Last Sunday, as local NFL fans geared up again to celebrate America's most popular contact sport, a dozen people gathered at the Davis Islands Seaplane Basin to introduce Tampa to an equally rough variation on the game — Gaelic football.
The game resembles a mix of soccer and rugby and its Tampa proponents don't expect it will ever attain the popularity it enjoys in its native country.
Rather, they aim just to expose people here to the centuries-old sport while allowing longtime fans a chance to enjoy it.
"All you need is a ball," said John DeNovi, holding a Gaelic football, which looks like a volleyball. "Once people give it a try, they'll love the game."
Just like the sport of Gaelic football itself, the Tampa effort arises from another game — hurling. There are many similarities between the two sports, but hurling — known as the fastest game on grass — dates thousands of years and it's played with a stick.
The local Gaelic football proponents are working under the umbrella of the 30-member Tampa Bay Hurling Club.
For the past six months, the team has met twice a week in Tampa for hurling practices and scrimmages — 9 a.m. Sundays at the Seaplane Basin and 6 p.m. Wednesdays at Macfarlane Park in West Tampa.
Last Sunday was the first time they added Gaelic football to the mix.
"Hurling and (Gaelic) football have a lot in common," DeNovi said.
For starters, Ireland loves them both. The hurling national finals on Aug. 13 drew 72,000 fans to Dublin's Croke Park and the football championship Sept. 27 in the same stadium attracted 82,000. The NFL's 2017 Super Bowl in Houston was attended by 70,800 people.
Game play is similar, too.
Both hurling and Gaelic football allow a player to catch and carry the ball for up to four steps.
In hurling, the ball or sliotar then can be passed through the air by hitting it with a stick called a hurlee — similar to a hockey stick but with a shorter and fatter base.
The sliotar, the size of a baseball but with more pronounced stitching, also can be passed via a hand smack. Or it can be balanced and bounced on the hurlee as the player runs, bobs and weaves.
Gaelic football rules require passing the inflated ball by foot, hand smack or punch. A player also can bounce the ball off the ground or foot and catch it.
The sports use fields of the same size — 140 to 160 yards long by 90 to 100 yards wide — and the same goal, like in soccer but with NFL-style goalposts on top.
One point is awarded for hitting the ball through the posts, three for shooting it past the goalie.
The sliotar must be smacked with the stick for a score and the Gaelic football must be kicked or punched.
In both sports, shoulder-to-shoulder contact is allowed.
"We all know we have to go to work the next day so we take a little easy on each other," club member DeNovi said, adding with a chuckle, "Plus we're all real handsome and don't want to mess that up."
The Tampa Bay Hurling Club was founded seven years ago by John Hanlon in Bradenton.
Throughout the year, the club travels the country for hurling tournaments that usually include Gaelic football games, too. Other squads often compete in both and now Tampa will, too.
"We've had requests to add football to our team," hurling club member Tim Boyll said. "It felt like the right time."
Boyll is of Irish decent and eight other team members are from Ireland, but a link to the old sod isn't a requirement.
DeNovi, for instance, is Italian and Norwegian.
Women are welcome, too, and the team counts 10 among its 30 members.
More information is on Facebook at TampaBayHurlingClub.
Traditional hurling and Gaelic football teams field 15 players, but in the United States tournaments use seven or 11.
The Tampa Bay Hurling team averages 10 to 12 players per practice.
"We'll play with whatever we get," DeNovi said. "Even three a side."
And when competition gets heated, team member Austin Rushnell said, "we end up at the same bar. This is as much about camaraderie and athletics."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.