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American Football in the Dominican Republic
This year there was renewed determination to get the full-contact football concept off the ground again. As a plan was being formulated for the rebirth of the Dominican Raiders, it was obvious that the league would be limiting itself and the development of the sport if it didn’t set up an overarching structure to develop more teams, while continuing with the flag-football program, while providing opportunities for kids and young people to develop football skills. Thus the DFL took form.

Speaking to Dr. Ross A. Levy-Tovar, President and General Coordinator of the DFL, you get a real idea of how far this league has come and how far it has to go. Levy-Tovar, one of the key figures in developing the sport in the country during the last 24 years, speaks passionately about the sport that he loves. Asked about the difficulties about getting the league off the ground, he explains that coordinating schedules for everyone who is involved in the project is not easy, although there is no shortage of spirit or enthusiasm. The greatest accomplishment so far has been to form a nucleus of players and the league has reached the point of no return.

As for support, Levy-Tovar explains that the Governor of the Central Bank and the Central Bank Club Board of Directors really helped out by permitting the use of their facilities for the first exhibition of the year in February. Dominican Sports Minister Jay Payano has been very open and accessible for the DFL over the last few months. Some private sector sponsors have always been there for the league, such as Coca-Cola and Jugos Rica. Several other companies have supported their efforts from time to time, such as Hormigones Moya, Event2, Cyan!, Occidental Hotels – Hotel Embajador, and Efyciencia.

As for reactions to the sport in the country, Ross says that people are intrigued by what they see as a novelty. Although the sport has been played here for nearly a quarter of a century, it was never at a very public level. But Luis Castillo’s play in the NFL has been one of the league’s greatest successes and will be one of the driving forces in the development of the game in the Dominican Republic. In March NFL All-Pro Luis Castillo (Defensive Tackle, San Diego Chargers) spent an entire Saturday afternoon with players at a practice and held a great clinic with hundreds of school kids and an exhibition at the Olympic Stadium. Luis’s presence here helped to increase the sport’s profile, which is what the league is all about. His photos grace the cover of sports pages during the NFL season, and although Dominicans might not entirely understand the sport, many proudly follow his professional career.

What about the players themselves? Speaking to Jose Sajour and Vianco Martinez is to meet two players who love the sport and see beyond the mere gratuitous violence that is often marketed by fancy sport executives. Sajour and Martinez are both 18 years old and have been playing organized football with the Raiders for about a year now. Both players were long-distance fans of the sport until they happened to visit Internet forums and were introduced to the Dominican league. When asked why he loves the game and why he was attracted to football and not any other sport, Sajour says that it’s simple. According to him American football is a sport that combines strength, agility and intelligence, and is a sport that develops character and discipline. Sajour adds that it’s a game of strategy and that the biggest and strongest player does not always win, alluding to the fact that the brain is just as important a tool for winning. Vianco says that he loves playing on teams and that on a football squad you have to play as one unit. Neither player, like most of the league’s participants, is worried about getting hit. Although neither player had any previous experience of playing football, they weren’t deterred from the new challenge. And this is a credit to the league as it accepts players regardless of their experience. As for the reception of the sport with the average Dominican, both players agree that they have been sidelined/looked at with suspicion because they play the sport, and say that in general, people don’t understand the game. Most Dominicans, as they pointed out, only see the sport as violent, and can’t manage to see beyond that aspect, which has pushed many potential athletes away. Regardless, playing football has benefits that these players and the rest of the league’s participants want to make the most of. Vianco says that beyond the physical aspect of staying in shape, it’s the fact that he can share something he loves among a select group of guys he has come to call his friends. To what extent will the sport develop in the country in the next 5, 10 or 15 years? Well, both players feel that as long as people like Ross keep promoting the game there is no limit to where the sport can go. The challenges that the sport faces include getting sponsorship, but until now neither player is letting this put a damper on the game they love. Sajour, who happens to be a Baltimore Ravens fan, says that he will continue playing the sport as long as his body allows him to do so, and Vianco, a San Diego Chargers fan, seconds that notion.

Also helping spread the game in the country is the development of the Flag Football League, which has grown in parallel to the full-contact league. For those who appreciate the game, but are not in such a rush to strap on the pads, the flag football league provides an alternative that has also helped the game’s popularity among Dominicans. Since 2003 the league has been competing competitively, even holding tournaments. Eventually Oneybuchi Ebo appeared on the scene, promoting a World Cup of Flag-Football that took place in Puerto Plata in February 2004. As it turns out, the World Cup of Flag-Football was a great success, Ebo, or Buchi, as he is called, decided to stay in the DR and has helped with the league’s continuing growth.

The future
The future is bright for the DFL. There are efforts to expand the league nationally and on the 7th of December Rio Piedras Blitz from Puerto Rico will be visiting the DR to play against the Raiders. There are also plans for an International Tournament - the America’s Caribbean Cup - scheduled for February-March 2008. This will be an invitational event involving teams from 8 to 12 countries and 600 players and staff are expected to make the trip for the 12-day tournament. As the league expands there are already three other teams in the works: the UASD Saber Cats – Santo Domingo, the Puerto Plata Warriors (Guerreros de Puerto Plata), and the Santiago Eagles (Eagles de Santiago)

The biggest hurdle that has to be overcome is the public’s lack of knowledge about American Football. The league has to entertain and educate, inspire and impart knowledge, promote interest in a tough sport at the same time as teaching the respect and camaraderie that define the sport. This is the cultural barrier, but there is a core group of players and coaches who are willing to see this vision through.
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