American football in Russia is still an amateur sport. Source: ShutterStock/Legion Media
Not many Russian fans of American football nowadays remember that the sport was formerly Soviet American football, as the game was actually introduced in the country in the late 80s.
The new sport swept the country in a giant wave of enthusiasm, and former rugby and basketball players, wrestlers, weight lifters, boxers, and martial arts athletes seized the opportunity to try out for the new sport everywhere. Six teams took part in the one and only USSR Championship of American Football in 1991, with the Moscow Bears coming out on top.
As time went by, the game progressed, but Russian American football scored a breakthrough only in 2013 with two epic battles between the Moscow Patriots and the Moscow Black Storm teams in the domestic championship.
As the story goes, American quarterback Tim Tebow was invited to play a couple of games for Black Storm. Although it didn’t happen in the end, several other American players added a much-needed flavor to those games, with Black Storm emerging as the ultimate winner to bring an end to the Patriots’ streak of 12 consecutive victories in the Russian championship.
The best player of that 2013 special season was an American named Bobby Rome, a former NCAA and part-time NFL player, who quarterbacked the Moscow Patriots to perfection. Rome’s story is extraordinary: Despite never making an NFL team, he relocated with his whole family to Russia to promote and teach American football in the country. After ending his playing career for the Patriots, he became the head coach of the Wild Pandas team, from Russia's Pacific port city of Vladivostok.
The sport nowadays is a far cry from the 1990s, with 15 teams competing in four different divisions in a full-fledged Russian American football championship. Last season’s champions Moscow Patriots are clear favorites this year as well, but there are capable teams all over the country.
Surprisingly one of the centers of Russian American football is in St. Petersburg, with Russia’s cultural capital fielding two teams for this year’s championships: Northern Legion and the Griffins.
Even considering its rise in popularity, American football in Russia is still an amateur sport, as players are not paid for their service. So, more power to them for finding the time and money to practice and develop in this environment.
The average Russian football player works a day job and pays for the kit, travel expenses and membership fee out of his own pocket. But in return he gets a true sporting brotherhood, as relations between players don’t end after the game or practice, like in a professional team. The highlight of this extracurricular activity is the annual Super Bowl party, where all team members gather to watch the main American football spectacle of the year.
Even though reaching the level of the NFL is still an unattainable dream for the European Championship of American football, the rise of Russia is hard to ignore. For example, back in the day Russian teams didn’t have any punters or kickers on their rosters. There were hardly any field goal attempts or attempts at scoring extra points even during official games.
Those days of incomplete football are long over, as most teams now have special players just for the kicking game. The best-known of them is Nikolai Golovach from the Moscow Patriots, who scored a 46-yard field goal this season.
Although it doesn’t bear this name, the final game of the Russian American Football Championship is the embodiment of the whole season. This year’s showpiece event, held on Sept. 6, saw the. St. Petersburg Griffins beat the much-fancied Moscow Patriots in a tough game at the Zelenograd rugby stadium in the Moscow Region, winning their first Russian title in the process.
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