How a boy from Belfast fell in love with American football

BY Ben Isaacs

4th Oct 2023 Lifestyle

4 min read

How a boy from Belfast fell in love with American football
Ben Isaacs explores how Darren Conway went from the Troubles in Belfast to the American football world of Chicago and the Bears
Although born in London, Darren Conway grew up in west Belfast, with his formative years spent on the Glencairn estate, at the top of Shankill Road. The area was known as a Loyalist stronghold, notorious for sectarian violence. In his Protestant neighbourhood, Catholics were considered the enemy. Darren wasn’t Catholic but he still stuck out like a sore thumb. He says he felt like the only Black kid in Northern Ireland. 
"Being different to those around you had the potential to put you in lethal danger"
In a place and time when being different to those around you had the potential to put you in lethal danger, standing out wasn’t a comfortable position to be in. "I kind of scratched my way to, not the top but near the top," Darren says of the pecking order of his school in Belfast. "In my year, I was not to be trifled with." That meant that when finally another person of colour joined the school, Darren felt obligated to keep an eye on the boy to make sure he was safe. 

A life-changing opportunity

The course of Darren’s life changed during a biology lesson. "Mrs Fry said to put your hand up if you’ve ever been on holiday outside of the UK," says Darren, "and I think I was one of two or three kids whose hand didn’t go up. Which led to a reward for being honest, I guess."
Darren forgot all about the question until he was called into a school office a few weeks later and asked if he would like to go on a trip with the Irish Children’s Fund—six weeks in the USA. There was a catch however. He would have to stay with a Catholic family. Darren had been an outsider his whole life. The idea of being an outsider far away from the Troubles, far away from Belfast, far away from school? No problem. "Although I lived in a Loyalist enclave, the whole sectarianism thing didn’t make sense to me," Darren admits. "Everyone was picking on me for being black in the street or in school so I had my own battles to fight."

Stepping into the unknown

In the run up to the trip, which was due to take place during the summer of 1984, Darren—and other kids chosen by the charity to experience a different culture—sent and received letters to and from a host family. No one was really sure what to expect. All Darren knew was the family lived in Oak Park, Illinois—right next to Chicago.
Darren stayed with a host family in Oak Park, next to Chicago, Illinois
He soon realised his knowledge of the USA was already a step above others who went on the trip. The kids’ long journey started with a 250-mile bus ride from Belfast to Shannon Airport, across the border in the Republic of Ireland. Once they were up in the air Darren was soon losing patience with his fellow passengers. When he heard them talking about going to "Illa-noise" he couldn’t hold his tongue and got into a big argument about their faulty pronunciation. 

Decision makers

Although he admits he’s not quite sure how he knew the correct way to say Illinois, it’s also fair to say that Darren was an incredibly intelligent child. He had been offered places at the very best schools in Northern Ireland, such as Belfast Royal Academy and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He turned them down flat.
"It’s fair to say that Darren was an incredibly intelligent child"
"What happens when you live in a single parent household?" he asks rhetorically. "We haven’t got any guidance. Where are the decision makers?" He decided that the risks of being an even bigger target on his estate due to a posh school blazer outweighed the benefits of an improved education.  

Bryan Robson versus Walter Payton

Oak Park was like a different world. A spacious, affluent village famous for its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and for being the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. It was here that Darren had his eyes opened to that greatest of American sports: baseball. 
Wait, what? The host family were ardent Chicago White Sox fans and during that balmy six weeks, Darren was regularly taken to baseball games at the old Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side. With the summer baseball season in full flow when he arrived, Darren’s main connection with the Chicago Bears was through Mikey, a boy in the host family who was the same age as him. Mikey was a huge Walter Payton fan and an avid collector of Topps NFL trading cards. He would show them to Darren and talk about all the players, but was more animated when talking about Payton.
Darren's introduction to American football came from a boy in his host family
However, Darren couldn’t accept that any sportsman could be better than his beloved Bryan Robson, captain of Manchester United and England. "How on Earth can Payton be better than the England captain? The man who had scored the fastest goal in the 1982 World Cup?" Darren asked Mikey in astonishment. When Darren was told how many times Payton had run for 100 yards in a game he retorted by saying that Robson runs at least 300 yards in every match. 

First taste of the NFL

"I didn’t quite get American football," Darren admits, "because it wasn’t in season." But preseason soon rolled around and Darren got his first taste of the NFL, albeit via televised exhibition games. Mikey’s dad had grown up a Cardinals fan rather than a Bears fan. In his youth the Cardinals were the Chicago Cardinals, playing most of their games at Comiskey Park. He felt strongly that the city was big enough to have two NFL teams like it had two pro baseball teams. However, with the Cardinals at this point in St Louis, the family patriarch threw his weight behind the Bears. Darren had got a glimpse of something that would dominate his life for decades. 
The American Football Revolution by Ben Isaacs (Pitch Publishing Ltd, £18.99) is available now
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