Shrovetide Football

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And this is The Score.

With the end of the NFL season comes a collective American depression. Millions of us are football junkies and the withdrawal, post Super Bowl, can be cruel. This year, I’ve had the good luck to find an antidote to the usual February no-football malaise. I sat down the other night to view a new documentary called Wild in the Streets. And my blues just melted away.

The film is the history, rich and colorful, of a game called Shrovetide Football, a game with origins reaching back all the way to 200 AD, a game wilder (much wilder) than the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, a game still played to this day in a bucolic English town called Ashbourne. I was tired when I sat down to watch the movie. My plan was to get through maybe 20 minutes and then, if I was interested enough, to continue the next night. I was utterly captivated.

Picture this. There’s a river that runs through this town. The two teams are formed by those that live North, the Up’ards, and those that live South, the Down’ards, of the river. And the Up’ards have been Up’ards, the Down’ards Down’ards for centuries. They live in harmony in this village of family bakers and butchers all year long. But come two days in March each year, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, the Up’ards and Down’ards throw themselves into the violent, virtually “insane” game of Shrovetide Football.

Some three thousand, three thousand, players, with several thousand more spectators actively running alongside, herk-and-jerk wildly up and down and through the river along a three-mile stretch between two goals. There are no rules. There is biting, hair-pulling, kicking, full-on outrageous pandemonium, from 2pm to 10pm both days, the teams attempting to get the 4-pound, beautifully painted leather ball to their own goal. The sea of bodies crushes together, careening en masse in and out of the water. Bones are dislocated. Eyes are gouged. Shop windows are boarded shut because the movement of the mass is absolutely uncontrollable. And when it’s all over, grown men cry.

This is the game referred to by Chaucer and Shakespeare. This is the grandfather of rugby, soccer, American Football. The game was played all over the British Isles for many centuries, tales telling us that at one time the ball was literally the decapitated head of a virgin, the winning team believing the head would bring them fertile crops in the spring. But today, Shrovetide Football is played in only one place and that’s Ashbourne. The pride of the townspeople, Up’ards and Down’ards alike, that they are the ones to have continued their ancestors’ earthy and courageous sport, is palpable. It’s the oldest sports rivalry on Earth and the good folks of Ashbourne live for Shrovetide.

I’ve been to a few Super Bowls. But now I’m dying to one day visit Ashbourne in early March and witness this unique and historic bedlam of a sporting event.

You can follow upcoming screenings of the film at And, by the way, there’s an area of the  website called Football’s Evolution where you can read through the detailed history of the two thousand years of football. Fascinating stuff.

Well, the Super Bowl is in fact behind us for 2011. But Shrovetide Football is right around the corner, March 8 and 9.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW. And that’s The Score.



Diana Nyad