National football team heads to Kuwait

By Jeff Nations

WINCHESTER — Easton Melancon has had some varied experiences in his still unfolding football career.

Between his standout prep career at Louisiana’s Hahnville High School and a starting gig as a true freshman NCAA Division III Louisiana College, Melancon once participated in an all-star game pitting his River Region all-stars against the Bayou Region at Nicholls State’s John L. Guidry Stadium.

Cramming to play on a built from scratch team to play in Thibodaux, Louisiana is one thing, but how about Kuwait?

“This is a little different,” Melancon confirmed during practice with the U.S. Under-19 National Team on Monday at Shenandoah University’s Shentel Stadium. “I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That’s really why I wanted to go so bad.”

Melancon and 43 teammates have been prepping all week in Winchester for the third International Federation of American Football Under-19 World Championship to be held next week in Kuwait City, Kuwait. The American squad, selected by USA Football (the sport’s national governing body) with sponsorship backing by the National Football League, will take part in the eight-team world tournament scheduled for July 7-16.

The 95-degree heat on Tuesday at Shentel is perfect preparation for the U.S. squad, which likely will see triple-digit temperatures in Kuwait during the day and hot weather even at night when games are scheduled to play. The U.S. opens pool play against Mexico on July 7 with an 8 p.m. (local time) game, followed by games against Germany on July 11 (11 p.m.) and Japan on July 13 (11 p.m.). The winners from pool play will advance to the championship game. Teams from Austria, France, Canada and Kuwait will compete in the other pool.

Aaron Brady, the head football coach at Pennsylvania’s Malvern Preparatory School, has been tasked with assembling a coaching staff and roster of players capable of winning back the title the U.S. squad lost to Team Canada in the last world championship held in 2012 in Austin, Texas.

Brady and his staff has been busy building a team from this group of players, culled from an application pool of more than 4,000 would-be national team members hoping to make the squad.

“These kids didn’t know each other at all — maybe a few of them did — they’re from California, Alaska, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, a few local kids … there’s a kid from D.C. who actually lives in Vienna, a kid from Baltimore. It’s 19 and under, so it’s a mixture of kids that are in college, either first year or going into their second of going to college, and we have a couple of rising [high school] seniors that are blue-chipper type kids.”

The nucleus of the team is made up of NCAA Division II and Division III players, with a few upper-level college programs represented as well as a handful of promising high school players. Talent was a major part of the selection process, Brady said, but hardly the only factor in deciding who would represent the United States in an international competition.

“It’s about getting the right kid for USA Football,” Brady said. “There’s a lot of kids out there who could be on this football team, but we also want kids with good character, that are hard workers to represent the U.S. — especially going out of the country, now it’s like times 10. We’re the country people are really going to look at, especially being in the Middle East. Anything these guys would do over there can affect the country as a whole, and USA Football really the NFL because the NFL’s a sponsoring body of USA Football.

“The idea is, in eight to 12 years it will be an Olympic sport. Sixty-four countries play American football.”

Brady has seen the interest in American football in previous trips abroad while coaching clinics for USA Football and leading previous U.S. national teams and believes competitions like next week’s world championships will help the sport grow on a global level.

“I went to Sweden a couple years ago and did some work with USA Football, and there are diehards there,” Brady said. “Some of them knew more about the NFL than I did. They’re out there around the world, and I think they’re intrigued by American football and what it is.”

That’s the long-term goal, but as for next week the American squad would settle for bringing home gold medals as the world champions.

Jordan Harold, a redshirt freshman defensive end on last year’s Division II national champion Northwest Missouri State, is one of three Bearcats on the U.S. roster. Harold wasn’t a member of the squad that lost to Canada in 2012, and he’s determined not to share the experience.

“That does nothing but push us,” Harold said. ‘It’s USA Football, and we created the sport. We hear it all the time — we hear it from the coaches, we hear it from everybody that comes to talk to us. It’s our sport and we know it. We still have respect for those other countries, but when it comes down to it we know it’s our sport and we’ve got to get it back.”

With a short roster and games stacked so close together, Brady and his staff — which also includes University of Richmond defensive coordinator Bob Trott — have had to put together an offense and defense that is adaptable, yet easy to pick up in the short practice window they’ve had together in Winchester.

“That’s the hard part,” Brady said. “It’s not an all-star game. It’s an international competition, which means defensively we can see anything, so we have to prepare for everything. Offensively you want to have enough in your arsenal so you can have some change-ups and do some different stuff. We’re pretty simple, run game-wise.”

Melancon said the offense is largely spread, operating out of the shotgun on most snaps.

“It’s been going really well,” Melancon said. “The first two days were kind of tough, just learning a lot of the offense. I just got a brand-new offense with my first year in college and had to pick up on that, then had to come here and pick up a new offense. But it’s going really well now, I’m pretty sure everybody knows the plays and the playbook. We’ve been getting the timing down really well, so we should be good.”

Harold is expecting the U.S. to be just fine on defense, as well.

“We’re looking really good,” Harold said. “We’ve still got some calls we need to get together, but other than that everybody’s on the same page. We all play physical and we all want to play fast.”

Brady is expecting tough competition in Kuwait.

“I’m sure at some point we’ll have to have some guys play some positions they’re not used to playing,” Brady said. “As far as a cultural experience, it’s unbelievable. We’re taking these guys across the world and it’s free for them, it’s paid for.”