Pulling The Flag

Interview – Jon Hollowell

Name: Jon Hollowell
Age: 30
Profession: Digital Change Coordinator/ Business Analyst
Team: Northants Phantoms
Years in Flag: 5
Position at club: Coach/Team Manager
NFL team:
 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (for my sins!)

When and how did you get involved in Flag American Football?

Myself and two others started the Phantoms back in the summer of 2012. We’d previously been involved with a kitted team in Northampton that unfortunately had folded.

We took a couple of years away from the sport as a whole before coming back together and realising that there was still a way to be involved with this community. We spent some time researching flag, and visited a couple of teams before holding our first training session. Six months later we were in our first league season.

What was it about flag football that drew you to the sport?

Originally the draw was to find a way to establish a full contact team in Northampton. However it soon became clear that Flag was a great sport in itself. It was, and still is, an affordable way to participate in a sport that many could be priced out of.

It is also a great way to focus on the technique and fundamentals of the sport rather than having players worrying about having a 5 year veteran linebacker taking their head off in Oklahoma drills!

These days there’s some great competition in the league. I’ve seen an explosion of new teams since the Phantoms joined and that just shows how much of a growth sport we’re part of.

Please tell us why you decided to get into coaching?

I love American football. In the absence of being able to play, for me coaching was the next best thing. I guess my hope is that through coaching I can help players on my team reach their playing potential.

Coaching flag football has been a learning curve as well, the nuances of the sport, designing plays and coverages. Toby and I share the coaching duties at the Phantoms, and during the last few years I’ve focussed more on coaching the defensive side of the ball. There’s something very rewarding about seeing a coverage you’ve drawn up being executed by players you’ve coached, and luring a QB into throwing a pick!

Image courtesy of Jon Hollowell

If it’s ok Jon? Please tell us about your disability.

Sure, I have a condition called Congenital Muscular Dystrophy. In short it’s a muscle wasting condition which results in most of my muscles being weaker than they should be. This also means that I am a full time wheelchair user.

Unlike some of the more severe forms which can be very progressive with age, mine has plateaued. At present there is no cure or treatment, but research is ongoing in that space. Shoutout here to MD Team Orange who fundraise as part of Muscular Dystrophy UK to support that research.

What challenges have you faced on and off the field of play surrounding the sport?

I think sometimes people are shocked that I do coach flag and have coached contact, with “How do you do that?” being the oft used follow up question. These days that reaction tends to make me laugh.

I also distinctly remember an opposition team member at a contact game making the assumption that I was “just the stats guy”. Ironically these days I find myself making a fudge of the Phantoms internal stats at a game day whilst also calling plays from the sideline! Funny how things come around.

Other than those misconceptions the biggest issue for me is how accessible an away team’s pitch will be come game day. To date I’ve been pretty fortunate, there’s only been a couple of instances where I’ve had to bump my wheelchair up/down kerbs or take an extended detour to avoid steps and find a flat route to the pitch. Generally though, if football is involved there won’t be a lot that will stop me getting there!

Image courtesy of Howard Goldberg

The amount of disabled community sports clubs is fairly minimal compared to able bodied sports clubs. How could this be addressed here in the uk?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve never been involved with a disabled sports club, but I think some of it must come down to awareness and promotion, along with structured competition. There are sports clubs out there, it’s just finding them. I think the recent Paralympic Games have helped to highlight that disability sport is successful in this country, evidenced by the UK finishing 2nd in the medals table at Rio. Hopefully the legacy of that, and the continued legacy of London 2012 will help.

The ability to be able to adapt flag football would suggest it would be a successful disabled sport. Is this something you think could take off here in the UK? It has the potential, I think wheelchair rugby is as close to a version of American football as exists, although it is fairly brutal hence its nickname of Murderball!

Maybe there is an opportunity there for a flag version of the sport to open it up to greater participation.

In your opinion, what makes flag is so accessible?

To be honest I think flag is really accessible to all. You don’t need to be the perfect athlete to have success on the pitch, if you work hard you stand every chance.

There are a good number of teams around these days, and the travel distances between them are too great to make it difficult for people to get to their nearest club. It is also not a cost prohibitive sport.

Unlike contact where buying kit can run in to the hundreds of pounds, with flag depending on the team you join you may be paying nominal subs or perhaps just buying your own jersey.

Moving on, please tell us about your team, the Northants Phantoms?

As I mentioned earlier the Phantoms have been around since July 2012 and we’re currently competing in our 5th league season. The team has a fairly strong squad of around 18-21 players, with a mix of experience in there from rookies to players that have been with us since day one.

We’ve had some low points in our time, but nothing any other team won’t have been through. We’ve also had some highs, like winning last years Blackhawk Bowl (a pre-season tournament), making the playoffs, and hosting three amazing charity tournaments raising money for local and national causes.

Image courtesy of Howard Goldberg

The Phantoms are very much seen as a close knit group. Where does that environment come from?

We pride ourselves on this. Without wanting to sound cliché the Phantoms aren’t just a team, we’re a family. I’m sure many of your readers will have seen #PhantomsFamily on tweets or Facebook updates. It’s a phrase we coined back in 2013 and it has stuck. It’s awesome going to a gameday with 15+ people who have all bought in to that philosophy, that are playing for each other, and that are proud to be a Phantom.

We also very much have an open door policy as well. If you’re interested in the sport and want to be involved, no matter your skill or ability you’re welcome at the Phantoms.

You had a breakout season last year that took a lot of people by surprise. What were the key reason to such a successful season for the Phantoms?

Last year was amazing. To achieve what we did in the style we did made everyone on the team proud. If I knew what we’d done differently to previous years I think I’d currently be on a book tour promoting my “how to build a winning team” bestseller! The players deserve a lot of credit for the work they put in during the offseason prior to last year.

I also think being able to keep virtually the entire roster together for 2+ seasons really helped. It really meant that we could focus on refining plays, and players technique rather than having to start from scratch in the preseason with a group of rookies.

Image courtesy of Howard Goldberg

You made the playoffs in style, but failed to find the regular season form. Please tell us about that first post season experience?

That was a tough day down in London, no one likes to go 1-and-done. Whilst it shouldn’t be an excuse, we were missing our starting QB and the guy that had played centre most of the year, which had a huge impact. The guys that stepped up to play the positions did a great job, and we hung with the Sharks for a while it was just not to be. It was nice though to get a taste of playoff football, and we’re hungry for more!

You’ve started well again this year and look to be playoff bound once more. What did you learn from last year, that will help you improve this year?

I’ve definitely learnt that should we make the playoffs this year I need to kidnap Jez to make sure he’s there to QB! Being serious though, we learnt playoff football is a different beast to the regular season.

During the regular season you get used to seeing teams at game days and you can work out their game. In the playoffs you’re probably playing a team you haven’t seen for 12+ months, and preparing for that can be difficult. Should we be involved this season we’ll definitely be looking to rectify our early exit last year.

How do you manage the clubs expectations now? Is playoff football expected?

We take every game day as it comes. There are some great teams in our conference which makes every game day competitive. With that being said the team is playing at a great level and if we continue with that there’s no reason we shouldn’t be involved in the post-season.

You are also looking comfortable for a top division placing next year under the new format. What are your thoughts on the new format?

The change of format next year is really intriguing. I know there have been calls for a tiered format for a few years. Up to now I think it would have been difficult to implement from a logistical point of view, but with the number of teams in the league this is probably a good time to try it. From the guidance provided with the league pack, if the top two from each division go into the top tier I think there will be some big names that could potentially miss out due to the strength of their division.

You have an ever growing rivalry with your home town neighbours, the Titans. Do the Phantoms get more psyched up for those derby games?

The cross town games always have a bit of extra spice, but I think both sides also respect the other. The Titans have some great athletes, and the games must always be a pretty good watch for the neutral! I think the return match between us later this season has the potential to decide who finishes top in our division so there will be more than just bragging rights riding on it for both sides.

We also have a friendly rivalry going with the Aylesbury Vale Spartans. They’re a great bunch of guys who gave us some of our first friendly matches when we were setting up the team. These days we’re both playing at a much higher standard and they’re always close encounters.

Image courtesy of James Brewerton

We’re increasingly seeing UK teams traveling abroad to play in international tournaments. Is this something the Phantoms are looking at doing?

I think now that we’re pretty well established it could be something we consider in the future. Unless of course going to Cardiff counts? In which case we’re already part of the international jet set! Ultimately though it would come down to a team decision, if the desire is there I’m sure we could make it happen.

Outside of the BAFA league the Phantoms will also be competing in the Outlaw Flag League this year. We’re looking forward to playing some different teams and are hoping we have a good showing during the tournament.

Where do you see the Phantoms organisation in five years time?

In five years, hopefully we’re viewed as part of the furniture in the top tier of the league, making regular playoff appearances. I’d like to hope the Phantoms would still have the same philosophy to inclusivity and is still viewed by those outside the team as the “tight knit” group you mention earlier.

During our first 5 years we have at times considered expanding the club to include a youth set up, or a women’s team. At the time we felt that getting the mixed adult team to a point where it was consistently winning was important. Perhaps if that consistency continues the expansion to include a further team would be possible.

Image courtesy of Howard Goldberg

Where do you see yourself in relation to the future of the sport?

I never plan too far ahead for myself, I really enjoy coaching, and if the players will have me I hope I can continue to be part of the Phantoms. There is a lot for the team to go on and achieve, and I’d love to be a part of that.

Lastly Jon, if you could offer words of advice to disabled people wishing to get involved in flag. What advice would you give?

I think there’s probably some advice to disable people and clubs around the country. To disabled people, if you’re interested in the sport and think you have something to add then find your local club and introduce yourself. Running a club, coaching players, managing game days can be hard work, but most clubs would be grateful for some help.

To clubs around the country, I think all of us involved with the sport have a duty to increase its participation. No matter what your perceptions are of someone’s ability if they have a passion for the sport they will probably be able to add something either on the pitch, on the sidelines or behind the scenes.

Thanks Jon and all the best in the future.

Image courtesy of Jon Hollowell

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