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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

Who Made Who

Two weekends ago, I flew to Milan to coach the GB Lions Mens Contact American Football team, in a European Championship qualifier against Italy.

I was appointed to the role of Assistant Head Coach (as well as Special Teams Coordinator and Tight Ends Coach) almost two and a half years ago, but due to Covid, as well as the escalating situation in the Ukraine, a number of fixtures had been cancelled and this was the very first time we'd kitted up against an opponent since the new staff had taken up their positions!

To add some weight to the proceedings, Italy are the reigning European Champions, having won a Covid-impacted tournament in 2021 - a full 36 years since their last Championship! The game took place in the Vigorelli Stadium in Milan, home of the Milano Seamen (no sniggering at the back!) and this was the first GB Mens team match in over three years.

In the final briefing at the hotel, before we boarded coaches to the stadium, Head Coach Jason Scott gathered the players and staff and shared some thoughts. He gave an uplifting speech, during which he urged the players to take a moment to appreciate the journey they'd come on, both individually and as a team, to get to that moment. He asked the players: "On the coach journey to the stadium, I want you to take out your phone and send a message to someone who helped you get here today."

Back in 2011, I was right at the very beginning of my journey as an American Football coach, having just completed my first season working with the Edinburgh Napier University Knights. I was enthusiastic, hard-working and committed. I have always been someone who builds rapport quickly and has able to develop relationships but in truth, as an American Football coach, I wasn't very good. My understanding of the intricacies of the game was minimal and my ability to take what I did know, package it cohesively and articulate that in a way that allowed players to actually act on that knowledge, was next to zero.

However, I'd been around the game for around 6 years by this point, beginning as a player in 2005 (I covered the story of my introduction to the game in a previous blog) and by 2011, as well as being a player, I had also served as a club Chairman and on both the National Governing Body and the league organising committee. And as such, I was fairly well known across the Britball community. And so one day, my phone rang unexpectedly and a coach named Nick Rockell was on the other end. Coach Rockell was, at the time, Running Backs Coach for the GB Lions Mens Contact team and he was looking for what's called a GA or Graduate Assistant - the lowest position on the hierarchy of an American Football staff, which works as an assistant to the positional coaches. Having got to know each other through our work together in running the league, Coach Rockell felt that I might benefit from the opportunity and be able to bring something to the role. Naturally, I was extremely flattered - there were literally hundreds of coaches who could have added more to the role, from a technical and coaching standpoint - and I jumped at the opportunity!

Over the next two and a half years, attending practices the length and breadth of the UK, I was like a sponge, soaking up as much as I could from Coach Rockell and the rest of the staff about all aspects of being a coach. How to work with players, practice structure, fundamentals, scheme and strategy, planning and preparation. That period of my life was like a cross between a degree and an apprenticeship. The practices were all geared towards the 2013 European Group B Championships and that event was my final involvement with the team in my first stint. It was an incredible experience culminating in a heartbreaking loss where team GB threw away a lead in the last 60 seconds of the crucial game, to come up just short!

Fast forward back to 30 October 2021. What made this trip particularly special, was the venue. You see, dear reader, in that crucial game on 4 September, 2013, GB narrowly lost to Italy to miss out on a place in the final. We went on to beat the Czech Republic in the Bronze Medal match and the Italians won the final and were promoted to Group A - where they went on to win the European Championship 8 years later. And that loss to Italy, as with all of the games in that tournament, took place in the Vigorelli Stadium in Milan!

And so, I did just as Coach Scott had asked. I took out my phone and I sent a message to Coach Rockell, now living in Canada and still coaching, to say thank you for the opportunity he'd given me eleven years before and to tell him just how much his faith in me and his friendship meant. Typically humble, Coach Rockell said he'd been lucky to have been able to offer the opportunity and that I'd gone on to do great things with it and we reminisced about our time coaching together.

It's never possible, when give them, to see the path that the opportunities we give to others set them out on. The way that our lives unfold often seems miraculous. But Coach Scott was right to create that pause in the lives of everyone on the squad and remind us to pick up the phone and reach out to those whose kindness and support had helped paved our way.

When Coach Scott took on the GB Head Coach role in the spring of 2020, I was one of his very first hires. My coaching ability had come a long way an the almost decade since Coach Rockell gave me that opportunity but there were still many other gifted coaches from across the UK game who he could have appointed. And so, when my plane landed back in Edinburgh after an incredibly fulfilling weekend in Milan, I decided not to wait a decade like I had the first time, and I reached into my pocket for my phone and sent Coach Scott a message that simply read 'Thank you for everything'.

Take this as your pause. Pick up the phone and say thank you.

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