News editor Poppy Jacobs and sports editor Lucy Blitz collaborate to cover the 20th anniversary of the Birmingham Lions’ annual XpLosION event.
The University of Birmingham Lions produced a resounding victory against the Cardiff Cobras on Saturday 4th November in yet another XpLosION spectacle.
Following a narrow loss to the Portsmouth Destroyers in October, Birmingham faced a mighty feat against the Cobras as they navigated limited squad depth and a number of injured players on the back of a defeat away from home.
Yet the Lions walked away with a confident 27-17 win after offensive running back Adam O’Reilly scored a defiant touchdown with the opening play of the game. Lions President Grady Nightingale excelled in his position as a wide receiver with a pair of standout catches, while cornerback Obed Addai snatched two interceptions for the hosts.
Social secretary O’Reilly explained that the Lions’ victory was even more impressive considering the difference in club budget compared with their opponents.
‘Cardiff have recently got more funding, whereas the Birmingham philosophy has always been to bring in new talent and teach them. We’re not dependent on a massive budget.’
The Lions had further reason to celebrate, as XpLosION marked its 20th edition with this year’s display. The event, unique to the University of Birmingham, offers students a taste of American Football close to home.
‘It’s the closest thing to college sport in America that we have,’ said Bhavya Gandhi, defensive linebacker for the Lions. ‘The whole university comes out to watch – it’s a massive spectacle.’
Despite the poor weather, hundreds of students gathered pitchside to support the home team. As is traditional in the States, the annual event included an impressive halftime performance from the University Cheer team, featuring both the Pussycats and Tabbycats, as well as a firework display.
Jordy Konesh, recipient of the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year award following a standout rookie season, sees XpLosION as a great experience for new players to get fully involved.
“It’s a big opportunity to showcase what the club and the sport is about, and to demonstrate how much hard work we put in training,” said the outside linebacker, currently in his second active year with the Lions.
‘It’s consistently the biggest event at the university – it feels like it gets bigger each year’.
The packed crowds at the event, which traditionally falls on the first home game of the season, serve as a reminder of the growth in popularity of American football in the UK.
‘We can feel it within our league,’ said O’Reilly. ‘Even people from America see it [American football in the UK] as a genuine route into the sport and a genuine route into playing in Europe.’
Considering the NFL’s recent takeover of London and Frankfurt, Gandhi explained how growth in the League’s popularity has influenced fans around the world.
‘Everyone has heard of the NFL now, and it’s just a matter of time before people start learning about the sport and eventually start playing.’
The success of American football on both sides of the pond leaves recruitment secretary Gandhi with less of a challenge in signing up fresh talent, while the Lions’ skilled coaching staff gives younger players even more reason to stick with the team.
‘Our head coach is the starting linebacker for the GB team, and we’ve got coaches that play for Tamworth Phoenix, the local regional team,’ said Gandhi. ‘Kris Wedderburn also plays in Europe, so we’ve got a hugely experienced group.’
The Lions’ motto ‘more than football’ is a major aspect of the club’s values – and is reflected in the team’s togetherness.
‘We’re one big squad, and so everyone is friends with everyone. There’s no divide between teams, and that really sets us apart from other clubs,’ said O’Reilly.
The Lions don’t trade in their jersey for a cap and gown either. The team’s close-knit bond is evident, with a former Lions coach hiring two ex-players since they bid farewell to Birmingham.
‘We have a careers network, our head coach gives us ‘learn, prosper and conquer’ talks – stuff about balancing uni life, mental health, and welfare,’ Gandhi explained.
With 85 members this year, the five-time national champions have their sights set on another accolade in the spring – but first, they must conquer the regular season and reach the league playoffs.
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