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American Football in the Dominican Republic
Large men, bone-crushing violent hits and testosterone overload are some of the most recognizable aspects of American full-contact football. This sport, traditionally popular only in the United States, is now spreading its boundaries and establishing itself as a popular sporting event in many countries around the world. The National Football League has expanded its operations to Mexico and Europe, and has even ventured as far away as Japan to try to gain new interest. In 1994 112,376 fans packed into Aztec Stadium in Mexico City to watch the Dallas Cowboys play the Houston Oilers and again in 2005 Mexico City hosted the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals in a game attended by 103,467 fans.

In the most unlikely of places, football is gaining a small but dedicated following, which only looks to grow as time progresses. Although it may come as a surprise to many Dominicans, American football has a history in this small Caribbean country dating back to the early 1980s and a new found interest is being cultivated with the emergence of the Dominican Football League, and its marquee team, the Dominican Raiders.

On Mondays and Saturdays on a mostly sand-filled field at the Olympic Stadium in Santo Domingo you’ll find a somewhat odd and unexpected spectacle. Instead of watching young men throwing a baseball around, chasing after major league dreams, you’ll find a group of dedicated athletes putting it all on the line during grueling four-hour practices. From a distance you’d think you were somewhere in Florida or Texas watching a high school football team practice for a championship football game against cross-city rivals. It’s almost like a live episode of Friday Night Lights when you hear the loud yelling and the non-stop whistling. Most of the yelling comes from Ross Levy-Tovar, who coaches this group of aspiring young players. As Ross yells out instructions and advice, the intensity and love for the game becomes clearly evident. Players run the oft-hated football drills in 90-degree heat with the anxious excitement of putting on their pads and getting down to business. Sweat is at a premium at these practices and so are the typical cuts and bruises that accompany the sport, but it only pushes these players to go harder and do more. An NFL contract isn’t on the line for any of these players, neither is a high school or college scholarship. But none of this is enough to deter them from playing.

As onlookers stand in awe considering only the violent aspect of the sport, proclaiming that anyone who plays such a sport has to be mad, you can overhear the murmurs from players discussing the difference between a zone defenses, man-to-man coverage and who covers the flat when there is a corner blitz. Instead of worrying about who’s playing in the MLB All-Star game, these players are on the sidelines arguing about whether or not Tom Brady is better than Peyton Manning or if the New Orleans Saints’ success was just a fluke. When the players put their pads on and start playing you get an understanding of just how young the sport is in the DR, but it’s enough to motivate them to keep playing and practicing. Each play is used as an opportunity to learn and teach, and each hike of the football is just another example of how far this sport has come in such a short time.

The Dominican Raiders, the league’s marquee team, started in 1983 under the tutelage of Coach Henry Moret training in the Velodromo at the Olympic Center. Soon after, Ross Levy-Tovar and his father, Coach Arthur J. Levy, got involved and organized the purchase of equipment for the team and got down to business doing exhibitions after only eight weeks of practice. When Coach Moret left the DR soon after, Coach Arthur J. Levy took over as Head Coach of the Raiders.

The name of the Dominican Raiders was agreed on early in 1983. In those days the team was also known as the “Cazadores Dominicanos” because at the time McDonald’s and cable TV were not yet here and English language terminology and trademarks were not as commonplace as they are now.

Back then, practices were held on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 9am-about 12-noon every week – all year round. Starting in 1984, international games were played with teams from Puerto Rico and Florida. The original team was also divided into blue and red squads to play some exhibition series in the DR, including games at the UASD as well as at the National Games held in San Pedro de Macoris in 1985. The Raiders continued to play international games with teams from Puerto Rico such as the Ponce Lions, Rio Piedras Blitz, and San Juan Fires several times each year. From 1983 until the present the only football structures that existed were two teams, the Dominican Raiders (1983-2000) and the UNIBE Knights (1995-2000), although there was no football league or overarching authority.

Every year since 2000 many of the original Raiders got together several times a year and floated ideas ranging from youth programs to arena football, but what made 2006 different was a real motivation to get something done. In addition to the players who had been playing Flag-Football regularly for the previous three or four years, the original Raiders got together in August/September when the NFL season was kicking off to watch the games together. What “ignited” full contact football’s revival was that in September Levy-Tovar was contacted by Jeurys Perez, leader of a group of students from the UASD who had been playing contact football without equipment for a few months. They were looking for a coach. Coincidentally, he was looking for a team. The training was tough and a few players couldn’t hang, but then more members came to every practice, and started attracting better athletes too. Then in late November, after a weeknight game of Flag-Football, some players were throwing around ideas when Rudy Pantaleon, a former Dominican Raider said, “let’s just get the gear from all the Raiders and start training”. Within a week, practices started at the UASD.
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