American football may be the most popular sport in the United States, but it has had trouble catching on almost anywhere else, including in Taiwan.
A lack of familiarity with the sport, complicated rules and hefty equipment requirements have made it a particularly hard sell here, either as a spectator or participatory sport.
Some teams playing a simplified version of the sport -- flag football -- have sprung up in Taiwan, because there's no tackling and no need for the cumbersome pads and helmets.
But there were no local options for hardcore American football lovers until late 2015, when a group of players formed a tackle football squad with full gear called the Predators.
Now, just two-and-a-half-years later, the Taipei-based team will represent Taiwan in the amateur "City Bowl" American Football League of China (AFLC) in 2018 beginning in March.
Established in 2015 with only 12 teams, "City Bowl" is gaining popularity in the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Expanding over the years, the league will have a total of 25 teams in 2018, though the teams will not all play the same number of games.
The Predators have scheduled eight games, with four home games in Taipei.
"The goal for us is to be undefeated (in China's league)," Predators captain Adam Mathias told CNA on Jan. 21.
Playing American football in Taiwan would have been unfathomable just a few years ago, according to Andy Chou (???), the PR manager of the team.
Founded as a flag football team in early 2015 by Noah Yeh, one of Chou's high school friends, the team originally called itself the "Freaks."
A handful of people would regularly practice at an outdoor stadium near Taipei Arena on weekends, but after playing for a year or so, the Freaks and another more seasoned local flag football team, the Black Bears, decided to merge and play tackle football in full gear.
The idea was broached by Black Bears captain Chen Kuan-wen (???), who made history in 2011 when he joined the Meiji Yasuda Penta-Ocean Pirates Football Team in Japan's X-League, becoming the first native Taiwanese to compete overseas in an American football league.
The idea became a reality when each of the merged team's members purchased a complete set of gear from abroad at a cost of about NT$18,000 (US$600).
After several rounds of tryouts over the years, the team now has 57 players, with the youngest 17 and the oldest 45, according to Chou. Perhaps surprisingly, only 10 are foreign nationals or American-born ethnic Taiwanese.
For the love of the game
They come from many backgrounds and include a sushi chef and software engineers, and one member of the team comes from Hualien for practices. They are brought together by their passion for the game.
Mathias, a native of Idaho who played football in high school and has also competed as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, moved to Taiwan three years ago to work as a researcher at a cancer research center.
He said he found out about the Predators in 2016, and decided to join the team to share his knowledge and passion for the game with Taiwanese and help the sport grow locally.
"This is a very unique way for me to give back to Taiwan, of being a good guest here," he said, explaining that he loves the sport because it teaches a person important life lessons.
The game is less about physical ability as it might appear on the surface and more about mental toughness, he said.
"It is about perseverance, mental strength, and being a good teammate. All these things are important to real life. If you can carry those characteristics and apply them to real life, you can be successful," he said.
Another member of the team is Lewis Clark, who come to Taiwan in 2012 and teaches English here.
Clark played football at Division III school Denison University in Ohio but he can no longer play competitively because of injuries, he told CNA. Still, he wanted to stay close to the sport and decided to join the team as a coach.
Even with the right equipment and willing players, mounting an American football team in Taiwan still has plenty of challenges, including finding a suitable field.
Chou said the team has changed locations for practice several times, trying different soccer fields in riverside parks that were so bumpy, players were easily injured.
They finally found a proper soccer field at Taipei's Tianmu Sport Park in late 2017 where they now practice every Sunday.
But the field under the care of the University of Taipei's Tianmu Campus is not for rent, according to school authorities, meaning the team cannot reserve the space, Chou said.
Team members, therefore, have to get there early every Sunday to claim the field and make sure they can hold their four-hour practice.
"We are hoping to find a permanent location that can serve as our own stadium, where we can call home," Chou told CNA.
Another problem is finding local competition, since the Predators are the only fully equipped American football team in the country.
A team was formed in Kaohsiung last year, but it still lacks experienced players and cannot yet give the Predators much of a test.
So the team looked to Hong Kong, and despite the lack of a proper field on which to practice, the Taipei-based team won three of five games they played against two Hong Kong teams last year.
The Predators' two losses were to the Hong Kong Warhawks, one of the final four teams of the AFLC, but the games showed they were very competitive, and they are now full of anticipation for the 2018 AFLC season.
Competing overseas also means the team has to find sponsorship to cover travel and accommodation expenses for all 57 members. The lack of sponsorship means they have to pay for these away games themselves, a huge burden for the team.
The last time they traveled to Hong Kong, only 20-plus members were able to go, meaning each player had to play on both offense and defense with little rest, according to Chou.
Now, undaunted, they are hoping for more.
As Mathias said: "Our dream is to be the No. 1 team in Asia."
Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel