
On 1st January 1944, a U.S. Navy team took to the football field in Newry Co. Down to challenge their U.S. Army counterparts for the "Potato Bowl" trophy.
On 14th November 1942, 'Hale' took on 'Yarvard' in Belfast's Ravenhill Stadium. It was the first game of American Football in the European Theater of Operations