Ciao from Italia.
As you may or may not know, I arrived in Parma, Italy, on May 22 — less than 24 hours after receiving the call from our coach, Andrew Papoccia. We had previously been in contact about the opportunity to play for the Panthers, who are a perennial contender for the Italian Super Bowl. However, my desire to bring closure to my college career meagerly outweighed my desire to continue playing. Hence, I spent the spring time student teaching at Campbell Memorial, coaching baseball at Boardman, and throwing the javelin on occasion for YSU’s track team.
Back to the point: after reading John Grisham’s “Playing for Pizza” my nerves had calmed about the prospect of meeting an entire team of non-English speaking Italian football players. I had thoughts of rugby-esque builds encompassing egos unrivaled by the proudest of men. Ha, I was wrong. Instead, I was welcomed by Mimmo and Cloche (pronounced “Mee-mo” and “Closh”). My first two Italian friends proudly sported their Youngstown State T-shirts and left me in awe.
Who are these guys? Where am I? Youngstown State Football T-shirts????
I was at a loss for words.
Luckily, they filled in the blanks — and in English. These two guys formerly played for Bologna, a rival team that is less than an hour away by train. There, they met Jon Tekac, another former Penguin, and the story all comes together. Mimmo and Cloche (sadly, whose real names I still do not know) have made the trip to Youngstown with Jon and visited our weight room, stadium, etc. At any rate, it was a much appreciated welcome.
The rest of the guys were not quite as outgoing, though equally friendly, but nonetheless very interested in their new quarterback. I was told on several occasions that when they heard I would be joining the team, a quick search of YouTube only revealed a few lowlights from our game against Ohio State. They were disappointed that they would not be able to see many highlights, but that attitude quickly changed after they asked how many people were at the game: 105,000. Jaws dropped. That’s a far cry from the 5,000 seat Stadio Lanfrancho.
After only three short practices, it was game day. No more than 40 players boarded a plane flying from Bologna to Catania, Sicily. Elephants Catania (nickname first over here) was quarterbacked by former Arizona Wildcat and Buffalo Bill, Jason Johnson . He and an American wide receiver were responsible for the best offense in the IFL. So, how did we spend pregame preparing for such a difficult task? Well, to begin, the field was about a 10-minute WALK from the airport. Although you will never hear me complain about walking instead of riding, I found it incredibly funny when I was told to grab my bag, “head out those doors, and the stadium is down the road a little ways.” So we did. The game was scheduled for 2:30 p.m, and we arrived around 11 a.m. Certainly the team would stay out of the Sicilian sun and rest until it was time to put the pads on. But, then, why sit in the shade when you can work on your tan, kick a soccer ball around, and enjoy that Sicilian sun? It was a pregame scene unlike anything I’ve seen. Despite our antics, we actually played a game that began with a brief strike by the officials. They literally walked off the field after the coin toss and took a seat on some benches. Stumped, both coaches addressed them, to which they were informed that the referees would not officiate the game until both teams agreed to not take any aggression out on them for missed calls. Apparently, after a previous game some referees were beat up, or something along those lines, after some poor officiating (the Italians ought to get ahold of the Gateway refs).
At 3:15 p.m., the game finally began. I needed a series or two to become acquainted with the game, but once we got going, the Panthers’ offense never looked back. We punted on our first possession, I threw an interception on our second, but from then on we scored each time we had the ball. My first touchdown was a 30-yard run! The passing touchdowns were soon to follow. The Elephants’ offense was equally powerful. They jumped out to a 19-7 lead before we rallied, recovered an onside kick, and scored 20 straight to take a 27-19 lead into halftime.
We spent halftime in some shade that was cast by the overhang of the stadium. There wasn’t much to talk about, except keep scoring.
And that we did. Again, we scored every time we touched the ball in the second half. However, an extremely controversial onside kick was “recovered” by Catania, despite the fact that one of our players landed on the ball, got up, and began running off the field after flipping it to the referee. I wish I could show the video, because that’s literally what happened. The Elephants scored and converted their 2-point play to go on top 57-56, with a little less than a minute remaining. We began on final drive on our own 30 yard line. However, it’s important to know that these games are played on a rugby “pitch” which is only 90 yards long. Thus, we were 60, not 70 yards from winning. A completion and a short run moved the ball across midfield and out of bounds. Then, we struggled. A dropped pass, deflected pass, and a sack left us with fourth down and 12. On fourth, I scrambled to my left, reversed field, losing ground, and before getting sacked threw up a prayer in the direction of Marco Tunnera. (Remember the name.) He hunted it down and snatched it away from the Elephants’ defender 10 yards past the first down. Time stopped briefly and in the confusion I hollered “Clock it, Clock it” letting everyone know we would be spiking the ball. Our American wide receiver, Corey Mazza, looked at me as if to say “do something!” So, in my clearest English, I said in return, “fake!” Performing my best impression of Dan Marino, I called “Hut,” looked to the ground and began my throwing motion as everyone calmly stood and watched; except Corey. He casually strolled off the line of scrimmage, then burst towards the end zone. Meanwhile, I picked my head up, found him, and lofted a ball over top everyone as they could only watch in disbelief.
There were 22 seconds left after our 2-point conversion. Panthers Parma was on top 64-57. I’ll throw one more shocker out for you. They put me in on defense. I played free safety the last few plays of the game and actually knocked down the final Hail Mary. Our celebration began, and the feeling that I thought was gone forever returned. Victory. The 500 fans, 90 yard field, or walk from the airport didn’t matter. It was all the same. The emotion. The desire. The focus. The brotherhood. The victory. And after handshakes and hugs, pats on the back and slaps on the butt, I was once again a part of something.
On the following Tuesday, the jokes flowed freely as guys were still enjoying the Panthers’ latest win. However, by the end of the day, the focus turned towards the Hohenems Blue Devils of Austria: a much bigger, younger team from a country well-known in Europe for their American football. This game would be the semifinal game of the EFAF Cup: a tournament we entered and had not expected to make it even this far.
(But always a Youngstown boy.)