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Hurley men

The Orlando Hurling Club celebrates a true Irish pastime

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A

Jason Greene

"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.

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