Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Farewell Tour's Last Stop

The "George Contreras Farewell Tour" made it's last stop before flying to the Continent this Wednesday at former Rio Mesa counselor Betty Bright's home last night.

A potluck dinner affair, Melissa Gunnels helped with the cooking (spaghetti was the main dish), Dick Bellman brought some really good Sicilian red wine (portent of things to come?) and Koreen FitzGerald brought munchies and desserts. As always the usual suspects showed up, i.e., Joe Mollica, Shi Young Kim, John Tierney, Brian FitzGerald, Ben Todd and his brothers.

The food and drink were good but the sharing of friendship was better. It was good to see John Tierney. He has been out of the loop for awhile and it was fun seeing his wit at full strength again. As I have said before, the excitement of the impending adventure is constantly being challenged by the apprehension I feel for leaving my family and friends behind for six months. In the last few weeks I've really come to appreciate how much I enjoy the people who are near and dear to me. I am truly blessed with a great wife, two wonderful sons and their charming girlfriends. As for my friends, I guess the two common threads they all possess are a zest for life and the ability to make me smile and laugh constantly.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Preparation and IFL news

Had another great lunch at Maria's Italian Kitchen in Encino today with a long time friend from my University of Washington days, Mike D'Antuono. He and his wife Susan had a whole gift bag of Italian themed goodies for me including four hats and the travel bag pictured here. They also gave me a bottle of champagne and a very interesting Callpod Charger that allows me to charge up to seven different electronic devices at the same time. The red, white and green ski cap with SICILIA woven into the front and back looks exceptionally good on me.

Today was also a busy day on the electronics front. My Garvin 670 GPS device that includes maps of North America and Europe arrived. Used the drive to Encino as a practice run for it, it was outstanding. It has great graphics as well as excellent voice directions. It should be an excellent tool in Italy. Additionally I went to AT&T to add a European plan to our existing service and upgrade my phone. I purchased a "
Mount Etna Magma Red" (one of our Catania Elephants' official team colors) Blackberry with all the bells and whistles, might as well travel in style.

I also stopped by my optometrist's office to have my glasses checked before I leave. I had a delightful chat about Italy with Kim who has done all the repairing and tweaking on my frames and lenses for several years now. She is another good hearted person that makes a town like Camarillo a great place to live.

On the IFL front, our opening opponent, the Milan Rhinos, just got a whole lot better. They announced this week that they have signed John Stocco to be their Quarterback. According to the press release, Stocco was a three year starter for the University of Wisconsin and was the MVP of last year's Capitol One Bowl game. They also added a running back out of Holy Cross by the name of Steve Silva. The league gets better and the challenges are becoming more interesting.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

First Day on the Recruiting Road

I just got back from my first ever recruiting road trip, a whirlwind 360 miles roundtrip Camarillo to Escondido journey. I left at 9:00 a.m. and walked in the door at 6:00 p.m.

The purpose of the trip was to have a face-to-face visit with Brandon Bennett, the lineman from Willamette University, to help him make the decision to become an Elefanti. That's him in the first picture.

Instead of meeting at his house, we met at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant called "
El Indio de Tijuana". The name alone spoke of great cuisine...I was not disappointed! Meeting him in a place like this was a perfect way to start the discussions, two large guys eating really good, cheap food. What a great way to start a player-coach relationship.

The meeting went well and I believe strongly that he will join us. He just wants Davide, our Head Coach/GM, to send him a contract in order to formalize everything. He said he was 99% committed to coming to Italy so I hope our search is over.

The farewell tour continued last night as Martha Jimenez-Ito got about a dozen Rio Mesa H.S. people together at Chuy's in Camarillo for dinner and drinks. As always with this crowd, we all had a lot of fun. In the picture, Martha is on the right with Koreen FitzGerald at the the gala event.

I am really going to miss these people who have been so important to me but I have to press on. Adventures require sacrifices and the cost of this one is not having my family and friends nearby for support.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Recruiting Continues

The search for a lineman, our third and final import continues.

Today I was in contact with Brandon Bennett from Willamette University in Oregon who was highly recommended by his head coach Mark Speckman. Brandon just finished his Senior season, is a two-time Division III All-American offensive lineman and earlier this month played in the Aztec Bowl.  The Aztec Bowl is an All-Star game between players from Division III and players from colleges in Mexico.

Brandon, who is from the San Diego area, seems very interested in the opportunity but needs time to sort out all the details.

After Christmas shopping this afternoon I went to Borders in Thousand Oaks. While browsing in the travel section I talked to a girl, probably a sophomore in high school, who was marveling at a contest Borders is sponsoring. The prize is two tickets to Italy and requires you, in 25 words or less, to say why you want to go to Italy. She just started babbling about how she has always dreamed of going to Italy and about how much she wants to learn to speak Italian. I advised her to write that down and send it in. It then made me smile to think I AM going to Italy and I HAVE STARTED learning Italian!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Elephants Get a New Schedule

The Italian Football League (IFL) has reissued the 2008 schedule of games for the league.

In an attempt to avoid confusion, I am going to simply go back to the Wednesday, December 12th post on this blog and make the necessary changes. The one good thing is that our three BYE weeks are now spread out rather than the last schedule that gave us two BYEs in the first five weeks of the season.

My advisers, Chris Pagliaro and Paul Petrich, have taught me that when dealing with the IFL it is best to be calm and flexible. I shall try.

If you want to test your Italian then you might want to visit these two websites. Information on the Italian Football League can be found at . You can also find up-to-date news on your Elephants at .

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Going Away Functions

Today Laurie and I were treated to a "Going Away Picnic" courtesy of Craig Weiman who played football for me as a lineman at Westlake H.S. in the early 1980's. He organized the potluck picnic at a park next to Thousand Oaks H.S. where Westlake played their "home" games back in the day.

It was great to see John Baillie, Molly Slavin and Bill Fisher's parents there. Their sons were great players for the Warriors and they were GREATER boosters of our program. They were parents with a clear vision of what the role of high school football should be in their children's educational progress. Thank goodness for the many parents like them I have met over the years.

It was equally great to see old friends like Larry Freed, Scott Winkler, Craig Slavin, Steve Chopp, Bill Fisher, Gene McMillion, Pat Lynch, Jeff Smith and Charlie Wegher (I hope I didn't forget anyone). It was fun to see their wives and kids too.

The eleven years I was the Head Coach at Westlake H.S. (1978-88) were probably the most rewarding of my coaching career. I feel closer to those parents and players than any other place I've coached. I always look forward to seeing the players from those years who are now all in their 40's and living happy lives from what I can tell.

The picnic was a joy, THANKS CRAIG!

Along the lines of farewells and thank yous, I have forgotten to mention that Rod Fujita and Laurie put on a surprise farewell party (
the three picture above) for me at Cucina Isabella, an Italian (of Course) restaurant here in Camarillo about two weeks ago.

I had no clue, thinking only that we were going out to dinner with our friends Koreen and Brian FitzGerald and Helen and Rod Fujita. It was a delight to find about 30 friends from primarily Rio Mesa H.S. and our days at the University of Washington there. The evening and the great meal that the Cucina's owners Gino and Connie Milano prepared for us was a big success.

GRAZIE Rod and Laurie for the fun we had and the surprise I had.

All this attention has been flattering, very unexpected and a lot of fun. I realize more each day the truly great people who I have been fortunate to meet in the last 60 years and how much they all mean to me.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Revised 2008 Catania Elephants Football Schedule

Today our Head Coach and General Manager of the Elefanti, Davide Giuliano, passed along an updated schedule for the 2008 season. A new schedule had to be issued because the Italian Football League added a second team from Palermo to the Super Liga.

We will play our home games at Stadio Santa Maria Goretti (capacity 6,000, pictured above), a rugby field we convert to play our brand of football. Our ten regular season games are all on Sundays starting at 3:00 p.m.

2008 Catania Elephants Football Schedule
* Schedule revised December 17, 2007
March 30 at Milan Rhinos

April 6 BYE
April 13 at Bergamo Lions
April 20 Palermo Sharks
April 27 at Palermo Corsati

May 4 Ancona Dolphins
May 11 at Palermo Sharks
May 18 BYE
May 25 Parma Panthers

June 1 Palermo Corsari
June 8 at Bologna Doves
June 15 Bolzano Giants
June 22 BYE

June 28/29 Playoff Semi-Finals
July 19 Italian Championship Game

The schedule also lists two other events that I am not clear on yet. On July 5th, the Eurobowl Finals will be played. On July 12th, something that translates into "absolutely fill in the hole All Star proposal" as well as the EFAF Cup Finals will be going on. The timing of these two events, the two weekends between our Semi-Finals and Championship games, is rather strange to me.

While the search for our third and final import player continues, we are set at Quarterback and Wide Receiver.

Our QB is Jason Johnson who grew up in the Seattle area. He played at the University of Arizona where his name is at or near the top of their game, season and career passing lists. He also spent one year with the NFL's Buffalo Bills and three seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL. He will also be our Offensive Coordinator. I met him for dinner at Maria's Kitchen in Encino about four weeks ago when he came into L.A. from Edmonton for business. He is a great young man with lots of enthusiasm and ideas. I think we will have a great time together.

Our WR is Matt Epperson out of Hardin-Simmons University in Texas. He has also played one season of football in Finland. On tape he looks quick and has good hands. We will probably use him as a DB and Kick/Punt Returner as well. Our phone conversations have led me to believe that he will fit right in with us. I love his Texas drawl.

Our last import is still a mystery. We need either an offensive/defensive lineman or a linebacker/fullback-tight end type. The quest continues!

I leave for Italy, via a couple of days in London, three weeks from today! It's getting closer and closer. The reality and enormity of this adventure is starting to hit me, life will be different that's for sure!!!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Dinner with the Legends

Had the opportunity to drive up to Santa Barbara tonight to have dinner and talk football with John Reardon, Brian Husted, Carmen DiPaolo, Chris Pagliaro and Paul Petrich at Paul's home. All five of these men are longtime Ventura County and Santa Barbara County football coaches.

Before during and after dinner we talked football. Great discussions about philosophy, old football war stories and the current state of the coaching profession.

The best part for me tonight was getting to talk football coaching in Europe with Chris and Paul. They have both gone to Europe on several occasions coaching in Finland, France, Spain, Austria and, of course,

Chris coached one season in
Milano while Paul coached the Defensive Line for Bergamo in 2001 when they won the European Super Bowl.

They both offered very funny stories and encouragement that I think will help in my transition to
Catania. Both of them have nothing but fond memories of their time in Italy.

They were enthusiastic about the challenges that I'm about to face, especially with the GREAT food I will soon be consuming! Fortunately, Kansas Head Coach Mark
Mangino is my role model.

The net result of this evening was to further increase my excitement for the adventure that is getting ever closer.

I do have one question though, how could a great guy named Carmen DiPaolo have not ever set foot in Italia much less coached there?

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.