Ukraine's American Football family fighting to defend its nation

By Kevin Meyer | Posted 3/31/2022

American football’s reach and popularity is global and continues to grow. This includes Europe, where countries such as Ukraine field robust leagues. In a time in which their country faces an invasion by the Russian military, incurring tremendous hardship and oppression, the coaches, staff and players of the Ukrainian League of American Football (ULAF) have put their season on hold to unify behind a different cause – the defense of their homeland.

In a Q&A format, Denis Polubinsky, Vice President of the ULAF provides insight to readers about the situation on the ground in Ukraine and details how the ULAF is fighting to retain their country’s national sovereignty and independence.

USA Football: What is happening on the ground in Ukraine currently?

Denis Polubinsky: A couple weeks before the invasion began, we were looking ahead to our plans for spring, which was our first normal spring in two years as a result of coming out of isolation. That's when we started to see the signs of a real threat from the western media. We had already planned our ULAF (Ukrainian League of American Football) spring season and put plans in place for our Ukrainian National Team to train for the IFAF European Championship for the first time in many years. We also planned our two national championships – SuperLeague and League 8 – to start at the end of April. Needless to say, excitement was high and everyone had worked hard. Many players and club leaders I talked with about the potential of a Russian invasion didn’t believe it would actually happen, however, we were all ready in case it did.

At 5 a.m on February 24, the Russians began invading our airspace and carried out shelling and bombings of important training facilities, ammunition depots and bases for the Ukrainian military. They followed that up with a land force with tanks and other heavy military equipment and attempts to overtake airports near Kyiv. It is my belief that the Russians expected to seize these areas and overpower us in a matter of days, but at the time of these responses it is Day 20 of the assault and we have held firm in fighting back and defending our homes.

USAFB: What is the Russian invasion’s impact on Ukraine’s American Football community? Also, may you expound on the fact that 70% of the ULAF’s players are now serving the Ukrainian military to defend their nation?

DP: As of right now we have regular army forces of Ukraine as well as territory defense (a volunteer army). Our regular army is experienced and has had military training, while our territory defense groups do not require any experience or training, simply a strong spirit and a will to fight. These volunteer groups were formed to protect cities and villages and to coordinate with and support the regular army. In certain areas, these units have been used like regular armed forces and have fought well in every sense.

Obviously, when things first began, there was chaos. Chaos in stores, at gas stations – everywhere. At our military mobilization centers in places like Kharkiv, Kyiv, Odessa and Lviv – among others – there was a large number of people who wanted to become part of the defense of our country and they came without being asked. That’s when we knew we would win this.

At the ULAF, our players were no exception. It was initially very difficult to communicate with all of them in the war’s early phases. We know that all players from Lviv, Vinnitsya, Uzghorod and Zdolbuniv set to work organizing and delivering food, medical supplies and equipment to those who needed it. Our peers with the Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian and Czech American Football federations aided in these efforts as well and will forever have our gratitude for their help.

Right now, over 80 percent of the athletes from our league are in active duty to defend Ukraine, most of them in active combat. Our female flag football athletes and cheerleaders are helping in support efforts like cleaning, organizing gear and sowing camouflage nets. It’s truly a group effort and everyone is working to support the defense of our country.

USAFB: What is your outlook on the situation as a Ukrainian and as the vice president of the Ukrainian League of American Football?

DP: It's terrible to see all this. War is changing humans and their souls. War is giving only tears, suffering and destruction. I do not want to say that this is the price of freedom, because we were free. Our country just celebrated 30 years of independence. I think in a way that Ukraine is paying the price for peace in the whole world. For warm beds in France. For hot dinners in Austria. For summer parties in Spain. For beautiful mornings somewhere in the mountains on a weekend.

As for our outlook – as Ukrainians, players and athletes – we just want to win this war, rebuild our country and start to live our usual, normal lives.