On Saturday November 25th, the 9 time National Champion, Dublin Rebels return to action in the 2017 Atlantic Cup. This will be the fourth time the Rebels compete in the competition, and first time on Irish soil. The opponents for this year are newcomers to the contest, The Bucharest Rebels, themselves 3 time National Champions of Romania.
Unique to this game, one man has played for both teams, Andrei-Vlad Vasilescu. In preparation to the big game, we sat down with Vlad to talk football, and the impending Rebels versus Rebels game.
Hi Vlad, so you started playing football 10 years ago, what drew you to American Football?
Vlad: I’ve always enjoyed and played team sports and instantly became a fan of American Football after I watched my first game; Superbowl 36, also, the reason I’m a Patriots fan.
The more time I spent watching the game and understanding the intricacies, the more I loved it.
My grandfather was a great chess player, he taught me to play, and in American football I found a sport where the chess game was brought to the field, where you need to know the strengths, and, weakness of each player, and, how, and where, you should or shouldn’t use it.
You previously were with the Bucharest Warriors, followed by this Saturdays opponents the Bucharest Rebels, tell us a little about your time playing in Romania?
Vlad: I began with the Warriors, the first team in Romania in 2007. We started as a group of guys that met on an online forum and decided we would like to go out in the park and throw the football around.
We progressed into playing kind of a touch football, there was nowhere in Romania to get flags then or now . All of that changed when that summer a guy that had played high-school football in the States joined us and basically told us that there were other teams in Europe that played tackle football and that we should try to form a team.
We ordered our first gear from a store in Germany and by November 2007 we were able to play our first ever game against a team that formed around the same time in a city about 200km from Bucharest. Looking back now it’s actually pretty funny. We had no clue what we were doing, all we knew about American Football was from the one game a week that cable TV was showing, Madden and the movies we saw. People could not believe we were doing that but we kept it up. Our first game jerseys were sewn together by one of the guys’ mother, and we spray painted the numbers and names on the back with stencils. I still have mine.
That might be my favourite jersey story I’ve heard, resourceful!
Vlad: We won the first 2 Romanian Championships in 2010 and 2011 with the Warriors but then in 2012 when Team Romania played its first, and only up until now, game there was a big disagreement with the management of the Warriors and all players left the team.
We took up the name Rebels, because we rebelled against some concepts that we believed were wrong and did not want to be a part of it. In 2012 the Rebels lost the championship with a point differential after a two game final. In November I managed to get my first major injury when on the first play of a friendly I broke my tibia in 3 places.
At the time I was thinking that that was going to be when I hang my cleats but being on the side lines made me really itch to see if I can play again and so in 2014 started getting back into. We won the Championship for the first time as Rebels that year and I decided the leg was well enough to keep going. I think we went undefeated the next season as well and 2015 culminated with the first game televised on national TV and with the worst score you can have in a game, finishing 2-0 with a safety as the only scoring play.
Not the Ideal show for TV. What positions did you play back home?
Vlad: I started as a Wide-out, being one of the smallest players on the team didn’t actually allow me a wide choice of positions, and also played as a Wing-back in the season where our offensive scheme was changed to a Wing T based one.
I also played Free Safety towards the end of the Warriors period and after I moved to the Rebels. On offense with the Rebels I became a slot receiver as we moved to a spread style offense.
I finished with 4 championships, out of a possible 6, in Romania before moving to Ireland.
Not a bad haul, so as you said two years ago, you moved to Ireland, and joined the Dublin Rebels, what were the biggest differences you found from back home?
Vlad: That’s actually a question I get asked a lot. I think the biggest difference is the experience level the players and coaches have. It’s crazy to see so many players that have been doing this for so long and at a good level from the onset.
League wise the biggest difference I feel is the number of teams involved. But I see a lot of similarities with Romania when it comes to the things that go in the league which I feel encouraging for Romania as it is a much younger league.
Regarding the level of play I see the same intensity, the same passion. I go back to the first point regarding the experience, but I feel the Romanian teams make up with the level of individual athletes that play. I guess we’ll have a first example of the difference, if indeed there is one, on Saturday the 25th
You’ve had a couple of nicknames from your football play, are you allowed to disclose their origins?
Vlad: Hahahahah, the two that I got since playing here are “Lemonade” and “The Impaler”.
Both came about last season. To take them chronologically, “The Impaler” was always floating around since I first joined the team due to my first name being Vlad and the affinity of Irish people and vampires, I still blame Bram Stoker.
But I was told I earned it because of my tackling technique where against bigger guys, which is almost everybody, I get low enough that people have ended up tumbling over their heads or ending up going head first into the ground .
“Lemonade” happened the day before the 2016 Bowl when we went out for dinner with the team. I never drink alcoholic drinks in the week before games and I always try to stay away from fizzy soft drinks so when ordering I asked for Lemonade and having the experience of having been brought Fanta Lemon in the past I may have been a bit too loud in asking for “Freshly squeezed Lemonade”.
We ask the hard questions, which one do you prefer?
Vlad: Most of everybody that knows me from back home knows me as “UFO”, I’ve had this nickname for almost 18 years now, so that will always be my default.
But concerning the Dublin Rebels I can’t really choose as they both mean a lot to me in different ways. “The Impaler” because that represents my on the field persona where I’m not afraid to go against anybody and it shows my teammates know I’ll give everything for them.
“Lemonade” because it represents the family aspect this team means to me and the fact that through all the hard times I’ve had with moving my whole life over 3000kms, the Rebels have always been there to support, to understand and to help.
You’ve played on both sides of the ball for the Dublin Rebels, Do you have a favourite play, or even one either side, you’ve had with the Rebels? What about a favourite play with Bucharest?
Vlad: For the Dublin Rebels my favourite play is by far the pick-6 I had against the Trojans this past season. It happened just as I’d probably imagined it a million times in my head. They ran a play that we had seen before and I had help on the inside from the safety so I knew I was free to try and make a play so when I saw the QB wind up and the receiver plant and turn his body I just broke for the ball. The pass was a little overthrown and so I caught it and all I had in front of me was 40 yards of green grass for a touchdown. It meant a lot for me as I finally felt that the transition to defence was paying off, and scoring is always fun!
For Bucharest, the one that sticks out the most from the last couple of years was in the 2015 semi-final game when I ran a go route and caught a perfectly thrown pass for a TD. It was just one of those plays where everything just clicked, the alignment was just as we hoped with me in the Slot and a LB in man coverage, I had a good get off and enough separation on the bump and the pass came just over the defenders head but high enough that I could track it. The fact that the team considered it the best passing TD in the 2015 campaign made it even sweeter.
You’ve now won two National championships with the Dublin Rebels, and get to play in a game you’ve hoped would happen since joining the team, against your home town, Bucharest Rebels, give us your thoughts on that finally happening, and in a European Final no less.
Vlad: Yes indeed, I’ve been trying to throw small “hints” of making this happen ever since I joined as I felt it would produce a good match-up. The fact that it happens to be in a European Cup Final makes it so much sweeter. I’ve been waiting for the Atlantic Cup since last year when I found out about it I think the week before the Shamrock Bowl.
Really proud of my guys from Bucharest for joining the Atlantic cup even though I know they won’t have a complete squad. It’s a good opportunity for them to develop and I believe they’ll be really motivated about this.
Who are the Bucharest players to watch out for in the game?
Vlad: It’s hard to pick but I’ll go for Wide Receiver, number 85, Radu Ene for Offense.
Radu’s the top dog receiver over there with great hands and good route running; he’ll be a great match-up that I look forward to.
On Defence, I’d pick Linebacker, Cosmin Zamfir, no 50. He’s one of the guys that I started playing next to 10 years ago and from the start he’s been known around the league as a “no brakes, hard hitter” and runner when he swaps in at Running Back, on the Offence.
We’ll keep a close eye on those match ups, and thank you for taking the time to chat, and the best of luck on Saturday.
Saturdays game kicks off at 1pm in ALSAA Sports Centre in Santry, entry is Free, and the match-up between the Dublin Rebels and Bucharest Rebels to crown the 2017 Atlantic Cup Champions promises to be a great one.
Interview by Paul Grogan