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BOSNIA BOWL // A New Year tradition? GIs hope not

Published Jul. 6, 2006

The Rose Bowl it wasn't, but a muddy and rutted helicopter landing field let American soldiers keep alive a tradition from back home _ football on New Year's Day.

"This is the Bosnia Bowl, baby!" hollered players at the opening kick-off in a game pitting U.S. and British officers against enlisted men of the NATO-led peace force in Bosnia.

Surrounded by barbed wire on the edge of the U.S. and British base in Kiseljak, 15 miles northwest of Sarajevo, the game of two-hand touch was largely limited to players sliding around in the mud or fumbling the slippery ball.

Tight security around the base prevented any Bosnians from witnessing the spectacle.

"There's not a lot to do around here," said Army Spec. Cari Hanson, 25, of Aurora, Colo., one of a three-woman cheerleading squad that included a good-natured French sergeant who, even after the game's conclusion, professed to possessing not even a small clue of what the game was about.

No matter. Hanson, whose husband is stationed with U.S. forces in Tuzla, and whose two daughters, one only 4 months old, are being cared for in England, said it brought a welcome break from hard work and loneliness: "It's good for morale," she said.

Not to mention a few laughs.

The referee was Brig. Gen. John Sylvester, who admitted he had never officiated before and had a hard time commanding attention when blowing a yellow plastic whistle described by onlookers as "pathetic."

"The first g-----n rule is don't run over the ref," Sylvester barked as the game began.

"And no clipping," he added. Seeing the confusion on British faces at that bit of jargon, he added, "And just so all you Brits understand right, that means no hitting from behind."

The British, six of the 28 players who showed up for the game, acquitted themselves well. Maj. Jim Richardson, his rugby experience showing, rushed for two touchdowns for the officers.

The decision to play touch football and limit contact caused some grumbling, and a few British soldiers watching the match took up the call by heckling from the sidelines.

"This is sissy stuff," said British Pvt. James Blundell. "It's not really the stuff you expect from soldiers. They should try rugby."

The rag-tag teams were treated to a cacophony of sporadic machine-gun bursts from the nearby villages, the local New Year's tradition. But no one flinched.

Rather, they battled up and down the muddy 60-yard field for the Bosnia Bowl trophy, a GI helmet painted white, emblazoned with a blue-edged silver star on each side _ a reasonable facsimile of a Dallas Cowboys helmet.

On the front, the initials O.J. were painted, a spoof tribute to former football player O.J. Simpson. None of the NATO troops was heard to say that they found it odd to name their trophy after the world's best-known murder defendant.

"Sure the field is a little lumpy and muddy, but it's our tradition. We gotta play today," said Lt. Col. Harold Harvey, captain of the officers' team.

"We don't have any televisions around here that will show a game, so we have to do it ourselves," said Harvey, from Gower, Mo.

Orange plastic tape weighed down with sandbags marked out the playing field. Occasionally, players tripped over the tape, but they didn't have to worry about smashing into the goal posts. There weren't any.

Nobody wore helmets, pads or team colors. The sides turned out in their fatigues, the officers distinguished from their adversaries by orange ribbons around their right arms.

For the record: Besides Richardson, two Americans _ Maj. Keith Walter and Maj. James Soos _ sliced through the opponents' defense for touchdowns. The officers cruised to a 24-0 win and possession of the Bosnia Bowl trophy.

Even so, the officers took a few hits, both on and off the field. At one point, an Army specialist hollered after one of his superiors flubbed a pass: "Good throw, sir. I've seen better arms on a chair."

Equally humiliating, perhaps, was the fact that the Most Valuable Player of the game was Richardson, who allowed as how he'd never played football before. When told onlookers had unofficially designated him MVP, he looked puzzled and asked, "What does that mean?"

After the game, the two sides shook hands, sipped beers and hoped there wouldn't be an opportunity for a second annual Bosnia Bowl because they would all be back home.

Said Sgt. 1st Class Terry Spearman, of Fort Bragg, N.C.: "It was fun, guys, but let's not make this a tradition."