By Richard Davis
It’s a crazy, high-octane mishmash of action that at times resembles elements of basketball, soccer, volleyball and rugby.
And it’s one of the oldest sports in the world that has ongoing competition: Gaelic football.
“If you can somewhat kick and you can run, you can come out and learn this,” said coach Thomas McGuire, who organizes and sometimes plays on the Northwest Arkansas club, Herla’s Hounds, formerly known as the Rovers.
Players were somewhat kicking and running their way through the game a couple hundred years even before 1887 when the Gaelic Athletic Association codified the rules for the sport in Ireland. The game is played on a pitch similar to the playing fields used for rugby and soccer.
“Most of the kids like it because it’s a little more aggressive than soccer,” McGuire said. “It’s a mixture of football and soccer. It’s the mother sport for them all — rugby, American football and Australian rules football and soccer all come from this game — so it’s nice to see it coming back.”
Unlike soccer, players can handle the ball — resembling a volleyball more than anything else — and even carry it. The catch? Every four steps a player must dribble the ball on the grass or kick it back up into their hands in an action known as soloing.
Players can also opt to send the ball to a teammate by kicking it or passing it. However, in Gaelic football, a pass resembles a volleyball serve in which players eject the ball from their palm by striking it with a closed hand.
Also different from soccer, Gaelic football focuses on shoulder tackling — bumping shoulders and knocking the ball out of opponents’ hands — and forbids slide tackling. McGuire said this helps make the game a fairly injury-free sport. Violations are flagged with penalty cards: red and green rather than soccer’s yellow and red.
“Although, there is a lot more aggression in this sport. You cannot blind side somebody — that’s about the long and the short of it,” McGuire said. “It’s a man’s sport like rugby. It just doesn’t have the scrum, so there’s no need to stick your head between some guy’s legs and worry about things … worry about how nice everybody is.”
Scoring is another unusual aspect to the game. Teams can opt to take one point by kicking what resembles a field goal through uprights placed about a soccer-style net. Punching the ball into the net, however, is worth three points.
The goalie — in this case, 16-year-old Devin Burns for the Hounds — naturally plays a vital role in Gaelic football. Although this is Devin’s first year for the sport, he’s played soccer since he was 4. Devin said he slightly prefers soccer, but for a specific reason.
“Because it’s harder to block things in Gaelic because when you hit … it takes a more unpredictable path,” Devin said.
On the other hand, the goalie has better backup in Gaelic than soccer.
“You can rely more on your defense ’cause they can use their hands, so you don’t feel so alone,” Devin said.
McGuire said the Northwest Arkansas club was founded by Brad Pope, a triathlete who is taking a break from the team with the arrival of his first child. Also instrumental in the formation of the team was the former coach, Paul Warren, and his entire family. Warren’s son, Joseph, is the current team’s captain and at 18 has been playing Gaelic football for four years. Joseph Warren said he hasn’t had much interest in other sports but the combination of different game elements has kept him excited about the Hounds.
“We managed to beat a lot of teams. We came close to beating both Kansas City and Little Rock’s A teams. In fact, they played Kansas City their closest game this year …” McGuire said.
The Hounds have been playing clubs from Little Rock, Kansas City, Minneapolis and elsewhere on the road and in Northwest Arkansas. Starter clubs opening in Fort Smith, Dallas and Tulsa, Okla., gives the Hounds hope to expand the circle of competition.
“So we hope to be traveling from Dallas to Minneapolis — that’s our goal,” McGuire said.
This year the club attracted its first sponsors — an individual, Ken Stout, and a business, Tim Emerick Consulting. McGuire said the club also expects to be officially recognized by the Gaelic Athletic Association next year.
McGuire said the team is looking to add about three more players. Although the oldest full-time player for the Hounds currently is 20, older players are welcome. In fact, McGuire said the Hounds tend to field the youngest team by far among the squads they play.
Female players are also welcome to Gaelic football. McGuire said Carly Mock, a triathlete, played for two years for the Hounds before an injury forced her to take some time off.
The Hounds practice at 4:30 p.m. Sundays and at 6 p.m. Wednesdays at the Tyson Recreational Park in Springdale. The coach can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 479-236-0474. The Hounds will host a match against the Little Rock club in late August.
McGuire, 45, said he has played as well as coached in five of the team’s nine games this year when the squad has been short on personnel.
“But they like me to coach because I’m short and fat,” McGuire laughed.