1984: In the beginning.
1984: In the beginning …
The Club owes its existence to three students – Keith Phillips, Phil Moses and David Little – who shared a flat, a sense of humour and an interest in American Football.
While scouring the fine print of the week-end paper for items of amusement, Phil Moses stumbled across a notice calling for parties interested in forming a Gridiron competition to attend a meeting in Parramatta. Instinctively realising this was a venture that could properly distract them from their studies, the trio fronted the meeting and convinced those assembled to include the University in the inaugural season of competition in the ambitiously titled Australian-American Football League.
Unbeknownst to the organisers, the University team had only three players – but who was counting? Phillips and Moses let it be known amongst their fellow Vet. Science students that Gridiron was a new inter-faculty sport and that the honour of their faculty was at stake. By the time the Vet. Science boys woke up to the ruse, they were hooked. The strategy clearly worked, as the final roster was made up of 12 players from the Vet. Science faculty, 3 from Agricultural Science, 3 from Medicine, 3 from Law, 2 from Science, and 1 from each of Arts, Architecture and Engineering.
A coach was found in Don Hellwege, an exchange student from Oklahoma State University, and a name was chosen – the Stormtroopers. Phillips and Little were Star Wars tragics (Little’s dog was called Darth) and, despite being fans of the game, they harboured the classic Aussie doubt that all of the equipment worn in gridiron, like that of an imperial stormtrooper, was excessive and basically useless in a laser fight. The fact that the first year of competition was to be played without equipment was not seen to lessen the impact of the joke.
The Stormtroopers met the Waverley Raiders in their first game. Showing the offensive flair that was to become a hallmark of University football (and the innocence of a team that did not know any better), the Club scored its first ever touchdown on a flea-flicker trick pass play. The answer to the trivia question “Who touched the ball on the Club’s first ever touchdown?” is: Johnson (Centre) snapped to Ogborne (Quarterback), who passed to York (Tight-end) who passed back to Little (Fullback) who scored. To this day, the Club has not scored on another flea-flicker play.
The lack of equipment made it impossible to use proper blocking technique and difficult to overcome sheer size. However, it did lead to some decent nicknames. David Murphy was forever known as “Sofa” due to the abundance of foam padding he managed to stuff under his jersey.
The season had its share of highs and lows. Huge effort was expended to secure a game on No 1 Oval at Sydney University on the 4th of July only for Sydney to be deluged in an Old Testament style flood for the week before the game. Having gone to the trouble of marking up No 1 Oval a week in advance, the Sports Union gave the game the go ahead. The field was awash and the game was a farce – neither team could hold on to the ball – ending in a 0-0 draw. Worse still, the field and its cricket pitch were destroyed, hardly endearing the fledgling Club to the mandarins in the Sports Union.
By mid-season the team was well-placed in the standings, but University examinations and holidays took their toll. By half-time in its game against the Double Bay Buccaneers held during stu-vac, the team was down to only twelve fit players. Despite being totally out-numbered, the Club held on for an heroic draw. Many hundreds of players have laid claim to being a member of the “dirty dozen” who held out that day – but we know who we are.
The League awards night was held on the eve of the final round of regular season games. As befitted such an auspicious occasion, the University team attended in black tie (with Phillips, Moses and Little in kilts). The team we were playing the next morning shouted us free drinks in a misguided effort to gain a competitive advantage and many took the opportunity to carouse through the evening and head straight out to the game. With so many of the team still sporting their dinner suits, it was decided to make the kick-off a formal affair. Winning the toss and electing to kick, the coverage team took to the field wearing its black tie dinner jackets. After tackling the returner, the team took a time out, casually changed into its uniforms and proceeded to repay the North Shore Redbacks for their generosity the night before by giving them a football lesson to the tune of 40-0.
Many team traditions were established in the first year. The Club’s prestigious periodical “Oskie” was born and “Oskie” became the call for when an interception was taken. Despite Don Hellwege’s explanations, still nobody knew what the hell the word meant. Importantly, the Club also started its tradition of playing above itself in playoff games. The Stormtroopers went into its Semi-Final match-up against the Fairfield Argonauts as decided underdogs, having lost to them 26-7 only three weeks earlier. However, a different team turned up for the Semi-Final, one which had done its homework and developed inventive game plans to counter its opponent.
On defence, the outside linebackers were sent out to bump Fairfield’s dangerous wide receivers, who were then double-teamed deep. The defence took four interceptions and kept the Argonaut’s potent passing offence scoreless.
On offence, the team developed a series of plays based on a delayed swing pass to a motioning wide receiver, which allowed it to move the ball with control against its larger opponents. The team overcame a distinct disadvantage in size to record a memorable 13-6 victory.
The Grandfinal posed an even greater challenge. The Canterbury Cougars had dominated the AAFL, going through the regular season undefeated and handing the Stormtroopers two heavy defeats (40-10 and 31-0) along the way. They were a big, physical and well-trained side.
Again the University team rose to the challenge. The defence, in particular, was magnificent. The Cougars had man-handled their opposition all season long, but they were unprepared for the commitment they faced from the University defence. In playing so hard against the run, the defence was eventually caught out on a long pass play, but then rebounded to hold out the Cougars in a memorable goal-line stand to end the half trailing by just 6-0.
In the third quarter, a draw play to David Little went 40 yards for an apparent touchdown, only to be called back for holding. Unperturbed, the defence got the ball back and the offence drove in again, Quarterback Andrew Ogborne finding David Little out of the backfield for the touchdown. The successful PAT kick by Little put the Stormtroopers ahead, 7-6. But the fairytale was not to be. The powerful running game of the Cougars eventually took its toll and, late in the fourth quarter, the Cougars pounded the ball into the endzone twice for a well-deserved win, 19-7.
This was to be the last game for the Stormtroopers. The Sports Union did not see the humour in the name and 1985 saw the team re-born as the Lions. However, the legacy of the Stormtroopers lived on with Robert Anderson, Gavin Hyslop, David Little, Colin Matthews, Phil Moses, Andrew Ogborne, Dan Prokop, Keith Phillips, Alan Scott and David York forming the backbone of a team which was to embark on a 26 game winning streak and win the next two NSW titles.
Many of the great qualities of our team can be traced back to its origins as a University club being run by players for players. Hopefully much of the good humour, self-motivation and camaraderie of its founding fathers will also long survive.