Sunday morning in North Seoul and two American football teams are hammering away at each other. The pitch is dirt, it is dusty, and the hits are uncompromising. The heat is frankly brutal. The final whistle blows and each team huddles up before going to the opposing sideline and bowing before the coaches. They trot back across the pitch and they do the same to their team’s coaches. From among the coaches, one American accent is heard shouting out congratulations to the players. Now it’s helmets off and the players go into a huddle where they hear further congratulations alongside a few home truths. “You didn’t always want it enough today. We talked about that during the week; we need more focus and execution, and it needs to be better for next week. But well done on a good win.” The twenty-odd players nod, cheer, and break. A lot of these players – many with their mandatory military service still to do – had not even seen American football beyond a brief encounter with the remote control and a TV before coming to Korea University. Yet, now they have just won their last divisional game of the Seoul American Football Association (SAFA) to secure their place in the playoffs, and if you listen to assistant coach D. J. Battistella Jr., there is plenty of success to come.
The Monroe, Michigan native has been with the Korea University Tigers for two years. In his sixth year in Korea, he has divided his football time between the Seoul Vikings, the Golden Eagles, and most recently coaching with the Tigers. “I ran into a guy carrying pads one day on the subway, and found out about the American football League here. I was playing soccer before. And I suck at soccer!” Getting involved with the Tigers through head coach Lawrence Bowlby allowed him to pass on some of what he had learned throughout a life in football. “I got a football scholarship at Tri-State in Indiana. It was a NAIA school but I got to play football, and that’s what mattered.” Has he been able to bring that experience to Korea? “Absolutely. Of course there are massive differences in the level of competition, but the diligence and heart that these players show makes a lot of things possible.”
Battistella is frank about some of the challenges both the coaches and the players face. The club depends on a strong alumni network of support to keep going as there is zero university funding or scholarships and often parental or even girlfriend pressure can take its toll. “These players are being asked to perform on dirt pitches – all the way up until the championship game (the only time they’ll compete on turf all year). Parents get worried about injuries. Girlfriends and professors may have issues with the training schedules as well.” While many other athletes at top universities get to cut class, there is none of that for the Tigers. “We lose players on a regular basis – they need to study, their girlfriends want to spend time with them, their parents don’t want them getting injured. It’s all a challenge.” So how is it to train them? “Well… some kids don’t know much when they join. So certain things that would be second nature for university athletes in America aren’t so here.” American football isn’t a big sport at high school in Korea, with only a few schools in Incheon offering programs beyond flag football near the capital. Without that background, things that can come naturally to an American just won’t over here. “The strength – that diligence – can also be a weakness. They are so focused on getting the play perfect that they don’t realise the need for flexibility. That creativity can take time to come – that’s where coaching comes in to play.”
Looking towards the end of the season and beyond, Battistella is convinced of the Tiger’s prospects. “We’ve been to the Championship game four years in a row. But if we can’t do it this year, we can never do it.” Seniors fresh from military service will have a massive part in helping with the training. “Lawrence (Bowlby) trained those seniors three…four years ago. They will help us to train the younger players because they already know the plays, drills, and schemes. I think our consistency comes down to that better recruitment over the past four years. These players can coach themselves to become better at problem-solving in a game.”
Football doesn’t stop with just SAFA and the Tigers, however, with both Battistella and Bowlby involved in sponsoring a Filipino team called the Manila Vanguards. “Last year we got them the equipment and started teaching clinics.” Battistella and Bowlby will both head to the Philippines in the coming months to help with clinics. The sport is getting bigger with television coverage and increased popularity for the six-team league the latest incentive – something that the Korea American Football Association (KAFA) can only dream of. And the connection to the Philippines is something that the young Tigers players benefit from as well, with the club getting to play a pre-season game against the Filipino national team each February. “Not many university teams in Asia can count a match against a national team as part of their pre-season ritual… in any sport. I’m proud of my part in that.”
Looking ahead, Battistella is unsure about his next chapter but he knows that football will be a part of it somehow. “I played in Melbourne last summer in the Gridiron Victoria league, and I really loved it. I enjoyed playing at a high level as well as coaching the Australians next to me. I can be a solid semi-pro player back in the States so maybe I can get on with a team in Europe for a season or two, which would be a fantastic opportunity to share my passion for the sport.” Can some of the Korea University Tigers make the grade? “Sure. Depending on their career or their family situation but some of these guys should be on the national team in years to come – if they can stick with it.” Will he still be coaching next year? “No question about it. One of my coaches always said, “Love football and it’ll love you back.” If you put your passion and dedication into it, you’ll see the results. I love the game. And I want to help, wherever I am, and whether that’s coaching, playing, whatever…”
J. Battistella is a guest writer with American Football International