Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Families to New Zealanders: Just Make Us Proud at JWC

The capital of New Zealand is Wellington. Incorrect information originally appeared in this story.

As Team New Zealand prepared to board an airplane for the start of a 37-hour trek to the IFAF Junior World Championship, parents pulled their sons aside.

They used different words but had the same simple message.

“I was standing near three families all saying the same thing, though in three different languages,” New Zealand head coach Michael Mau’u said Wednesday after his team’s first practice at Walsh University. “They told them, ‘You are going to represent your country and your family. Make us proud.’ ”

So began the long journey for one of the world’s youngest football programs.

Organized football began just 12 years ago in New Zealand, a country whose capital, Wellington, is 8,459 miles from Canton. Football there is so new that Mau’u had to go to Australia to play in his younger days, and played against his home country during the early stages of New Zealand’s international competition.

“The first time Australia played New Zealand, there’s my family in green and gold (Australia’s colors) surrounded by New Zealand’s black jerseys but cheering right along,” Mau’u said. Eventually, he donned New Zealand black as well.

“I tried to explain to the kids what this is all about, what it’s like to play for your country,” he said. “But until they walked in here, I don’t think they really believed me.”

New Zealand and Canada open the eight-nation tournament Saturday at Fawcett Stadium. Quarterback Sloan MacAskill hopes the temperature is cool for the 10 a.m. kickoff. It’s winter in New Zealand, and frost covered the ground the day the team departed.

“It’s hot here. I can tell you that,” MacAskill said when asked about his first impressions of the United States. “It doesn’t feel like half a world away, though.”

MacAskill and his teammates flew first to San Francisco, then waited out a nine-hour layover for a flight to Chicago. A bus ride to Canton gave them a clear view of the American Midwest.

Wednesday was the team’s first chance to stretch their legs on a U.S. practice field. Running back Dan Tavaga impressed onlookers with his speed and maneuverability.

The 5-foot-5, 157-pound slasher took a variety of pitches as the team drilled.

“I like running against the big guys,” Tavaga said. “I sometimes even like getting tackled. It psychs me up.”

Tavaga ran for both touchdowns in his team’s 12-7 win over Australia to clinch a spot at Fawcett. That they come in as the No. 8 seed and heavy underdogs does not faze this group.

Team members had to finance their way here, paying about $2,800 each in American dollars. Because of that, only 37 players made the trip. The ones that did are not taking lightly the sacrifice their families made.

“Our team is very Polynesian influenced, very family influenced,” Mau’u said. “When we played Australia, all the kids had their own rooms but there was a central kitchen area and they all drug their mattresses there to sleep together. Team unity is not something we work at. It’s something they expect and come by naturally.”

Whether that results in wins remains to be seen.

“National honor means everything to us,” Mau’u said. “I told the team to play with no regrets. You can’t leave something in the tank and think what could have been after it’s done. That doesn’t mean we’re just happy to be here. We’ll take our shot at victory if it’s there.”

They’ve come too far not to.

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