Football is an American sport, a game woven into the fabric of this nation.
It’s about leadership, dedication and teamwork. It brings communities together and bridges generations.
On Wednesday night in Austin, Texas, a group of Division I college-bound athletes found out that they don’t have a monopoly on that passion, that the world knows all about football, loves it just as much and wants a piece for its own.
For the first time in international competition, the U.S. Under-19 National Team lost, falling 35-29 to the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) World Team in the third annual International Bowl.
“They are getting better,” said U.S. head coach Steve Specht of Cincinnati St. Xavier High School. “Coach (Chris) Merritt and I were talking about it, and it comes to a point where we have to realize and our kids have to realize they are getting better year after year. They are studying the game, and you can’t just show up because you’ve got a lot of talent. You still have to play the game.”
The United States rallied late but the hole was too much to dig out from.
Turnovers, penalties and general sloppy play put Team USA in a 21-9 halftime deficit.
The third quarter didn’t start any better for the Americans as a false start and a sack led to a three-and-out on the first U.S. possession.
Even when things went right, they went wrong. The U.S. picked up a partially blocked World Team field goal attempt only to fumble it back away at the American 29-yard line.
Seven plays later, it was 28-9 when Daryl Waud, a defensive lineman lined up at tight end, caught a 5-yard pass from quarterback Will Finch.
With 2:47 left in the third quarter, Team USA trailed by 19, and the American sideline was stunned.
“We’ve been working so hard for this all week, and it paid off with the victory,” said World Team MVP Anthony Coombs of the University of Manatoba, who finished with 147 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. “People don’t think anyone can play outside of the United States. This is going to make the U.S. take this event more seriously, and it’s also going to inspire tons of little kids around the world. It feels great that we did this.”
Highlights were few for Team USA during the first three quarters. Romond Deloatch caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Sean Maguire. Javelle Allen hit Frank Epitropolous for a 12-yard score. Gimel President had three tackles for loss. Noor Davis’ strip led to a safety.
Instead, it was the World Team that looked like ones who grew up with the game, converting third downs, opening huge holes for its running backs and finding space in the U.S. zone when a big play was needed.
“I’m a little numb right now,” said Greg Marshall, head coach of the World Team and the University of Western Ontario. “I’m just so proud of our coaches and our players. We had one week to come together and execute. We knew we put in a complicated game plan, because we knew we weren’t going to beat them playing straight up. It was a great team effort.”
Finch finished 10-of-14 for 169 yards and two TDS – one to Waud, the other to Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren. Tevaun Smith also caught a touchdown from Jesse Mills.
With the World Team leading, 35-16, after a 62-yard touchdown run by Coombs, the U.S. finally got moving in the final 11 minutes.
Devin Funchess caught an 11-yard touchdown pass, and Epitropoulos’ 60-yard catch-and-run set up a 2-yard TD grab off a tipped pass for Canon Smith.
It was too little, too late, though, as the World Team recovered both onside kicks and was able to run out the clock.
“What a great experience,” Specht said. “The kids battled until the very end. The bottom line is you can’t wait until late in the game to say, ‘Hey, this is for real.’ ”
Coming into Wednesday, the U.S. Under-19 National Team had given up 17 points in five games, including three games in the 2009 IFAF World Championship.
The World Team, which had never led in the two previous International Bowls, more than doubled that in four quarters of outstanding play.
Gilbert-Knorren and Tevaun Smith became the first players to score touchdowns in two separate International Bowls, reaching the end zone last year as well.
Both are 19, though, meaning it will be up to other international players to defend their victory in 2013.
But they made believes out of one group of soon-to-be college standouts.
“That World Team is the best I’ve ever faced,” U.S. left guard Ian Park of Pittsburgh said.
The United States now knows it had better be ready to come and compete.