By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Here in the United States when one speaks of football he or she is referring to the game where players strap on shoulder pads, pull on their helmets and line up on a gridiron and the offense attempts to move the ball down the field against the defense, keeping possession by gaining 10 yards for a first down with the intent of crossing the goal line and scoring a touchdown.
In the United Kingdom football is the term used to describe soccer, a totally different sport that is the national sport of Great Britain and many countries around the globe.
John Gibson is in the United Kingdom playing football, or American football as it is called there, and he is having a great time playing the game he so loves.
A member of Bluefield High School state championship teams in 2007 and 2009, and a first team all-state performer as an offensive lineman his senior year of ’09, Gibson, a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, is spending time abroad at Swansea University in Wales.
“This semester I waned to study abroad somewhere in the UK,” Gibson said. “I decided to go to Swansea University in Wales amid influence from the International Office at UNCW.
“When I arrived here I was looking at the various sports clubs they offered and it so happened American football was one. So I phoned up the president of the club and he sorted me out some equipment and then I went to practice the next day and ended up staying with it throughout the season.”
Gibson is one of three Americans on the team. While there are some differences between the game in the U.K. and the U.S., there are also some similarities.
“Of course you don’t have the crowds of people that are present at Beaver games at Mitchell Stadium, but as far as the general style of play goes, it’s quite similar,” Gibson noted. “Most of the guys who play on the team have grown up playing rugby, so they have a similar experience.”
While rugby and soccer are more prevalent in the U.K., Gibson sees American football expanding its scope.
“American football is becoming more and more popular over here,” Gibson noted. “I think within the next few years it will really begin to take off.
“There are more than 50 universities in the U.K. that offer American football programs, including Oxford and Cambridge. There is also the British American Football National League that offers football programs outside of the universities.
“They have club teams which are arranged in three groups — an under 17 group, an under 19 group, and an adult league which is comprised of over 50 teams across the U.K.”
Gibson said his teammates have a good general knowledge of the game and he has introduced them to some different blocking schemes and special teams plays. Conversely, he said his Welsh teammates have taught him different offensive schemes and play calls.
Gibson talked about the league in which he played and about Swansea advancing to and winning the championship.
“The season started in November and I didn’t arrive in Swansea until mid-January,” Gibson pointed out. “So by the time I got here they had already finished the first half of the season.
“Our record was 1-3, then from there on out we played six more games, all of which we won, including one game against a senior league team, the South Wales Warriors.
“The competition varied, but it was a dogfight against teams like the South Wales Warriors and our rivals Cardiff.”
Swansea won the championship by defeating Cardiff 36-14.
An aspect of the game Gibson said is different across the Atlantic Ocean is the amount of extracurricular activity, as it is sometimes called, on the field.
“One of the many things that makes English football so popular is the number of fights and belligerent activities that happen on the field,” Gibson said. “I mean sometimes it can get absolutely ridiculous, but it’s always entertaining.”
Despite the occasional fisticuffs on the gridiron, Gibson cherishes the opportunity he has had.
“The guys on the team were great and they will be my friends for life,” Gibson said. “And just being able to play again, I love football and never in my life thought that I would have the opportunity to play again.”
UNC Wilmington does not have a football program on either the varsity or club level.
Nearly 20 year ago NFL Europe, whose commissioner was current West Virginia University Athletic Director Oliver Luck, had teams in Glasgow, London and cities on the European continent.
Gibson believes despite the fact the league no longer exists, there is a groundswell for the game in the U.K.
“American football is taking off here more than it ever has before,” Gibson noted. “With the emergence of the British American Football National League there are so many club teams that are getting the youth involved in football. And the senior teams, especially the large ones in London, are reaching out to a larger audience and gaining spectators.”
While Europeans have played in the NFL as kickers and punters, Gibson said the day will come when it will not be uncommon to see non-American position player on NFL teams.
“At this year’s draft Lawrence Okoye, an Olympian discus thrower and rugby player was signed by the (San Francisco) 49ers. He had amazing stats at the Combine and I believe the 49ers hope to play him as a defensive tackle, or end.”
A history major with a minor in political science, Gibson hopes to graduate within the next year-and-a-half, go to law school and in his words, “hopefully take over my father’s business.”
Gibson is the son of attorney Michael Gibson and Ruth McCulloch, who both live in Bluefield.
Gibson plans to return to the U.S. in mid-June. Asked what has been the most fulfilling part of his semester abroad he said, “The places I have been, the experiences I’ve had, but mostly the friends I have made here.
“I have met so many wonderful people here. It’s a bittersweet feeling to think about the idea of going home. I have made friends for life and I just hope to be able to maintain those friendships throughout my future. I hope and pray that I get the chance to return to the U.K. in the near future.”
— Contact Bob Redd at