Hurley men

The Orlando Hurling Club celebrates a true Irish pastime

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Trying to describe this game requires multiple references to other games. The swinging motions are reminiscent of slugging fastballs, but they can also look like slap shots on ice. All that stick clanging suggests lacrosse, which works well as analogy until you consider the uprights above the goal posts, making allusions to football and extra points inevitable.

The growing group of devotees of the Irish-born sport of hurling know exactly how to describe it. They call it the fastest game played on a grass field.

"It involves every skill you've learned in every sport," says the Orlando Hurling Club's Scott Graves. "Running, awareness of the field, positioning, team play, defense, catching the ball like a baseball, hitting it like a hockey puck, you can kick the ball if you want to." In 2010, the 45-year-old Graves started the club, which is the most sizeable and organized hurling team in Florida. He hopes Orlando can join cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee as hotbeds for hurling outside of Ireland.

"It's a sport that you knew always existed once you play it," he says.

Hurling hasn't gripped audiences in the United States with the same force as that other athletic import, soccer, which has its own professional league and is attracting stadium-sized crowds (see our story last week, "Team Effort," about the Orlando City Lions' bid for acceptance into Major League Soccer). But in the past decade, hurling has steadily grown. Athletes without a direct ancestral connection to Ireland are taking part. Recreational youth and college teams are emerging. Competitive groups are popping up all across the country.

There are a combined 114 clubs for men and women in 50 different cities, according to Tim Flanagan, spokesman for the controlling body of hurling in the U.S., the North American Gaelic Athletic Association. Around 6,000 players are actively involved in the sport. That's double what it used to be five years ago.

"We're starting to get to the point where it's really going to take off," Flanagan says. He credits the rising interest in the sport to a lot of "little fires," as opposed to one big moment. U.S. military personnel who stopped off in Ireland on their way home from Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the game stateside. Social media makes it easier to share links to games and footage, giving it exposure online, and more tourists to Ireland, whether Irish-American or not, are attending hurling matches.

Flanagan thinks hurling has enormous potential in the North American market. His association is throwing its resources behind developing the sport. "We are putting in place a strategic plan for the next five years on how to promote and grow this game," he says. Ideally, he says, national television channels would broadcast hurling games.

But there are some problems to solve first. Like cricket, hurling strikes many Americans as complex, and its Byzantine rules and roots in a distant land contribute to its inaccessibility. In 2007, a reporter with Forbes magazine traveled to Ireland's hurling stronghold, Thurles, a small town in Tipperary County, to dissect the intricacies of the sport. He seemed to have a tough go of it.

"Explaining hurling to an outsider is a little like explaining Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to an 11-year-old," he wrote. "You can get him to sing the songs, but how could he ever really get it?"

In his quest to better comprehend the sport, he drank four pints of brew and engaged in a long conversation with a hurling reporter, who eventually said, "I feel like I could talk to you for four weeks and still not make you really understand."

Here is what we do understand.

Hurling started in Ireland a measly 3,000 years ago, meaning it's older than Christianity and Islam. Though there are internationally recognized stars of the sport in Ireland, hurling has maintained its amateur status, and many of the game's bigwigs still hold down full-time jobs.

The rules can vary slightly depending on geography and skill level, but in general, teams of 15 (Orlando's team is co-ed, but the majority of the players are men) square off against each other on a grassy boundary measuring about 160 yards long and 100 yards wide – in other words, more territory than on a football field. The object is to use an axe-shaped stick made out of ash wood, called a hurley, to whack a cork and leather ball, or sliotar, past the goalie for three points. You can also hit the sliotar over the top of the net, through upright posts, for one point. It's against the rules to take more than four steps carrying the ball in hand, but unlimited travel is permitted while balancing it on the hurley or using the hurley like a hockey stick to slap, push or guide the ball around the field. Helmets are worn to protect the head from accidental bonks to the noggin. Intentional physical contact, however, is limited to shoulder and hip checks. The clock ticks nonstop over the course of two 35-minute periods with a 15-minute halftime in between.

Four years ago, the Orlando Hurling Club founder, Graves, who describes himself as someone with Irish heritage, knew none of this. In fact, he had never even heard of hurling. He moved to Central Florida with his family from Virginia in 2006. On a visit to the Lucky Leprechaun Irish Pub on International Drive in 2008, he watched a hurling match on television. He liked what he saw and ordered a few sticks online. Though his son, whom he first practiced with, stuck with baseball, Graves was instantly hooked.

"There's nothing like chasing down somebody with a stick in your hand," he says. "You feel like a kid."

He passed out fliers at pubs, restaurants, social gatherings and festivals. He tried to make hurling visible wherever and whenever he could, including on his lunch breaks. Graves, a computer technician at a Mitsubishi factory near the Florida Mall, would retrieve his hurley and sliotar from the car trunk and practice against a wall, intriguing coworkers having a quick cigarette outside. He also tapped into the Irish ex-pat community in Central Florida – about 25 percent of the players on the Orlando hurling team are Irish-born.

The effort grew from one guy to about 30 players today. In 2010, the team officially registered with the North American Gaelic Athletic Association. Games and practices are usually held at Soldier's Creek Park in Winter Springs, but the team will practice at the Emery Hamilton Sports Complex on West Colonial Drive in Orlando on the Sunday after St. Patrick's Day. Newcomers are welcome.

Discoverers of the sport often have the equivalent of a conversion story to tell. For Graves, it was the trip to the Lucky Leprechaun. For 33-year-old Mike Conley, who lives in downtown Orlando, it was a sports discussion in the living room of a friend. They were sitting on the couch, and Conley said he missed playing softball where he used to live in Cocoa Beach.

His friend asked if he ever tried to pick up hurling.

"And I said, ‘What's that?'" Conley remembers. "And he said, ‘It's an Irish sport that involves aspects of softball and every other sport.'"

Intrigued, he came to practice that Sunday and has been going back ever since.

Any sport that has been around for a few millennia is bound to accumulate folklore over the centuries, so in addition to playing hurling, Conley enjoys reading about its history and sharing some of the hard-to-prove legends.

One of them allegedly took place circa World War II, when Hitler sent spies into Ireland to gather intelligence in advance of a German invasion.

As Conley tells it, "The spies came back and said: ‘These guys play a sport with wooden sticks and hit each other. We're not taking this island.'"

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