The tingling sensation upon the final whistle, a distant memory. The deafness, from victory songs on the coach journey home, erased. The excessive flash from a proud father’s camera, gone.
It was the Plate competition for the Destroyers this year, something that didn’t sit well with Head Coach Russell Hewitt.
“For us, we haven’t been executing in a way we have become accustomed to. You sit and watch the film, see you out gained your opponent, held the ball for longer and even had more plays, but the only stat that counts at the end, is the final score”.
Almost twelve months ago, coach Hewitt and his Portsmouth Destroyers were walking up the steps to collect their BUAFL Championship trophy. They had just completed a momentous victory over the resounding favourites, Birmingham Lions.
They should have built on this foundation, but ultimately the pressure of holding on to their crown for a second successive season proved too much.
FightForTheYard delves a little deeper into the current problems facing the Destroyers and gets to grips with the man at the helm of this faltering programme.
Russell first came into contact with American football when he was just 14-years-old;
“I was a young lad and a local team called Solent Blitz started training on the school field, I’ve been hooked for 25 years.”
Beginning as a defensive back, Russell played the sport from 1994 – 2003.
“I’ve played for too many years, I started out as a defensive back before moving to linebacker and defensive end, as I got older and slower.
Over the years I have also played quarterback, tight end, running back and receiver, in fact the only place I haven’t played is offensive line!”
Something which attracted Russell to the sport is the notion that whichever body type you are, you can compete for a place on the roster.
“I love the competition that football throws up and that anybody can play it. Then you add the life lessons it teaches you, the sport cannot be beat.
Knowing his playing career was coming to an end, Russell jumped at the chance to get involved in the coaching side of the game.
“Graham Thorpe got me started coaching Youth and University football, whilst I was still playing. He got me helping out with the Sundevils Youth team, and a GB Lions Youth camps. I was then the defensive backs coach for the Southampton Stags in 2002-03.
Jim Robertson appointed me as a defensive coordinator in 2003 when I retired from playing. I really have to thank them both, as they ignited a passion for coaching, something I didn’t think I had. Getting into coaching has been a great thing for me, to pass on knowledge and see an individual improve is extremely rewarding but it can also be testing and very hard work”.
In 2004 the University of Portsmouth was looking for a head coach to start a football programme, something Russell was hesitant about doing.
“I was invited to be the head coach and start a team with about twelve students. To be honest I had no idea what to do and neither did they but we started recruiting and then learnt how to recruit properly…”.
After taking charge of the team, Hewitt and his coaching staff set about establishing some targets, some of which were extremely brave and in hindsight maybe too brash.
“We travelled to Oxford Brooks for our associate team with only 17 players and two coaches, we lost 14-2 but it was a great experience.
Since then it’s been about improving and every single year, we took steps. We originally set a three-year plan to get to playoffs, but we fell just short of that so I sat down with some of our coaches and captains to make sure that would never happen again”.
Luckily for coach Hewitt the talk did the trick and they began the hard work of challenging the best programmes in the country; “Everyone bought in, we took on the University colours, rebranded and the new Destroyers were born”.
Winning the Championship last season would be enough for some people but their will be no complacency on the part of coach Hewitt.
“Have we achieved what I want? No. It was amazing to lift the Neil Reynolds Trophy last season but the work is in the grind to get better. What makes the BUAFL so great is the time you get with players, generally players only get 24 games, just three short seasons, to reach their football potential, so you have to get the best out of them for your programme”.
Russell points to the achievements of John Wooden (UCLA Basketball coach) and Bob Ladouceur (De La Salle High School) who won 10 National Championships in 11 seasons and a twelve-year winning streak respectively as an example of pushing the boundaries of perfection.
“I really don’t believe you can ever be satisfied with where you are or you drop back down and nobody can be perfect all the time, but when a coaching legend like John Wooden or Bob Ladouceur can do what they’ve done, you know you must work harder”.
The current season has not been plain sailing for the Destroyers especially after the heroics by last year’s team.
“This season has been a new challenge and thus been another learning curve. Last year was great and something I will look back on in future years, my first National Championship as a Head Coach, but that ended as soon as we lifted the trophy.
The confidence that win gave us was amazing and we took that into this season. Ultimately it has brought out the best in our opponents, and they’re all looking for a shot at the National Champions”.
Russell is pleased with the development of some of his players but is disappointed with recent performances.
“We have built on last years team, adding a huge rookie class and in some cases these rookies have beaten out veteran players which is excellent to see because this really allows us to plan for next year and beyond. Yet we have to be honest with ourselves, we didn’t return out of the Christmas break as we should have and that cost us our 15 game win streak”.
Unfortunately the Destroyers succumbed to the Bath Killer Bees in the first round of the Plate competition, leaving them trophyless for 2011/12 and thinking what could have been if they could keep the team fit.
Had the Destroyers missed out on the playoffs completely, they would have come under much scrutiny from rival teams and coach Hewitt was keen to avoid a backlash.
“First of all, some people don’t like us but we don’t care and that’s why we’re viewed the way we are. Last season we publically stated ‘The Outcome Is Already Determined’, it’s a Ray Lewis quote and it means ‘We don’t care who you are, if we bring our best, we’ll beat you’. I can understand why people got upset but we had taken beatings from Southampton and Hertfordshire time and time again but now we could stand up and look them in the eye. We backed up what we said and took care of business.
When it comes to this season, if we had missed the playoffs, everyone would’ve laughed at us, the ‘unofficial forum’ would self implode, (Hooray!). We have a great league and a lot of people work hard to keep it that way. I’m proud to coach in a league where one single loss may mean you miss out on the playoffs, (especially in the MAC), two losses and you might as well load the gun yourself”.
Away from the Portsmouth Destroyers, Russell is an avid follower of the Miami Dolphins but his primary football passion is College Football; “The excitement that surrounds an NCAA game with 70,000 – 90,000 fans attending week-in-week-out, is special”.
Last year Russell and his friends travelled across Southern America whilst watching Mississippi State v LSU, a High School game in Gainesville, Tennessee vs Florida, before finishing with the Atlanta Falcons vs Philadelphia Eagles.
In the previous year, Russell embarked on a one man mission driving 1,300 miles across the states, taking in more games and managing to catch a quick chat with former Dallas Cowboys and Hall Of Fame receiver Michael Irvin at a Miami Hurricanes training session.
This year he plans to head over to Dublin for the Notre Dame v Navy encounter, then fly to either Texas or Michigan depending on television schedules.
Russell has had the honour of meeting current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on more than one occasion due to his involvement with the International Series.
“I’ve been lucky enough to attend all the games so far as I provide all the stats that go live on NFL.com. It’s quite a pressured environment as we are the only non-American crew. The NFL audits all the games to ensure the stats are 100% correct, which we have managed to do for three straight years.
The first time I met Mr Goodell it was just a quick polite chat, but he is an amazing ‘people person’. We see him just once a year, but he’ll remember who you are, and even joke about us ‘getting it right’ in regards to the stats”.
While this season has come to an abrupt end for Hewitt and his beloved Destroyers, you can guarantee they will be back next year, determined to prove their critics wrong.
FightForTheYard would like to thank Russell Hewitt for his time and commitment to this feature.
All photos courtesy of Russell Hewitt.