Suffolk's gridiron hero
PUBLISHED: 11:01 11 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:08 20 February 2013
An Englishman playing American Football? If that alone has curiosity value, Elmswell's Brian Jelley is still playing the game he loves at the age of 51. Nick Richards marvels at his drive and still strong competitive instincts
An Englishman playing American Football? If that alone has curiosity value, Elmswells Brian Jelley is still playing the game he loves at the age of 51. Nick Richards marvels at his drive and still strong competitive
For the third summer in a row the big sports story in America was whether veteran quarterback Brett Favre would continue playing.
Favre, probably Americas third most famous man in his forties behind Barack Obama and Tom Cruise, retired from American footballs National Football League in 2008, but has now reversed that decision three times to keep on playing.
The 41-year-old attracts plenty of attention from the NFL media circus, mostly due to his age and incredible record of starting every game since September 1992. Once again his detractors believe his delayed decision to play another year was all an act.
I think he enjoys the publicity that he gets, says Brian Jelley, who is a decade older than Favre and still playing the game at 51. Its almost becoming an American institution, the will-he, wont-he play at the start of the next season.
Brian, who lives in Elmswell, has played for five sides in Britain since taking up the sport as he turned 30 and, like the amazing Favre, just keeps going despite enduring similar questions about just when hes going to pack up the physically demanding sport.
Id love to retire, he says with a smile.
Ive said next season will be my last, but my wife Emma is taking that with a pinch of salt because Ill get to the end of the season and Ill think I can still perform. The yardstick Ive always given myself is if Im standing on the sideline for most of the game and not participating as a player then I will call it a day.
Brian plays in the centre of the offensive line for the Cambridgeshire Cats. His job is essentially to protect the quarterback and during the game he can expect to come face to face with the beefiest defenders on the opposing team.
Standing at 6ft 2ins and topping the scales at 20 stone makes Brian the ideal figure to take part in the rough and tumble sport but, despite his imposing frame, hes used to taking a battering during and after games.
At my age it does take longer to heal when you get injuries and thats something Im aware of too. Its usually the Tuesday when I get up and find my legs arent working after a game on the Sunday.
During a game there are points when you feel pain. Like in any physical sport, the game has the ethos of hurting and being injured. If youre injured you come off, if youre hurting a bit, you carry on and play.
Recent studies in America have equated the hits or collisions in the sport to be around 100gs, the equivalent of driving a car into a wall at 25mph without a seatbelt on, but for anyone who plays American football, that adds to the appeal.
I expect it to be painful. Youre trying to inflict as much pain on somebody else really as theyre trying to inflict on you. You expect that youre going to get some problems.
Ive not really had any bad injuries although I did break both bones in my forearm in 1993 during a game for Cambridge. I tackled the running back and held him up and didnt drag him to the ground. My colleagues came into the pile to hit us down and somebodys helmet went straight in the side of my left arm. The outside bone was shattered in three parts. I had both sides plated.
Serious injuries in the sport are thankfully rare and kept to a minimum due to a ruling that makes on-site medical care mandatory. Brian, who works for Hewlett Packard as a business developer, says this is an essential if costly aspect of the sport.
There is a requirement that you have to have proper medical cover, which the home team pays for. Without it the officials wont start the game. It costs 250 per game to have an ambulance at the ground, which is the biggest expense to putting a game on.
At our standard I think thats enough cover. If you look at senior rugby games theyll have a doctor there as well but then thats really for the blood injuries. In American football its more bone breaks and knee injuries. But all sports have an element of risk you can break your leg playing football or break your nose trying to catch a cricket ball.
Avoiding serious injury is one key reason that has enabled Brian to keep playing into his fifties, the other is a tough regime leading up to a match.
From Thursday night onwards I wont drink any alcohol, says Brian in serious tone. That can be tough if youve got something on. I might occasionally have a glass of wine if were at a party or Im going for a meal, but I never drink to excess. In American football, when youre getting blows to the head, you cannot do it.
Because we play in the summer its hot and when youve got a 40lb kit on, its heavy and hot and you sweat a lot.
I start hydrating on the Friday, drinking five to six pints of water a day which again isnt easy. By lunchtime I should have had another couple of pints, and then again in the afternoon and again at night.
I went along to the practice, got given some old pads and helmet, got told to stand still while someone hit me and that was it!
You feel fresher and youre able to last longer if you do that. Ill have an energy drink before the game and one at half-time and on a Saturday night Ill have some pasta, followed by porridge or scrambled egg on the Sunday morning. Theyre all slow release foods. Ill have a couple of bananas before a game too.
Brians Cambridgeshire Cats play ten games on Sunday afternoons in the regular season which runs from April to August in a division with the Ipswich Cardinals and teams from Peterborough, Colchester and two from Kent which makes for plenty of local rivalry.
Peterborough are the main rivals but we always enjoy the games against Ipswich. I wouldnt say Cambridge and Ipswich are big rivals, but the Cardinals are a very nice club. Theyre run well, have an excellent head coach and theyre a hard team, the hardest we played this year in the regular season.
The Ipswich Cardinals and Cambridge Cats do share one key factor with other teams in East Anglia they both tap into the plentiful supply of talent from the USAF airbases at Lakenheath, Mildenhall and Alconbury.
The big difference with us and the Americans in the team is their skills. Typically theyve played at a higher level and because theyre in the military they have a level of fitness theyre not allowed to get fat!
In the UK you can only play five American nationals in your squad so the emphasis is very much on UK players. Some of them have to travel far from their bases to get games with some teams. Typically a team will have around ten Americans on their books, but only five can be named in each game.
The one problem is they dont stay for long. Our best running back for example is being transferred to Spain for two years, so losing him is a massive blow.
It was one Saturday in Suffolk in the late 1980s that lead Brian to get into playing the game after he mistakenly thought he saw US servicemen training in Newmarket.
I first started playing for Newmarket Hornets, who played at Newmarket Town football ground. I loved watching the game and got to understand a few of the rules. I moved to Newmarket for work in the late 1980s from Rushden in Northamptonshire.
I was travelling to Newmarket one Saturday afternoon in 1989 and saw a number of guys on The Severals doing some training in full kit. I thought they must be from one of the airbases and later a neighbour, who fell out with the rugby club in Newmarket, was advised to try out for the team and we got talking and he asked me if I fancied going.
So I went along, got given some old pads and helmet, got told to stand still while someone hit me and that was it!
Brian played on for Newmarket for a couple of seasons before they followed the path of many teams of that era and folded. Some of the players went on to form the Cambridgeshire Cats.
Brian left the Cats in 2005 and played for teams in Peterborough and Bedfordshire and bizarrely, had a season with the Newquay-based Cornish Sharks in 2007.
The team from Cornwall wanted some help and experience so myself and a couple of other players went down to help. We had five home games and five away games the nearest of which was in Reading so I spent the whole summer travelling to Cornwall, Bristol and Wales!
Brian shares his detached Elmswell home with wife Emma, 41, (who also helps out with marketing and fundraising for the Cats) and their children Laura 18, William 16, and Megan 14.
My daughter Laura has grown up with me playing American football and comes to watch. Theyre interested in it as theyve got no choice really. William played for the youth team but hes moved on to Welbeck Military College in Leicestershire so hell be playing more rugby than anything else in the future.
Emmas role at the club is to generate money and look after the publicity. The club is run on a tight budget and were always looking for sponsorship.
The support of his family has been key in a 20-year career in the game that has peaked on a couple of occasions when he played games in Las Vegas in 2006 and in Miami this year at semi-pro level for a select minor league all stars side.
Brian will take part in his third game in the US in Dallas early next year and hell have turned 52 by then.