On a turf pitch ringed by rainbow-colored poles and Soviet-style apartments, a man with ice blue eyes lines up, hand-painted helmet on his head. The quarterback hikes, and Dmitry Vukich runs, catches a pass, snaps it to the ground, and keeps running. Dima Sivenko, a 16-year-old who lied about his age and weight to join the team last year, sprints forward, drops a pass, and returns to the line. Maksim Karmazin lines up and his phone rings.
An Azov Dolphins practice is indistinguishable from any football practice in America—goofing off in the locker room, warmups and stretches, drills, sprints, scrimmaging—until the running back steps out mid-drill to sell meat to local stores over the phone.
In the port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, people are finally peeling the tape X’s—the ones that keep glass from shattering under shock waves—from their windows. You almost can’t tell that the front line of a military conflict is only seven miles away. Normalcy has fought its way back into the most polluted city in Ukraine, where children’s futures are determined by one choice: the factories or the port.
Azov Dolphins players run around the stadium before the training session. All photos by Alexey Furman.
The Dolphins are an anomaly for many reasons. Formed in 2012 by a group of friends in a bleak neighborhood called the Pentagon, they lost both of their coaches to the war diaspora—one to Kiev, one to rebel-controlled Donetsk. Some of its players are active soldiers on the front line, some are high school students, some have had to flee the war. Dmitry, only 21 but with an imperial charisma, captains the team along with Andrey Kulivets, the defensive captain. They watch YouTube videos of football drills and do their best to mime them.
Not long ago, Mariupol was the site of revolution, of shelling and gunfire and blood and fire. It briefly fell to rebels in 2014 before its recapture by the Ukrainian military. In 2015, it was heavily shelled. The closest city to the rebel-held Donetsk People’s Republic, it has seen thousands of its citizens displaced, and has taken in thousands of citizens displaced from the DPR.
The Dolphins play in the Ukrainian League of American Football, but two of their last three seasons were cut short by the war. A single away game costs each player $40, or one-third of the average monthly salary in Mariupol.
Mariupol is an ecological disaster. To play American football here—to be any kind of athlete—is to defy the dangerous levels of benzapiren, formaldehyde, and ammonia that seep from the factory smokestacks. It’s also, according to the league’s director, “three hours of American way of life.”