The Magnificent Seven
Words by Bruin White
“Have you really travelled hours to Cornwall, beaten teams triple the size of you to let it slip now?” said one London Warriors player to David Pepper, a rookie Solent Thrashers linebacker.
We’re always taught that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog. We’re taught not to fear failure. That we don’t know our limits until we push ourselves beyond them. We don’t know how close we ever were to success if we give up. That greatness is upon us. Be phenomenal or be forgotten. Don’t cry to quit - cry to keep going.
A British American Football coach awoke to the “Marimba” alarm of a black iPhone 5 and slipped on a pair of black Nike Roshe Runs. On the way out the front door, the forty-two year old picked his black quarter zip jacket from the coat hook before heading to his car. His black Nike shell tracksuit pants sat down in the driver’s seat of a black Volkswagen Passat. He puts the key in and starts the engine. The car’s in-built radio display illuminates a faint sage green, then takes a second to load before the plexiglass flashes to read:
Coach Marc White was an old school football coach. Hard-nosed, aggressive and took no rubbish.
A former player, White’s playing days ended a few years prior. He’d been coaching for around five years, and this was his third season with the Solent Thrashers under-17 team. No longer a force on the field, White was now best known for shouting at players who’d made a mistake - opposition players often remembering him as ‘that coach’ for years after playing one of his teams.
He wasn’t all that bad, though. In fact, if you could play mistake-free football, you would probably say he was quite easy to get along with. Never miss a tackle, never drop a pass, never commit a turnover. Block when you need to. Don’t talk back to the coach. Don’t give up, don’t back down, don’t be intimidated, don’t trash talk, don’t retaliate. Don’t miss practice. Don’t be late for gameday. Don’t leave practice nor gameday early. If you could manage all of this, you were almost safe. Some players had even walked away from the team because they couldn’t hack his ‘shouty’ coaching style, but what remained after all that faintheartedness had been stripped back is the tough-minded, resilient, old school football players - akin and analogous with their coach. The guys who would say he was quite easy to get along with; mistake-free football players.
Some may have said that Coach White ‘ruled by fear’, but that’s not to mean he wasn’t a smart coach as well. White’s under-17 Thrashers offense had been thoroughly productive throughout the 2015 season, with 27 passing touchdowns and 16 rushing touchdowns in 12 regular season games. That’s a total of 43 offensive touchdowns with 2 defensive touchdowns, 2 defensive safeties and a load of extra points to add to the scoresheet. White’s age-old philosophy of keeping possession of the ball - looking after the ball on offense and hunting for it on defense - meant the team was winning the ‘turnover battle’ so far, committing just 10 while forcing 18. The team had won most of its games this year, but finished the season with a three-game losing streak. Fortunately, they’d just snuck into the playoffs off the back of a 7-5 record - but the losing streak, coupled with the location of where the playoffs were being held, had deterred a few spare ball players from making themselves available for the Wildcard playoffs. Being the old school coach that he is, though - for as long as he had enough players to ‘fill the field’ - Coach White would never back down from playing a down of football, no matter how small the chances of success were. All they needed at this stage was one shot - 3 straight wins would send them to Britbowl.
So, in the early hours of August 22nd 2015, Coach White left his Basingstoke residence behind to travel to Cornwall for the biggest day of his youth football coaching career. His son, me (!) - Quarterback for the team - left with him alongside a school friend, Adam Potts, who was the team’s Running Back - a pavonine runner, who was as fast as anyone in the league. The pair had stayed at Coach White’s house the previous night to assure awaking in time for the early departure. They had planned to leave at 6am but, for one reason or another, they just couldn’t wait to get to Cornwall that day.
The youth, under-17 game is played as a miniature version of the game as seen on television. Until a player steps up to play in the 16-19 age range, plays ball at university, or plays at the adult’s 18+ level, they will play a 5v5, half-sized field model of the game that is designed to teach British kids the basics of American Football. As opposed to a three-hour game with four quarters, the u17 gamedays were split into 4-team tournaments where each team plays 3 mini games, each of around 40 minutes in length.These fifty-yard gridirons had five-yard endzones and were occupied by 14 to 17 year old kids, though they sure as hell saw their fair share of knocks and bangs - and, as expected of one of Marc White’s teams, the Solent Thrashers u17s were amongst the hardest hitting of them all.
First stop on the journey: Southampton.
On a surprisingly wintry morning for late August, the wheels of the coach’s black Volkswagen span down the slick tarmac on the southbound M3, slipping off at Junction 14 to merge onto the M27 West. They exited at Junction 3 to join the M271 towards Redbridge, getting off at the next opportunity to turn onto Lower Brownhill Road - the road on which lies Test Park, home of the Solent Thrashers. The saloon crept slowly into the Test Park car park around 5:50am. The trio are met by a pair of coaches who await them with the team minibus. Other players are yet to arrive.
“We’re expecting 8”, Coach White says to Jon Holloway, the team’s defensive assistant. Together with ‘Mr V’, another assistant coach, the coaches list out which players are expected to turn up for the game.
Bruin White, jersey number 5. Quarterback. Tom Moore, jersey number 85. Wide receiver. Harry Elton-Dobbin, jersey number 75. Offensive lineman.
Matt Payne, jersey number 82. Wide receiver. Adam Potts, jersey number 24. Running back. David Pepper, jersey number 99. Linebacker. Toby Naylor, jersey number 16. Linebacker. Ben Fuge, jersey number 51. Defensive lineman.
Only seven of those eight ever showed up.
Lineman Harry Elton-Dobbin had travelled up the night before with his father (current Seahawks GM Clive Dobbin) and stayed in a hotel nearby to the gameday venue, and this left just 3 coaches and 6 players to populate a very empty and cold minibus.
Second stop: Cartgate.
The sun began to rise at 6:13am although, by the time the team bus left the meeting point at 6:30, it was still very much dark.
The minibus itself was shockingly awful. The Thrashers youth and junior teams had always rented one of these for away fixtures. The seating was uncomfortable to say the least - a rough grey cover is all that cushioned passengers from a hard, probably wooden seat and back support. In addition to their stiffness, the arrangement of the seats seemed rather random and unmethodical: some were in pairs, some were in threes, while others were standalone. There was no clear aisle in between the seats to walk down, and no rhyme or reason as to why the seats were the way they were. Ignoring the ugliness of it all, however, the bus did get the job done. On this day, the journey was almost completely silent, too; despite the unwelcoming seats, every young baller slept in the back. That is until they reach the service station.
Jon had driven the van to Cartgate Lodge Cafe, where they arrived around 8am. To call it a service station is somewhat an overstatement - a small cafe and toilets is all that was there. Tiny in comparison to other service stations, yet functional. By this time, the weather was dry but still crisp, and the sky shone a deafeningly bland grey. The sort of heather grey shade one can find in those Nike sweatpants and hoodies from any local sports shop. This was the brightest it would get all day.
After a quick stop, the players loaded themselves back onto the bus and Mr V took over from Jon to drive the last stretch into deepest Cornwall.
Third stop: Newquay.
My plan was to go back to sleep again on the bus. There was an obstruction to this, however, as Mr V - real name Paul Verling, a rather quiet man in his late middle ages - saw himself in the driver’s seat and connected his phone to the bus radio. A bizarre hotchpotch medley of 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s hip hop, hard rock and assorted dance classics blared from the Transit’s speaker system from that point until they got to Newquay. The playlist surprised all in attendance, not at all what anyone had expected from him - yet, this was the least unpredictable event of the entire day from that point on.
The players and coaches arrived in Newquay at 10:45 and were greeted by a locked gate. It was just over an hour before the games were supposed to start, and none of the other teams had arrived yet - not even the hosting team, the Cornish Sharks. Harry and his father received word that the rest of the team had arrived and hastily made their way down. Once the other teams turned up, the Thrashers were allowed into the facility and got off the bus. The clouds in Cornwall were a much darker shade of grey than they’d been at the service station. A blistering sea breeze that took your breath away flew across the hilly landscape, before flurrying around and bringing with it the slashing rain. It was the kind of rain that stings your skin, and it was on and off all day.
The players went to get dressed in the changing rooms. The horrific hum of what is more like a squat den than a locker room met the team with their first step inside the unkept building. Deserted belongings, old plasters and bits of tape with dry mud stuck to them littered the greasy floor that was straight out of a Saw film. The wind cut through the gaps between the frosted glass windows and the window pane, creating a high-pitch whistle. In the other room were the toilets, which were unbearable - a dark room, which had barely any light to reveal the furry crystals growing from the urinals. The place reeked the kind of stench that left a bitter taste in your mouth. Nobody wasted any time, and were in and out of the abominable building as quickly as possible. The last two remaining were Coach White and son, as he taped up my ankles in my signature gameday style.
The Thrashers were the underdogs in this competition. They were not expected to win a game, and many expected them to not show up. They’d only been to the wildcard playoff tournament once before, the previous year in 2014, and had not fared particularly well. They lost the first two games convincingly, but managed to squeeze a victory out of the London Warriors at the end of the afternoon, 22-12. The Thrashers themselves were not expecting to win - turning up with 7 players for a 5-on-5 tournament was surely not going to end well. Teams of that size were usually trampled on by teams with bigger squads and more rested players. In fact, the league guidelines stated that a team should have 9 or more players to register for league competition that year, so taking just 7 to the playoffs was basically unheard of.
The Thrashers’ first game of the day wasn’t until the other teams had already played one, and the first games were pushed back because the London Warriors had gotten caught in traffic - so the young Solent team had more time than anyone to warm up. They spent some time on the field, throwing around the footballs to get used to gripping it in the wet conditions and so on. Their first game was against the Essex Spartans, a large favourite in this tournament. The Spartans had brought with them 23 kitted players. Second would be the Farnham Knights, who’d dressed 18. And their last game, for the second year in a row, was the late-arriving London Warriors who had with them 16 players. Not long before their first game was set to start, Coach White sent them all back to the minibus. The plan was to get warm and dry off a bit before going back out into the weather.
Gathering the players’ attention, the coaches gave a talk while everyone was seated on the bus. The coaches communicated that the scoreboard was irrelevant, as long as everybody played as hard as they could and gave everything they had. Coach White took the podium at the front of the
bus and said: “If I had to pick any 7 guys to play, it would be this 7”. Behind his head was the minibus’ red digital 24-hour clock, which was quickly approaching 13:00.
When each player emerged from the minibus, a switch had been flicked. It was strictly business. No joking around, no complaining. No missed tackles, no dropped passes, no turnovers. Blocks so hard there were kids knocked out cold on the field. No talking back to the coach. Never giving up, never backing down, never intimidated, never trash talking, never retaliating. Hard-nosed, aggressive, mistake-free football. There was no room for error - there was a challenge to leave their legacy as the Magnificent 7. Complete focus.
If ‘always outnumbered, never outgunned’ was true, this was the day to prove it.
Final stop: Britbowl.