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The Irish Sporting Experience
August 12, 2013

May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been
The foresight to know where you’re going
And the insight to know when you’re going too far.
-Irish Blessing

From Dublin along the Irish Sea to Galway along the North Atlantic and down to Cork in the South near the Celtic Sea, University of Oklahoma student-athletes toured the beautiful landscape of the “Emerald Isle” for an enriching experience in sports and culture earlier this summer. Football student-athletes Blake Bell, Gabe Ikard and Trey Millard along with Sooner volleyball alum Morgan Reynolds studied abroad in Ireland for two-and-a-half weeks during the May intercession and took part in a Sport and Culture in Ireland course, offered by the College of Arts and Sciences.

The opportunity for current student-athletes to study abroad are few-and-far-between at nearly every Division I institution. This Sooner foursome relished the chance to be a part of something new and exciting that will be available to more OU student-athletes in the future.

“Most 20-year olds would jump at the chance to get college credit studying in another country,” said head football coach Bob Stoops. “The world is getting smaller every day and the study abroad program is just one way that OU is setting itself apart from other schools.”

“Overall, the experience was awesome,” stated Bell, a redshirt-junior quarterback. “Students in athletics, including football players, don’t usually get a chance to study abroad. We had a great time. Being able to go over with a couple of my best friends in college made it even better to enjoy.”

Bell, Ikard and Millard became the first group of Sooner football players actively taking part in their sport to study abroad. Others had done it upon the completion of their athletic careers.

“We have been able to create courses where student-athletes can take the general-education upper division courses so they will definitely be applicable to their program of study,” said Jennifer Jarvis-Denny, the study abroad coordinator within OU Athletics and the foreign language center coordinator. “President David Boren has a goal of half the student population studying abroad and we want to match that with our efforts here. In this day and age, a student cannot afford to not have an experience traveling or studying abroad. Globalization is a term that is thrown around, but is such a real term in this day and age and students need to have a better understanding about citizenship and to go and experience another culture.”

In order to fit an entire class into a condensed two-and-a-half week timeframe, the program was less about classrooms and lectures and more about hands-on learning and real-life experience. The course offered the student-athletes the chance to actively observe and participate in the Gaelic Games, an event that features the premier traditional sports of Ireland; Gaelic football and hurling.

The main events of the games are held at Croke Park in Dublin. The stadium, which holds 82,300 of Ireland’s most ecstatic and intense fans, is known to the locals as Croker. Its history dates back to its opening in 1913 and was made infamous by the Bloody Sunday massacre during the Irish War of Independence in 1920, which inspired the U2 song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on their 1983 War album, up to hosting the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

“We toured Croke Park, which is the biggest stadium in Ireland and fourth biggest in Europe,” recalled Reynolds. “It was gorgeous.”

Croke Park’s capacity may closely resemble that of Oklahoma’s Memorial Stadium, but both the stadium and the pitch are far different than the familiar setting that surrounds Owen Field. The grandstands form a horseshoe around the field, which is 144.5m long by 88m wide, roughly twice the area of a collegiate football field. The stadium is also stripped of modern amenities athletes have become accustomed to. For instance, locker rooms are just that. Locker rooms.

“It was kind of bland,” said Ikard, a redshirt-senior center. “[The stadium] was nice, but it just wasn’t plush like ours is. It was just wood and cement and it seemed like that’s all they need. It kind of goes along with their style. It was still a very nice facility and it would be really fun to play a football game in there.”

Note: Croker has hosted four NCAA football games since 1988 and will host its fifth when Penn State and UCF open the 2014 season there.

Only the top-level matches in both Gaelic football and hurling are played at Croke Park as a part of the Gaelic Games. The top athletes are considered professionals, but they are not paid. All maintain full-time jobs and are only able to monetize their athletic careers through endorsements.

“For not getting paid, it’s incredible to see what these athletes put their bodies through for the sport they love,” said Reynolds. “Dedication to do it is really just out of pride and honor.”

A trade not properly learned is an enemy.
-Irish Proverb

The majority of hands-on experience and interaction with the event’s participants came at the Gaelic Games Experience. Gaelic football and hurling teams are formed in parishes and counties throughout the country and are separated by age groups, ranging from three-year-old youth divisions to 50-plus divisions. The experience is not limited to the traditional parish teams, but is open for anyone to join. Clubs from international colleges, men spending a weekend to celebrate a bachelor party or staff members on a corporate retreat make up the rosters of several squads on any given weekend.

Depending on level of experience, participants are taken through training sessions to better familiarize themselves with or learn the new game entirely.

“It was really interesting to learn the sports by getting to play them,” stated Ikard. “It gave us a new respect for the skills that their games involve. It’s one of those things where you have to start when you’re young or else you’re a lost cause like I was at them.”

The consensus among the Sooners was that hurling was near impossible to pick up, but Gaelic football offered an opportunity to showcase some youth soccer skills acquired long before their Sooner careers on the gridiron.

“I was the best one at playing Gaelic football,” Millard, a senior running back, fondly remembered. “Because I played soccer, I kind of had the footwork down.”

As for hurling; “nobody was good at hurling…nobody was even close to being good at hurling,” added Millard.

Gaelic football is a strictly amateur contact sport played with a spherical leather ball between squads of 15 players with the objective of scoring points by passing the ball through the other team’s goal for three points or through the uprights for one.

Hurling’s similarities to Gaelic football include the field and squad size as well as scoring objective. The differences lie in the equipment. Hurling is played with a small ball called a sliotar, which players must hit through the goal or over the crossbar to score by using their stick, known as a hurley.

“Gaelic football was the easiest to learn because it was more of a football/rugby/soccer-style game,” said Bell. “We could all remember playing soccer at recess when we were kids and everyone at least knows the game, but hurling was the hardest. It’s almost impossible to learn if you haven’t been playing since you were young.”

Leprechauns, castles, good luck and laughter,
Lullabies, dreams and love ever after.
A thousand welcomes when anyone comes…
That’s the Irish for You!
-Irish Blessing

The ability of such a program to be truly successful and enriching relies heavily on a nation’s citizens and the culture that has been built around them. The Sooner student-athletes were met at every turn with a smile and helping hand as they made their way through the Gaelic Games Experience.

The sporting culture in Ireland offered an opportunity to peer into the lives of the country’s people and gain perspective of a country’s tradition-rich sports, which for the most part are only known within its own borders.

“We got to see how widespread sports are throughout the entire country,” stated Ikard. “We went to some rural places and they’re still prevalent; both Gaelic football and hurling. You just get to see how the Irish people really do love those games and how intertwined they are with the culture there.”

The staff of the Gaelic Games and the people of Ireland welcomed the Sooners with open arms and not only provided comfort and friendship, but also the kind of insight into a culture that could not be gained from 4,366 miles; the distance between Norman and Dublin.

“There is so much tradition and sports are such a part of who they are as a people,” said Millard. “The games are something that they want to do and they love doing it.”

“It was my first time being abroad,” said Reynolds. “People in Ireland were so welcoming and sweet. Even though there are thousands of miles between us, people are really similar. It was all about family and your community and culture. As student-athletes, we realized how blessed we are to play and get so much in return for it.”

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