Sunday, May 18, 2008

David Lassen Article

A BIG thanks to David P. Lassen, Calcio Catania's biggest fan in Ventura County, for the very kind article below that he wrote about our Sicilian adventures in today's Ventura County Star newspaper, hope you enjoy it!

After a family breakfast this morning, Andy and Jenn drive back to Las Vegas and the Hick's family will meander back to the O.C.

I will then pack for my 4:30 p.m. Air New Zealand flight to London. I'll spend Monday night in London before flying to Catania Tuesday morning. Tough game this Sunday vs. a very good Parma team that beat the previously undefeated Bologna Doves 35-6 yesterday to improve to 3-2.

Lassen: Contreras enjoying Sicily's slice of life

Thanks to his very entertaining blog, "Coaching for Pizza," I was aware of some of George Contreras' adventures coaching American football in Italy, which range from playing on fields with goal posts duct-taped in place to backing into a glass door and nearly setting Italian-American relations back by years.

But with the longtime local high school coach home this week — taking advantage of a bye in the Italian Football League to attend his son Mike's graduation from Cal State Channel Islands — we had a chance to sit down for an update on life as defensive coordinator of the Catania Elephants, and the occasional culture shock of living in Sicily.

Catania plays in Serie A, which as the top level of Italian football allows three import players on the field at one time, but otherwise is populated with Italian players who may be enthusiastic, but didn't grow up with the game. So how good, I wondered, is the level of play? Basically, he said, he's working with athletes who would have been good high school players and are now in their 20s and 30s.

"It's pretty good," he said. "The imports are certainly way better."

The amazing thing, really, is the natives play at all. If American football isn't at the bottom of Italian sporting culture, it's in the photo finish.

"These guys who are playing, 35 or 40 in every city, they're doing it for some crazy reason," Contreras said. " They're great guys, fun and great to be around."

They may love the game, but in squeezing it in between work, family and other commitments, practice is an ongoing issue. There are a couple of weeknight practices and one on Saturday afternoons, but scheduling them and getting players to them are two different things.

"I've played free safety, strong safety, defensive end and inside linebacker so far in practice," said Contreras, who is a few years past his prime playing days. "I don't pad up, but I'm out there. Because we'll have days where a lot of guys don't show up, for a variety of reasons."

Some arrive late from work, or because of traffic, but the team — which borrows a variety of practice facilities — can't just practice longer: "There's only one guy in all of Italy that's on time," Contreras said, "and that's the guy that turns off the lights. At 9:30, they're off, and we're out of there."

Since there's not a great call for football stadiums in Italy, the Serie A (or Super League) games are played at soccer fields, velodromes and other facilities not necessarily designed for the purpose. Most have 90-yard fields. Some have more unique "charms" than others.

Bergamo, a traditional power in the Italian league, has, for example, a public-address announcer who also happens to be the team owner. This leads to some interesting coaching over the microphone: " They're in empty formation; this is going to be an obvious pass,' " Contreras recalls hearing over the PA system, with exasperation. " Come on, give us a chance. Finally, they gave them a 5-yard penalty with about three minutes left in the game. Thanks. That will stop them."

Not surprisingly, officiating is its own adventure. There are only two refereeing crews for the entire country, and Contreras says they have, shall we say, some flaws. In one recent game, an official stepped off 7 yards for a 5-yard penalty: "I looked up," he said, "and it was first-and-three."

Two American referees are about to come to Italy for training purposes, and they've e-mailed him with some questions.

"I told them, If you can leave this country having taught the rules of pass interference, you've done a great service to the sport and refereeing in general,' " says Contreras.

Beyond football, Contreras is getting a good taste of the Italian lifestyle, for better — he's an expert on gelato — or worse. On the latter, there's his experience in getting (or not getting) Internet service at his apartment, which illustrates that punctuality is not a particularly Italian trait, but bureaucracy is.

"When I got there on Jan. 2, they said, OK, you'll have an Internet hookup with 10 working days.' I've been there 132 days, and I'm still waiting," Contreras says.

A day finally arrived when the Internet man actually showed up to install the service.

"The problem is, the guy who's come up, he's got our street address, but he's got the wrong (apartment) number. He said, On my worksheet, if I've got the wrong number, I cannot do this. It's impossible! Impossible!' OK, so when will you be back? Two months.'

"He is 30 feet away from our door, but it's impossible.' "

And so, Contreras and his roommate, quarterback Jason Johnson, still drive to a nearby hotel every time they want Internet access.

In the it's-a-small-world department, Contreras returns to Italy for a game with the Parma Panthers, which improbably has two former Ventura County players: Corey Mazza, from Thousand Oaks High, and James Bonelli, from St. Bonaventure. (My suggestion that the paper fly me to Italy to cover this crucial game — Catania is 5-1, Parma is 3-2 — has unfortunately been turned down.)

Contreras has a couple of months remaining in his Italian adventure, and is welcome to return next year if he chooses. "It's been a great experience," he says. "It really has. And we're winning, which is fun."

We'll be talking again when he gets back, but in the interim, I highly recommend his blog ( with two caveats: The stuff about how I'm on the Swiss Guards' 10 Most Wanted List should not be taken seriously, and a handful of people might be offended by his "ad of the day contest," which exists mainly to point out Italian advertising will use female nudity to sell anything, including ferry-boat service.

It really is a different culture over there, you know?

Which is why Contreras' experiences are so interesting — and why he's having such a great time.

— Contact columnist David Lassen at


DPLassen said...

Note that I received that Catania jersey on Thursday, and on Sunday Catania drew with Roma 1-1 to escape relegation. Coincidence? I think not.

Great seeing you while you were here. Best of luck the rest of the way.

George said...

Death to the Romans!