American Football Explained

CheerleaderWarning! Long post! You probably won’t read this! Warning!

In time for Thanksgiving and not in any way, shape, or form complete or remotely comprehensible!

Both I and my other half are keen followers of American Football despite the fact that neither of us are American and only one of us was created in a laboratory from an old football, some nails, and a wind-up toy frog. Ribbet.

I follow – and have done so since the late 1980s before you accuse me of jumping on some mad New England-supporting bandwagon – the New England Patriots. My other half is more of a newcomer to the sport and, after careful consideration a couple of years ago, decided that the Minnesota Vikings had the nicest colour kit. Purple. She likes purple.

We have tried and tried and tried to get other people interested in the NFL but people being people and not yet being automatons with controllable lizard brains (note to shareholders of neOnbubble Sauromaton plc.: soon my friends, soon) the swine don’t seem interested citing various reasons ranging from "It’s all stop-start, stop-start" to "They’re all girls playing in all that padding; they wouldn’t last 2 minutes in a real man’s game of golf", and asking questions like "Don’t they stop the game every 8.2 seconds for commercials?" and "Is there an option in interactive viewing for cheerleader-gusset cam?"

So, because nobody listens to me in real life and I have anecdotal proof that over two have in my virtual existence I now present a definitive guide to understanding, appreciating, and enjoying American Football.

It’s Rugby For Girls, Isn’t It?


Whenever someone attempts to compare rugby and American football I am forced to suppress the urge to rip out that person’s intestine and feed it up and down their nasal passages before twirling it into a delightful parody of a handlebar moustache.

Yes, the ball shares some similarities in shape. Well done. However, last time I checked, nobody ever compared beach volleyball to marbles yet, surprise!, both use round balls. Baseball and mafia board meetings both utilise bats yet rarely are the two mixed up. Roller skaters wear kneepads. So did the guy who fitted the carpet at my parent’s house. Guess what? Not similar at all.

NFL Fun Fact
Fans of the Green Bay Packers are known as "cheesy helmets" but it’s not because they don’t wash down below, ha ha! It’s because they stick their penises in lumps of cheddar.

When rugby players come together in a scrum (no double entendres please) they start more-or-less locked together and push. When I used to play rugby I was taught that tackling was best made just below the knees; lock the arms around the legs and the player will go down and you won’t get hurt. But they lied. They lied! Anyhoo, you tackled typically from the side or just behind. Occasionally from in front but only if you wanted to see how much a human body (yours) can bend. To summarise: tackling in rugby, though it can sometimes look rough, is a low impact business.

In American football the equivalent of the scrum is facing off at the line of scrimmage. The players launch themselves at one another from one to two yards away. Field tackles typically come from any angle at full speed and everything from the shoulders down is fair game. Yes, even the dangly bits. Fingers, that is. The padding saves lives because American footballers and the impacts they impart are really rather large indeed.

Still not convinced? Try this test: stand with your head against the wall and push. Hurts a bit? That’s rugby. Now step back a couple of yards and hurtle at full speed at the same wall. Did you survive? That’s American football. If you didn’t survive please make your dying action one of closing down your browser window so that I am not held to blame for your injuries. Thankyou.

Don’t Think Of It As A Sport

A lot of people don’t like the 3 seconds of action, 30 seconds of milling about, 3 seconds of action, commercial break aspect of American football. Yet none of them complain about the cheerleaders. That’s fair enough if you’re used to a breakneck sport like snooker or synchronised swimming but there’s a trick to understanding the game better if you get frustrated easily: don’t think of it as a sport at all. That’s right: think of it as war!

If you’re a nerd who likes wargames then you will love American football. If you’ve got any party-organising skills then you’ll love the NFL. If you play chess because it’s a thinking, strategy game rather than because it has pretty horse pieces then you’ll not only love the sport but become irresistable to women too. If you consider yourself one of the leaders in the apocalypse to come rather than one of the scab-pickers then you just might find this sport saves your life.

NFL Fun Fact
New York Giants running back Twiki Barber was catapulted backwards in time from the 25th century. He is currently enjoying a successful scoring partnership with quarterback William "Buck" Rogers. His overuse of the phrase "Hubba, hubba" annoys opponents and led to a pitch brawl with the Washington Redskins at the start of this season.

Tom BradyAmerican football is a tactician’s wet dream in physical form. As the players line up to face one another there’s a strategic battle taking place. Maybe the offensive side are going to form a box around the quarterback and give time for runners to make a 45 degree sprint across the field. Perhaps the defensive team realise that protecting zones in the back will be the best option this time or maybe they’ll risk giving them up to add an extra attack on the offensive line. Mayhaps the special team will do something special. Oh! Can you feel your militaristic juices flowing with excitement? I can! And then … three seconds later and yes, the defenders risked their rear by blitzing but the quarterback spotted the move, passed the ball off quickly to a runner who’d come around the back, bypassed everyone and then ran thirty yards down field before fumbling the ball, grabbing the facemask of an opponent and being penalised fifteen yards for acting like a moron. What theatre!

The Rules

American football takes place on a field 100 yards long called the gridiron. There are markings every yard and every ten yards and at each end of the field are two "end zones". Taking the ball into your opponent’s end zone scores points. Taking the ball into your own end zone and being tackled also scores points but not for you. Behind the end zone are two upright posts called "The Two Upright Posts Behind The End Zone". Kicking the ball through your opponent’s posts scores points too.

The object of the game is to score and be the team that scores the most. In this respect American football is very much like international over-70s basket-weaving. Unlike international over-70s basket-weaving the reward for winning is not a flu vaccination. It’s hookers.

A team starts with the ball. That team then has four attempts to move the ball ten yards further up the field. If they manage this they get another four attempts to move it another ten yards. Each attempt to move the ball is called a down. On a team’s first attempt to move the ball they will have ten yards to go. This is described as "first down and ten." Suppose they manage to move it three yards on that first attempt. They are then at "second down and seven". If the team gets in the end zone they score. If the team run out of downs then the opponents get the ball. Most of the time if a team is at "fourth down and something" they will elect to punt the ball – effectively boot it down field as far as possible – so that if they had failed to make the required yards on their last down the opposing team wouldn’t be in such a good position on the field of play.

NFL Fun Fact
Daunte Culpepper sounds like the name of an 18th century French-Hungarian crimesolver and gentleman scientist with a spunky sidekick called Mr Pamplemousse. And he is.

The ball can be handed to another team player or thrown backwards but can only be thrown forwards once and only if the ball is behind where it started at the beginning of the down unless the moon is full or one team decides to play a joker and has a hand with three diamonds in it. If the ball is thrown it must be caught – in the hands or stomach crease only; teeth were ruled illegal in 1996 – before hitting the ground or the play is ruled "incomplete" and the down is lost. If a player catches the ball and is tackled or runs out of bounds then the next play starts from that position on the field. If a player is tackled and loses the ball before his knee, arm, or buttocks touch the ground this is called a "fumble". The other team may recover the ball and take over control if this happens. The opposing team may also "intercept" a thrown ball or, more usually, flap at it and miss.

There are four quarters of play, each lasting fifteen minutes, and a fifteen minute half-time break at, appropriately, half-time. The clock is stopped for fouls, when a player runs out of bounds with the ball, when wizards from the chronodimension wish it, and up to three times just for the hell of it for each team per half (timeouts). Subsequently, four periods of fifteen minutes take anywhere between 3 hours and a day to complete. And this is why American beer is so low in alcohol content.

Each team has eleven players on the field at any time. Players may substitute freely. Each team consists of three sub-teams:

  • the offensive team isn’t as rude as their name implies and includes the quarterback (the commander on the field, responsible for deciding formations), his blockers (who protect him from the opponents), his runners (who he might hand the ball to so that they can run up field), and his receivers (who he might throw the ball to) (unless they’re from San Francisco),
  • the defensive team players are supposedly skilled in stopping an offensive team from running the ball or catching it (unless they’re from San Francisco),
  • the special team still make my other half laugh every time they’re mentioned although they’re not special in that way (unless they’re from San Francisco) and instead consist of punt specialists, kickoff specialists, field goal specialists, and team mascots.


Penalties are handed out for a variety of fouls. You’re allowed to block a player but you can’t hold him. That’s called "holding". You’re allowed to chase after a player who is expecting a ball thrown to him but if you touch him in his special place that’s called "interference". During a tackle you’re not allowed to grab someone’s face mask. That’s called "grabbing someone’s face mask". Taunting an opponent is known as "taunting" and gets you a penalty. Beating up one of the three hundred referees is frowned upon and celebrations after scoring are limited to one restrained celebration for the scorer and a ripple of applause from his team mates: anything else is a foul.

Penalties are typically five, ten, and fifteen yard losses of yardage (so a team might commit a foul on their first down and then face a first down and twenty five instead) but there is also a "half the distance to goal" penalty for seriously upsetting the head referee, ejection from the field of play for attacking a referee, and execution by firing squad for ineffectual grunting.

NFL Fun Fact
The Superbowl is not a bowl at all and is instead a trophy called Vince Lombardi. The trophy is a scale model of the real spaceship that crashed at Roswell, New Mexico as it was the alien survivors who brought the game to American soil. And boy bands too.

Fouls are signalled by one of the referees throwing a yellow handkerchief on the ground. They call them flags but they never wave them because they’re handkerchiefs. As to why they’re yellow: well, they’re handkerchiefs.

Upon indicating a penalty has occurred the referee will also give a hand gesture to identify the specific penalty. Three of the most common gestures are displayed below:

NFL False Start
Travolta Infraction

Gesture: Both arms are held parallel to one another in front of the chest and rotated rapidly around one another. A bit like a combined harvester.
This penalty indicates that an illegal scientologist has been spotted downfield in direct violation of rule 42.3b. Teams are allowed to place a single scientologist at the line of scrimmage; his job is to check for body thetans before the ball is snapped. However, the scientologist cannot advance beyond the line of scrimmage and five yard penalties are most commonly awarded. If a scientologist downfield tries to set a personality test on an opposing team member the penalty is increased to ten yards and five minutes in the Tom Cruise Booth.

NFL Holding

Gesture: Form a fist and thrust it up and down in front of your face.
American football is a contact sport. Sometimes it’s a close contact sport. Occasionally it’s an internal contact sport. Ten yard penalty.

NFL Offside
Illegal Camping

Gesture: Arms on hips, rock gently from side to side.
A certain amount of campness has to be present in any American football game to offset the sheer masculinity of men in lycra with pretty patterns on their helmets grappling with one another in the pursuit of an oddly-shaped ball. However, camp actions such as shouting "Ooh, get you!" to make your opponent blush are only allowed before the ball is snapped. Afterwards, and it’s a five yard penalty.

I’d like to thank Pixar studios for the use of their Cray-rendered referee animations above.

Hopefully, that’s given NFL virgins an insight into the sport they might not otherwise have gleaned from reading soup can labels or walking around with divining rods on the moors in slippers and a hat and nothing else. More likely, though, nobody has read this far which is fine too. At least I put an effort into it and can feel some justification at not updating the site for the next few weeks. Ribbet.

Author: Mark

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  1. Your one funny guy. I especially like you "fun facts", just how do you find such gems?

    I stumbled over the site by accident but i will definatley keep checking back in future

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  2. I didn’t read it all – read the start, read the end, got bored in the middle. Bit like American football, without the ‘interesting at the beginning’ bit.

    I lived there. I had Sexy Eric round my house every night watching every Superbowl game. It is boring as hell. It takes 4 hours for 7 minutes of action.

    However, it goes to show that men are the same the world over – they all get incredibly irritated by women asking dumb questions about the game, especially if it’s about their team, and their team are losing and making stupid mistakes. Especially when you do it deliberately, and they are too engrossed in the game to notice.

    I was married to a Geordie. I had lots and lots of practice.

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  3. Thankyou Jay and Balonie even though I don’t believe you Balonie when you say you’ll check back. Sure, everyone says that at the start but then they turn their backs leaving you in the bottomless pit of lonely I call The Bottomless Pit Of Lonely.

    Anni … the middle bit was the important bit. It’s not boring. It’s strategic. I mean, I know it’s nowhere near as exciting as, say, collecting rubber stamps, but it still has its moments of adrenalin-pumping, high-octane-spilling, heart-stopping, close-ups of Kansas City Chiefs head coach Dick Vermeil looking apopleptic with rage. Ha ha ha, take that, Dick!

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  4. …go jets…

    …and can I just add – the fisting thing, you do realise that last year two rugby players were suspended for slipping a finger in in the middle of a ruck (or maul) :^)…

    …oh, and as a jets fan can I just mention – I hate the pats :^)…

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  5. Oooo that Tom Brady chappy’s a bit of alright.

    Or it that just me being girly? Again?

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  6. Well this is great I found your site after a friend of mine in England asked ME to explain the superbowl to him. After writting about one paragraph I thought, surely someone has already done this in terms he wll be able to comprehend! I want to say I also laughed my A__ off and enjoyed it more then I will the real superbore this year! Thanks and good luck

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  7. Nice site. Tryin to get to grips with American footie out here in U.K. They showed the 2005 super bowl live and I even recorded it. Now i’m tryin to understand what it is I’m watching!

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  8. Came across this article on Google – a couple of my mates are trying to get me to switch from my soccer/rugby obsession to American footy but I had no idea of what it was about (resulting in a few dumb questions and a couple of heated debates!) This article cleared things up nicely – ta muchly, chuck!

    So, which team to follow… any of them wear pink?!!

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  9. Most of the teams seem to have red in their colours so I’m going to study each team and follow the one with the best looking players 🙂

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  10. ^

    Probably a 49ers fan there. 🙂

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  11. Very nice writing. I’m an American (the San Diego Chargers are my team) who understands football but I’ve got an exchange student friend from Sweden who wanted to learn and I didn’t know where to begin with explinations. I read a description from an American website but a description from a European perspective is more what I was looking for 🙂 PS I’m living in SF at the moment and the 49ers really do suck this year, surprisingly. The Chargers are still in it though!!!

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  12. Rugby rules, and has one major advantage over NFL, it hasnt succumbed to the commercial end of it yet!! "IRISH BY BIRTH, MUNSTER BY GRACE OF GOD" Thomond Park – Heineken Cup shall be ours!

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  13. Definitely rugby for girls… would you like to nominate any (up to 5 at a time – wouldn’t want to seem unsporting) American Footballer(s) to face…oh, lets see… Martin Johnson, Tana Umaga, Jonah Lomu, John Hayes, Keith Wood… or any heavliy muscled full-back, who should rightly be contesting the 100m sprint in the Olympics, and who has had about 30m of space to build up speed?? Rugby for girls, indeed….

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  14. This was really funny, and yes – I read the whole thing. I am a Patriot’s fan…it’s my home team. Thank you for jumping on the fan bandwagon =P.

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  16. Thanks for well done post. Never have understood rugby, but always thought it was kinda cool. I would add that at this time *most* teams have a front line (offense and defense) where all the guys are at or over 300lbs. When that much person gets moving fast and decides to hit you, you feel it. Most running backs, (the guy that the QB normally hands the ball to) don’t last very long 3-4 years, and the ones that do go longer usually don’t walk without help in their 40s.

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  17. I’ve played both football as well as rugby. Football players are bigger, stronger, and more athletic. I’d rather take a half assed tackle from a rugby player than 250lbs of solid rock middle linebacker knocking my lights out

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  18. having played ALOT of union and league, but having spent a year in the US playing NFL, id have to say you cant really compare the two

    union rolls and flows, yes there is alot of low speed stuff, around the ruck and maul, but the sheer expendature of energy to move a 14 man maul down the field is just unaccountable, at the same time, an offensive lineman in full flight is a wonderful thing, except when you have to stop him

    im a rugby union man at the end of the day, its what i grew up with, and im just a pig at heart, its the way it is

    any comparison of the two is ridiculous and its one of those times you just have to accept the differences and love both games for what they are really

    and as much as it hurts to stop a lineman, the full weight of a 16 man scrum on your shoulders/back/neck, or being on the bottom of a ruck surrounded by people in studded boots who love to hurt is an exquisite experience of pain

    love the article

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  19. I disagree about football not being rugby for girlies. Your description by comparing the scrum to a football line is completely unfair, because the scrum is the tamest part of rugby, and even then most hookers will kick the other hooker and locks will punch the hooker in the face, and some props will even bite your ears off if you’re not careful. First of all there is the rucks, which at a national level are insane, basically freight trains crashing into the tackler/tackled at thirty miles an hour to rip the ball from your arms no matter what. After about two fifths of the forwards have landed on the former ball carrier, he gets up and continues to perform his duty. Second are mauls, which is when most of the forwards congregate and try to push the man in the middle with the ball forwards by sheer force, while the defending team tries to rip the ball from your hands and push the rest of the pack in the opposite direction. Third point is the inside center and fullback. Coming from personal experience and being a small winger, inside centers were gigantic. They are the rough equivalent to a fullback in American football, only they want to step on as many faces on their way to the try line as possible. When I discovered Tana Umaga, I was amazed. This guy is a giant who wrecks people, and most inside centers should be built like him. Fullbacks are another problem, completely different from American fullbacks. They are closer to soccer football fullbacks. The fullback is the last line of defense, despite having to fulfill the purposes of inside center, first five-eighth (stand-off) and winger in just one position. A modern fullback should be able to kick defensive kicks, be big to tackle and run through a defensive line, be fast and have excellent acceleration to break through a defensive line, and be able to tackle extremely well in open field situations. The absolute best thing about rugby is that it is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen, as all hostilities are left on the field; this is why rugby jerseys always have collars on them. After a game with a touring team, it is tradition to buy your opposite number a beer and be friends. So a tour is all about playing a great game to test your opponent’s strengths while getting drunk at a pub at the end of a day. I’m not very certain, but the closest that football players get to that is sniffing a bunch of blow then getting caught by the cops speeding around in their custom Porches. Of course, I am not trying to bash American football, and that was an uncalled for jab, however your comment about hitting your head against a brick wall seemed slightly uneducated.

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  20. i have followed the pats since 1971 i just love american football …and i couldnt give a rats arse about which sport is better than which !

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  21. Nice article but when u played rugby u obviously weren’t very good if you didn’t tackle from the front. Tackling in rugby is less violent at times but there is more technique an if you put a rugby player in a football team as defence u wouldn’t get past him. Rugby is way beta seen as its more of a sport and less of a chess match.

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    • Way beta huh? How about alfa, then?
      Too many hits to the head or you studied in Peckham?
      Rugby players wish they could play in the NFL, unfortunately some have tried and did not go very far. As LF said, football players are tougher in spite of the rules being less barbaric than the ones in rugby.

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  22. go farley you the man!
    football is for moffies

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  23. I’m not sure that I understand anything Farley said, but he certainy seems to be emphatic about saying it. I think he got hit too many times by Bludgers while playing Quidditch.

    Great article – I’m going to share it with the football fans who are alumni of my university….it’s a fun read.

    Now, when are you going to explain the Infield Fly rule?

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  24. I like how the rugby fan can say the sport "hasn’t succumbed to the commercial end yet" and "Heineken Cup" in the same sentence.

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    • HAAAA Well said… and what else other then BEER could sponsor it?
      Rugby seems to me little more than an excuse for getting very very drunk, very very often.
      No wonder they they can stand the pain of it 🙂

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  25. Im glad to see someone explain football to Europeans because i keep hearing europeans calling it a game for sissies because we wear Padding and protective gear.

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  26. Great article, i watch football but I don’t understand some of the calls etc. This was very clear and helpful! Thanks

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  27. Well, I AM American, and while I can claim the excuse of having lived abroad for the formative years of my life, I still cannot wrap my brain around this enigmatic game! That is, until I read this article! Thank you for this light hearted illumination that has gone a long way to help me understand what all the fuss is about! My straight bodybuilding friend, virile to the core, I imagine, has been rolling his eyes inside his head as I pummel him with questions about how it all works and why all the passion!?. Now I get it…..finally! I liken it to an aerial dogfight: there are the heavy bombers, the fast interceptor jets, the tankers, etc., all poised to do collision in their respective roles…….when seen in that light, it becomes kind of fascinating in terms of strategy. Americans like a good rough and tumble, and since we are no longer allowed to use broadswords (gladii) to bloody each other, football is the next best thing to being the gladiators. Its one of the few times I get to see straight (presumably) American men touch one another in affectionate ways without being indicted for being heretic to the cult of macho-ism and homophobia in this country. Go Greenbay "Packers!"……….never thought I would ever say that!

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  28. wow…please. there’s plenty to be said about rugby. just look at the outfits that the players wear. this article was extremely lame and not entertaining whatsoever

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  29. wow…please. there’s little to be said about your comment. just look at the lack of capital letters. this comment was extremely lame and not written by someone with a functioning brain whatsoever

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  30. Nice post and to all rugby fans thinking martin johnsons the dogs b well he is a life long american football fan playing for a team in leicester and recently promoted the NFL wembley match and playing for a uni team.

    American football is a much harder hitting sport get over it.: heres the link for martin johnson:

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  31. Dear Mark,
    Up until this year I could never get my wife to watch the superbowl, on account that she had no idea of what was going on.
    Your post helped me make some headway and this year I could enjoy the game with her. So thanks (although I admit that I also used Brady’s looks as leverage. works every time).
    May I suggest you write a follow up explaining some more advanced rules?
    About rugby being a tougher sport, as suggested by some comments, if it were true that any center or whatnot would easily outdo any football player, there would be some of them moving to NFL, where they could make a gazillion times more money.
    The truth is American Football is played with protections not because it’s a sissy sport but because without them most players would only ever get to play once.
    This said, when it comes to how much sheer and gratuitous violence is tolerated by the rules, rugby clearly wins. In AF one cannot bite any opponents body parts off and get away with it and so it is for punching teeth off, an activity in which rugby players seem to take a suspicious amount of pleasure: perhaps it has something to do with the English inventing it, whilst being notorious for loving a bit of beer-fueled masochism.

    If any sport in which hooligans on the play field are not tolerated is for sissies then what should one make of cricket, polo, badmington and other brit frilly oddities?

    Farley, I’d like to fight you without protections. But you are not allowed to get drunk before that, mind it 😉

    An ex resident of SF and proud supporter of the 49ers. TAKE THIS MARK!


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