Highland Wildcats celebrate 25th anniversary: 'It really is the greatest team sport in the world'
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This year marks a milestone for the Highland Wildcats as they celebrate 25 years since forming.
On July 4, 1999, the club officially became a charity. Starting out as a flag football unit, they have evolved into one of the UK's premier American football clubs for teenagers, hitting double digits of Scottish titles and winning multiple British Championships.
Some of the coaches still involved with the Wildcats today have been involved since day one, or close to it.
Head coach Ben Senior is one of those, having started with the Wildcats in 2001, and he says there are big plans in place to mark the occasion later this year.
"We've been known as various things over the years – the Wildcats name itself started around 2004 I think – but we've been an American football club and a charity for 25 years," Senior explained.
"It's a really exciting time as we're getting ready for the anniversary. We've got a lot planned for this season.
"We'll host a home tournament at some point, and we're hoping to make a big deal out of that this year.
"We want to try and get a load of former players along and put on a bit of a show, with some entertainment and everything else.
"We're looking to host a charity flag game on our birthday, July 4, which is when we signed our charity papers in 1999, with a barbecue to make a big deal out of it.
"Those are the main two things, but we've got some folks working on other projects behind the scenes.
"Hopefully we'll be able to put out a lot of throwback content too. We've got reams and reams of film – we were actually having a look through and we found some old DVDs from the early 2000s, so it will be great to digitise some of those and see what embarrassing photos are kicking around."
Coach Tom Hutchison, who is also the general manager of senior American football club the Highland Stags, was one of the founding members of the Wildcats 25 years ago.
Considering what the club would go on to achieve on a national scale, his memories of those early days paint quite a different picture of what the Wildcats could have become.
"I remember us as a group of friends who would throw a ball around at Charleston Academy," Hutchison recalled.
"It was very casual to start with. Someone had a football, we threw it around, and I never thought it would build to what it was. We were just some friends who were having a laugh.
"We started off with a flag team and seven or eight of us got a uniform and tried to see if we could play a couple of games against some other people.
"When we first had a facility, it was roughly where the roundabout is behind the running track at Queen's Park, and then when they put in the bypass they took away our practice field.
"When that happened we got our current facility at The Blitz, and having our own building to work from and our own practice areas was massive for the club.
"We were obviously a flag team for the first few years because the financial costs of running a team are quite high. I remember the first game that we ever played, and that was really fantastic – and important, because it set everything else in motion.
"We've had some great rivalries, and to this day I still coach against opponents that I met over 20 years ago when they were playing for teams in Glasgow – and they're still playing for the same teams.
"American football has given me a lot over the last 25 years. It has always been a consistent part of my life, and it's important for me to give back to it now."
For Hutchison, the thing about American football that appealed to him was the opportunity to mix strategy and tactics with the physicality of the sport.
For Senior, it is the "most incredible team sport in the world". He holds that view because there is a place for everyone no matter their size or body shape – or whether they prefer the cerebral part of the game, the contact, or some mix of the two like Hutchison.
The impact that being involved in the sport has had on its members – who are believed to number into the thousands over the last 25 years – is something that still motivates the Wildcats head coach to this day.
"There are people who have used the Wildcats to be successful in their lives," Senior reasoned.
"I could recount plenty of people who have been on a downward path, or a less than admirable path, who have used the discipline and camaraderie you get within the Wildcats to adjust the path of their life and focus on good things.
"Because of that a lot of them are at the very worst in full-time employment and doing well with their lives. They are actively out going to university, or getting great jobs, they have healthy relationships with their families and partners.
"Then on the other side of things we've got guys who have focused so much on the sports side of things that perhaps weren't the best athletes before they came along and fell in love with the sport, who are now competing at an international level.
"It's hugely stressful and frustrating at times – because when you see them turn up, you see potential in all of them. You have to find a way to work with them and engage with them to get that potential out of them.
"It pays dividends, and one of the highlights for me was that when I got married back in 2019, five or six players that I had coached when they were 13 or 14 appeared at the bar as grown men with great jobs and great attitudes at my reception.
"They all came up and said 'hi coach, great to see you', and that was really touching. It was something special.
"It is incredible, it really is the greatest team sport in the world because if every single player isn't doing what they need to do on every single play, nothing works.
"It really touches all aspects of people's lives. It's not just about the sport itself, people thrive in this family environment that we've created."
The personal development on and off the pitch is something that every coach involved with the Wildcats over the last two and-a-half decades can be proud of.
With a litany of trophies in their cabinet, as well as a number of players who have gone on to play for Scotland and Great Britain – and even a current professional player in the form of Daniel Kane – Hutchison believes that can extend out into Inverness and the Highlands more generally too.
"There are thousands of players who have come through and experienced the sport, whether that be in flag football or full contact," he added.
"For increasing physical activity, it has done a lot for a lot of people. We will take guys who may not feel like traditional sports are an option for them.
"We've had a lot of players who have gone through national programmes. We've had players who have gone professional after coming through the team, so that's an option now too.
"Obviously Daniel Kane is the best example at the moment of someone who has come through the Wildcats, helped to coach the team, and now he's gone off to Canada and Germany being paid to play.
"From the coaching side of things, it has been really good seeing all these kids come through from starting off at the Wildcats in January and needing a bit of support to get the best out of them, to then being in the national set-up by the end of the year.
"That's really important for me, to push these guys. I've been through that myself, so I know how it is and I know what it takes to get to that point and being able to talk to the kids about it has been really good for me.
"The club has just given people a bit of pride. We've done really well as a club – both the Stags and the Wildcats actually – over the last 25 years.
"It's an award-winning programme, we've got a lot of trophies in that cabinet that are well-deserved and gives a bit of positivity to the community."