American Football may not be the first sport which springs to mind when you think of Estonia. However, the interest is there, with teams having played in Tartu and, presently, Tallinn – the Tallinn Kings – as well as obvious interest in the sport on the back of Margus Hunt's several seasons in the NFL, first with the Cincinnati Bengals, and now with the Indianapolis Colts. Martti Poom, one of the driving forces behind the sport here, gave ERR News the rundown on the, often trying, realities of running a team in Estonia, international competition, and possible future developments. We start off with Martti's background in the sport and its history here so far.
"I've been active for the past five years, but it started here in the mid 1990s in Tallinn, later entering the Finnish league with that team, though with no real success – Finland is light years ahead in this sport – then the focus shifted to Tartu," he says.
"There was a lot of sharing players between each team, though, as there weren't enough players to go round. We went from 10 players to around 30 after a year of promoting the sport, which was a pretty good improvement, and got a lot of weight training guys, which meant our linesmen were among the best, and certainly among the heaviest in the region – 5 linesmen weighed close to 700 kilos."
However, this did not last.
I moved to Tallinn, by which time we were back down to about 5 guys, so I started building it up again here, hoping to get 3 teams, but then Tartu collapsed.
IT seems that Martti has been a unifying force on the development of the sport, though there have been others, including from the sport's land of origin.
When I started in Tartu there was a US army guy there coaching who had very much a military mentality from the US, something which no Estonian player had experienced up to that point – a hard core mentality, you just said "yes coach" and no backchat. He told you things once, and if you didn't understand he'd ask you if you were stupid and so on.
The training was tough, we'd have gym training even before the practice games, so we were completely wasted before we even got on to the field, we'd end up vomiting and so on, and had to bring a bucket for that. It was the same after games – he'd tell us his grandmother could do better than that even after we'd won a game.
There were still frustrations though – the Riga team owned the league and would take players from Finland, which they could get away with because they were the league's owners, then they did it again the following season with players from Belarus.
Struggle for resources
After the US coach let we had more issues, but there are also mentality issues, as well as resources issues, Martti says.
Gridiron in its full form requires far more resources than, for instance, soccer. Offense and defense would be two separate groups of people. Add to that special teams, which have not only the kicker and punter but also other specialist positions such as holder, and even specialist linesmen (Estonia's Margus Hunt plays on special teams as well as defense-ed.). Plus the famous panoply of equipment – helmet with faceguard, shoulderpads and much more have to be worn in the full-contact version of the game.
"We have to compete with other sports. Rugby is the obvious one, but also soccer, which has the bulk of the focus at the culture ministry (sports in Estonia falls under the control of the Ministry of Culture – ed.) is bigger.
Even trying to get players from the NATO military bases at Tapa and Ämari, or even getting prison inmates to play, can be tricky. Should a NATO military person on a rotation get injurted, for instance, it would be problematic to say the least.
"We have some equipment which is hanging around, but if someone new comes to training, we don't allow them to go into full contact, but we use flag football to learn how to move and so on. The only thing we ask for from players is the cleats, in fact."
Sponsorship would be the obvious way of getting resources, but even that has sometimes drawn a blank, Martti says.
"I have reached out to a lot of people, but I've received little positive feedback," he says.
Some businesses, start off promising but doesn't go anywhere. I think they don't understand the support or what it takes for one guy to field a team and come back with a successful result.
"We don't really have an off-season, but often in training facilities, other sports such as Flora (football) take a precedence, and the options in Tallinn for indoor practice are limited.
Playing a reduced version of the game – and 8-a-side full-contact variant, for instance, as well as the non-contact flag football useful for newcomers is one way of getting round both a loack of resources and, sometimes, a lack of commitment, Martti says.
"Linesmen are not so thick on the ground – for instance we have a total of 13 at the moment, but that is likely to fall away. People don't appreciate their value in the team if there linesmen, particularly with the short Estonian summer. So the ones that do play have to end up playing more, and have 2 roles in the team, meaning they play on offense and defense, meaning they get tired."
A question of mentality
As to mentality, Martti says people in Estonia are often too "soft", in the sense of non-aggressive.
"I've seen lots of examples of smaller guys smashing their way through a much larger man, because they don't get into that mindset where they can be more aggressive. There can also be a problem with getting the message across to practise every week, not just one or two weeks, if you want to see an improvement, particularly if you are a newcomer with no experience in the sport."
"People don't seem to want to take a leap into the dark and work towards something, there's a lot of excuses about not coming to practice and so on. We have Russian guys too who are more aggressive, but then there have also been issues with building up the basics and learning about the game, as against just smashing people, the first year is often just building up the mindset."
"This year we have much younger guys, under 20 years, so I have a few years ahead of me, whereas in the past they've been over 22 years so we have a shorter amount of time to do that. The hardest part is to get people to learn to fall forwards and keep going, instead of falling backwards all the time."
How to get involved
So what should people do who want to get involved?
"Just visit the Facebook page. We haven't set any strict requirements, just that people have to be aged 15 or over. It doesn't matter if you have no experience, it's developing mind and body, and everything else comes with practice. If you fumble or don't catch the ball perfectly in the beginning, it's important to remember that the top players on TV have been doing it for years, so you have to understand your limits and be reasonable."
And what is the scope for any more ambitious players?
"The progression would be to go to Finland, then into Europe – for instance someone was drafted to the [New England] Patriots from Germany last year, but that takes real dedication. Previous sporting activity, any ball sport experience is nice, but we have to start from scratch. I even have to sometimes teach people how to run. Some of the young guys are just on their phones, or playing computer games or watching TV and similar, so I have even had to teach them how to run."
And does Estonia's most famous NFL export, Margus Hunt, have a role to play?
"I've tried to get contact, and on interview even, as that could make a difference, but nothing so far (though Hunt recently gave ERR's sports portal an interview in Estonian-ed.)."
"[Baltimore Ravens Quarterback] Robert Griffin III is married to an Estonian track and field athlete (Grete Šadeiko-ed.); they did actually come here a couple of years ago and Griffin took part in a practice, which was a great boost but it would be good if the actual Estonian could take part, but it's his business. He also didn't grow up in American Football which may be why he doesn't have that much to say on establishing it here."
Ending on a positive note, Martti says they have had some success in their social media campaigns.
"For instance we had the 'shape (of the ball) doesn't matter' campaign; someone from Belgium contacted me to ask if they could use the slogan and idea, as did someone in Sweden."
There's also the ongoing NFL marketing in Europe which may raise awareness.
The NFL London schedule this season has seen four games take place at Wembley stadium and at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: the Oakland Raiders v the Chicago Bears, the Carolina Panthers v the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Los Angeles Rams v the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Houston Texans v the Jacksonville Jaguars – the latter very much the "home" London team, until such time as the NFL may establish a permanent team there, having played there seven times in recent years.
The Tallinn Kings Facebook page is here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte