Victorian gridiron team gets ready for kick-off

Source: Bendigo Advertiser

They don’t have a ground to play at yet and some of their equipment is held up at customs, but Bendigo’s first American football club, the Bendigo Dragons, is officially up and running.

The Dragons have been accepted into Gridiron Victoria’s division two competition this season, just 12 months after Darren Maher created a Facebook page to see if anyone was interested in forming a team.

It’s been a rapid rise for the fledgling club, which has expanded from a few interested people at its first meeting in September to 43 players at its first pre-season training session last month.

Bendigonians from a range of backgrounds have jumped on board the new venture which, until now, has only announced its arrival through social media and by word of mouth.

“It’s been amazing where it’s come from in the past couple of months,” co-founder and vice-president David Barker said.

“Darren came up with the idea of getting a team going in Bendigo. He’s a big (San Francisco) 49ers fan and he just wanted to see the sport played here in Bendigo.

“It wasn’t until August last year that it all started to come together. I came on board at the start of August and we started pushing.

“He started a Facebook page to see what the interest was on it, I contacted Gridiron Vic once I found out about it and it went from there. 

“It was perfect for them, too, they were looking for expansion teams.”

Most of the Dragons’ players are new to the game and still learning the rules, but the club has five experienced coaches and has been trying to fast-track its squad by watching the NFL play-offs at major sponsor The McIvor Hotel.

“They’re really taking to it. With play-offs on now we’ve had a few events watching the finals and they’re really adapting to it,” Barker said.

“It helps with experienced coaches. If we didn’t have them we’d be stuffed.

“Robert Hunter is the coach that’s been taking us through pre-season, he heard about it from someone at a party. In the past month we’ve had another four coaches come on board. 

“It’s amazing what comes out of the woodwork once it gets out there and people hear about it.”

The playing squad comes in all shapes and sizes, with all but one player from the Bendigo region.

Many have experience playing a range of sports, while others have never played a team sport before.

“Some have played Aussie rules, some have played baseball or basketball, some have never played sport because they’ve been too big – it’s a massive range,” Barker said.

“When people mention gridiron they usually think of massive big blokes, but it really does take all sizes to play.

“There’s positions for everyone. Those bigger, fatter blokes – unlike footy where you’re not going to get a game – they’re a key to the game in this, so guys that have never been able to play team sports have got an opportunity to play one now.

“There’s a few guys that have played before. We do have a few international guys that are playing for us, they’re over here for university and have played back in Europe. 

“We do have a bit of experience and our coaches have all had 20 to 25 years’ experience, so we’re not starting fully from scratch if you look at it that way.”

Starting up a team for an American sport in Bendigo does pose its own problems, though, like where to play and where to source the necessary equipment.

Shooting2 at Bendigo Stadium has signed up as merchandise sponsor and the Dragons have imported helmets, padding and uniforms – although they’ve been held up at customs and probably won’t arrive until later this month.

The Dragons aren’t too concerned about that, but finding a home ground is proving slightly more difficult.

Gridiron Victoria is aiming to schedule double-header night matches in Bendigo and the Dragons want to play somewhere central that’s easily accessible for up to 400 spectators.

The Dragons are negotiating with the City of Greater Bendigo to play home games at the Tom Flood Sports Centre.

“That’s the biggest issue we’ve got at the moment, we’re dealing with the council to find a suitable home ground,” Barker said.

“Gridiron Victoria want to come to Bendigo to play night matches so there is a big push to get on at Tom Flood to play our matches and train elsewhere.

“The amount of people it can bring to the town is 300 to 400 people, so it brings a bit of tourism if you’re hosting it at a reasonable ground and especially under lights, it will be something different for the city.”

For now the Dragons are training at Beischer Park in Strathdale and the club is also set to field a junior team in the 14–18-year-olds’ competition, which is played from late September to mid-December.

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