Thursday, December 6, 2007

Why I'm Coaching American Football in Italy

This article appeared in the Ventura County Star, our local newspaper. It was written by a great sportswriter, a world traveler and a good friend, David Lassen.

I'm making David's article the start of this, my first venture, into the world of blogs because it sums up nicely why I have decided to turn my fairly orderly life upside-down to go to Catania, Sicily, Italy and start "Coaching for Pizza".

A BIG thank you to David!

Lassen: Contreras Maps Out Coaching Adventure
Thursday, October 18, 2007

George Contreras knows he's in for a coaching situation unlike any he's experienced before. And really, that's the whole point.

"It looks like the end zone might be 7 yards deep, not 10," says the longtime area coach, now retired from teaching last year but still an assistant on the football staff at Rio Mesa High, looking ahead to his next coaching position. "Our home field has very little grass on it. (On game video), you can hear a dog barking in the press box the whole time."

Clearly, Contreras isn't headed to a major college. Or a major high school. Or the NFL. Instead, he's bound for the NFLI: the National Football League Italy, or, in the native tongue, the Lega Nazionale Football Americano Italiano — no relation to the multibillion-dollar pigskin corporation you watch on Sunday afternoons, except for the shape of the ball, the basic rules, and the size of the field (more or less).

In an association with teams named the Hogs, Frogs and Wild Dogs, among others, Contreras has signed on to become defensive coordinator for the Catania Elephants, a team in Sicily preparing for promotion from Serie A2 to the 10-team Super League. He'll head to Italy in January; the season begins in February and he'll return in July.

"It's kind of fulfilling a promise and looking for an adventure," says Contreras, who's preparing for his new venture with language classes two nights a week, a lot of Italian movies, and the occasional book, some recommended by a sports writer (yeah, this one) who's spent some time traveling in The Boot.

The promise was made to Contreras' longtime friend and coaching compatriot Rick Scott, who used to talk often of what the two of them would do after retiring from their high school positions. "The last time we were together was the Agoura game in the playoffs of 2004," Contreras recalls. "On the way up, he was just talking about how we've got to do this, we'll go to Europe, we'll do this, we'll do this. Finally, in my mind, I was like just shut up and I said, OK, We'll do Europe. We'll go to Europe and do it.

"Well, the next day, he has a heart attack and dies. So it's always been in the back of my mind that I promised him, so maybe we ought to do this."

And so Contreras talked with current and former area coaches who had coached in Europe, and used one of their contacts — an Italian who had played community college football locally — to start looking for a position. He was open to anything in Europe, but was most interested in Italy for a couple of reasons: He liked what he'd seen on a cruise that had taken him to Venice and Rome, and he knew that as a native speaker of Spanish, learning Italian would be less difficult than, say, tackling French or German. (It's said if someone speaking Spanish has a conversation with someone speaking Italian, each party will have no trouble understanding the other.)

And so, when Contreras was put in touch with Davide Giuliano — president, general manager and head coach of the Elephants — he quickly signed on. "It was just a good fit," he says.

Unless you've read the new John Grisham novel "Playing for Pizza," you were probably unaware there was American football in Italy. This likely puts you on a par with most Italians. Still, there are 49 teams playing at three levels, with rosters filled mostly with Italians playing solely for the love of the game, and the occasional American import.

It is not even a semi-pro operation, except for the imports, who aren't going to get rich, but don't have a terrible deal, either. Contreras will be provided with an apartment, a car, insurance, a gym membership and one round-trip plane ticket, and he'll receive a thousand Euros a month for expenses. Players get roughly the same deal.

The Italian players, meanwhile, have full-time jobs and play in their free time, which is why practices are limited to three a week — two evenings and on Saturday before the season, three evenings during the season, when games are played every other weekend. The evening sessions are just 90 minutes.

"They've got a passion for the game," says Contreras. "They like playing and hitting each other and not going to jail for it. So I think it's going to be a fun situation."

Most teams are allowed just one import, but teams in the Super League are allowed three. Part of Contreras' job has been to find those three players, starting with a quarterback, and it appears he's recruited former Arizona, Buffalo Bills and Edmonton Eskimos signal-caller Jason Johnson to come along on his Italian adventure.

Oddly, the Grisham novel is about a 28-year-old former NFL quarterback playing in Italy. Johnson is a 28-year-old former NFL quarterback.

"That guy has a bad history," Contreras says, referring to Grisham character Rick Dockery. "Our guy doesn't have a bad history. So we're better off."

Particularly since he, like Contreras, appears to have the right mindset for this Italian adventure.

"When I first talked to Jason, I said, You might be a little overqualified for this job,' " Contreras says. " He said, I'm not trying to get back into the NFL. I just want to go and have a great cultural experience with my wife, see Europe, and still have some fun playing football.' And I think that's the mentality of the whole thing."

In Contreras' case, think of it as Coaching for Carbonara — and Culture.


Brat said...

George & bride,
You'll love your time in Catania. I'm envious. They play football with an incredible passion. Make sure you visit Taormina & Agrigento while you are there.

Ted C is Me said...

Coach: As someone who has coached overseas as an adjunct to a Foreign Service career since 1986, all I can say is "bravo!"

Keep up the great blogging!