Old Donnybrook had never seen anything quite like it — the day the gridiron road-show landed. Last Friday, Donnybrook hosted a celebration of American football with four teams (Loyola Academy, Dallas Jesuit, John Carroll, St. Norbert College) gracing the hallowed turf as part of the Global Ireland Football Tournament under Friday Night Lights. A lot of Irish fans that pay attention to football outside of the NFL do so because of Bissinger’s seminal book ‘Friday Night Lights’ and the resulting film and TV series it inspired.
The venerable stadium in South Dublin, Ireland was once the main home of Leinster Rugby — European Champions, three out of the last four years — and possibly the best professional club rugby team in the world. A golden generation of Irish rugby stars like Brian O’Driscoll, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Gordan D’Arcy once demonstrated their skills in Donnybrook, first as schoolboys and then as professionals with Leinster.
These days, Leinster have a new training facility in UCD and play their home games in the much larger capacity RDS or the Aviva. Donnybrook, however, still showcases the stars of the future and plays host to School games involving the alma mater of the above stars. The atmosphere at these ‘derby’ games is often raucous as Blackrock College take on St. Michaels and painted, flag waving classmates yell on their friends. The locals are used to seeing Belvedere College SJ play rival Jesuit College Clongowes Wood there. Jesuit schools are to the forefront of schools’ rugby in Ireland.
On Friday, the curious natives had the novelty of watching two US Jesuit High school (US) football teams complete with high kicking cheerleaders and band members take the field in Donnybrook, followed by the two University teams. Friday night felt different but also strangely familiar, as the pride felt by the student-athlete playing in front of peers and family, with all the inherent pressures, transfered across the Atlantic.
For some student athletes, a good high school career is only the start of a successful playing career in college and in the pros. For others, it is the summit. For all representing your school — whether its rugby in Leinster or Munster, or football in Illinois or Texas — it is special and memorable. There was also a sense of homecoming for some of the players with names like Walsh, O’Sullivan, Maher, Hickey, Murphy and Cunningham appearing on the roster of the teams.
Loyola Academy and Dallas Jesuit traveled across the pond to Ireland to showcase the game they love and represent their schools with pride in what was an important regular season game for both. And they certainly achieved that and more. While the feature event of the weekend might have been the Navy v Notre Dame game, the more exciting game for the neutral Irish supporter was the Loyola v Dallas game. Both sides made a number of errors with miscued snaps and missed kicks, but this only served to heighten enjoyment for the neutral. The game was absorbing, even for Irish fans who like our games a lot shorter.
While the fans waited for this unique occasion to commence, the Loyola band entertained the crowd with peppy music as the high-kicking, tumbling cheerleaders from both teams raised the roof of the old stand. The preliminaries began with the playing of the US and Irish Anthems and the coin toss Midshipman First Class Colin Bruton of the Naval Academy, Annapolis
Despite Dallas Jesuit looking a far more physically imposing side, Loyola Academy dominated large parts of the first half. An early interception by Cody Sullivan set up QB Peter Pujals for his first rushing touchdown in the first quarter. Dallas hit back with a touchdown by Orion Salter. Kristopher Coker and Luke Ford were catching the eye on Loyola’s drives.
In the second quarter Loyola extend their lead with Peter Pujals scoring his second rushing touchdown and also combining with WR Luke Ford for a 77 yard touchdown pass. In between Loyola’s two touchdowns of the quarter, they had kicked a successful field goal and Jesuit had hit back with a touchdown of their own to leave the score 23-14 at half-time in favour of the school from Illinois.
The Cheer team from Loyola entertained the crowd at half-time, as they had done during the game, with their athletic routine of scorpions and tumbles, before the Jesuit Rangerettes from Ursuline Academy (the Ursuline schools in Ireland are known for their field hockey prowess) performed their unique Texan routine to the theme song of Dallas. Donnybrook had never seen razzmatazz like this.
However Jack Brezette QB of Jesuit was beginning to find his range as the game went on and was throwing some monstrous completed passes. Jesuit’s defence dominated the early part of the third quarter. With 52 seconds left in the third, Jesuit narrowed the lead to 23-20. Jesuit struck early in the final quarter with a touchdown and goal to lead for the first time 27- 23.
The momentum was with Jesuit now and Loyola seemed to be waning. When the Loyola offence fumbled the ball on the next snap and handed the ball to Jesuit on Loyola’s 14, it appeared as if the fat lady was about to sing. She hadn’t even begun to clear her throat.
With the Loyola cheerleaders exhorting the crowd to raise the spirits of the under-seige Ramblers, the momentum swung again with two big plays from Loyola. Loyola’s Daniel Rafferty intercepted in his own end zone to prevent a certain game winning touchdown for the Rangers. Shortly afterwards, following a great drive, the dynamic Julius Holley completed a nine yard touchdown run. The Ramblers failed to add the extra point, which would prove costly a few minutes later.
Jesuit didn’t lose their composure, though, and set up a field goal attempt for Cody Wicker with 49 seconds remaining on the stadium clock. Wicker held his nerve to convert the winning field goal.
All in all an enthralling game and exciting finale left the local sports fans breathless and wanting more.