Wolfhounds Hope To Become Big Dogs In Triad Sports, Culture
Here in the heart of basketball and NASCAR country, one Winston-Salem man is trying to bring something new. Or, actually, something centuries old, just new here. It’s a sport with deep Irish roots, and organizers are hoping the team’s influence will reach beyond the field.
The team is the Winston-Salem Wolfhounds, and the sport is Gaelic football. Tim Cronin (lean of body and long of beard) has played it since he was five, as did most boys he knew growing up in Ireland’s County Kerry.
“In most towns you live near a Gaelic Football field. Most towns or villages will have one if not multiple Gaelic Football clubs - there’s about 4 in my town alone. It’s just something you do.”
On this day, it’s a match against a team from Raleigh. It looks a lot like soccer, but all the players - not just the goalie - can use their hands. And it’s a physical game - but in Gaelic football, there’s no tackling. The goal has uprights like a football goalpost, giving players two ways to score - over the goal, or in it.
So how did it come here? It started when Cronin arrived in Winston-Salem a few years ago and started recruiting people join him in his favorite game. The first practice had four players, but Cronin wasn’t discouraged.
“I just basically went door to door of my neighborhood asking people if they wanted to play this sport called Gaelic Football,” he says. “I got a lot of nos. I got mainly nos. But I was just kind of gifted with the gift of gab I suppose. So I kept asking people and persuading people to play.”
That grassroots approach is how he found players like Shawn Small. Born and raised here, he happened to see a flyer for the new team at a local bar.
“[I] had no idea how to play it, didn’t know anything about it, and that’s what piqued my curiosity. I had to find out.”
What he found was a game he loves to play, and a group of people he now calls family.
“Those are the people I rely on when I might need something, or a shoulder to cry on, or have a reason to go get a beer and celebrate, for whatever reason,” he says.
Now let’s be clear. The Wolfhounds want to win. They want to do well enough to advance to play other teams from across the country. But there’s another goal. They see the game as a way to bring the home country’s culture here to the Triad.
It means when the team gathers, you might hear Irish music, like music from from Goilin a Winston-Salem-based band that plays traditional Irish songs. There may be expanded Irish sports, including hurling. The team has also reached out to a local Irish dance group. Even an organization of Irish Wolfhound dog owners have been invited to the team’s post-game parties.
This appeals to fans like Jeanne McCulloch, who has both Irish and U.S. citizenship. She’s been attending the games with her husband, Tim.
“I thought it was wonderful because I’m interested in anything Irish so I thought it was great that someone started a GAA - Gaelic Athletic Association - here in Winston-Salem and there would be games and we said right away ‘We’ll go watch those,’” she says.
Some teams that start as small like the Wolfhounds can become big players in the local sports scene. Christian Schroeder of Visit Winston-Salem says that’s what happened with another non-traditional sport here - Ultimate. (You might know it as Ultimate Frisbee. But trademarks!)
Locally, that goes back to just a handful of passionate players in the 1980s. But slowly, it grew. And for the last two years, USA Ultimate has held its Division III college championships here.
Schroeder says that kind of growth takes a lot of off-the-field teamwork.
“I think the biggest thing is as we got the pieces together more and more people wanted to get involved. So it wasn’t one individual doing the heavy lifting, it was the team working together on this goal,” he says.
All that takes time. Right now, the Wolfhounds’ focus is on building the team. It’s currently a hodgepodge of experienced Irish players and neophyte locals. And the growing pains are obvious. That game against a more-experienced Raleigh team was a lopsided loss. But every game is a chance to improve - not just to win, but for more.