When Wall Street Fails, Play Pro Football — in Europe?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.
By Matt Foley
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
So far, it’s a great Wednesday. I just got into the office and am prepping for a few meetings and all the fun stuff that comes with working at a financial brokerage. Later, I’ll head over to the small private high school where I help coach football. My routine these days is a far cry from when I played professional football overseas.
At Bucknell, football was a grind. You were up early for workouts, class all day, then practice, then more class. But I chose Bucknell for an education, not for its football program. Dreams of going pro were old news.
The year 2008 was a brutal one to graduate with a finance degree. Instead of heading to Wall Street, I was searching for work. I heard about a website called EuroPlayers.com — it’s like a LinkedIn for football players. An Italian club recognized my last name — Conti — and said that if I could get Italian citizenship, they’d sign me. In Europe most players are local — the teams have only two or three spots to give Americans, and those go to quarterbacks and other skill players. An American offensive lineman is a luxury.
My grandfather was born in 1920, two years before his immigrant parents were nationalized as American citizens. That timeline allowed for my citizenship eligibility. So, in 2009, I flew to Italy to begin my professional football career. I’m 6-foot-1, 275 pounds. When I told locals I was a football player, no one knew what to believe. I was the biggest midfielder in Italian history.
Sometimes I felt like a professional poker player joining a game in a random amateur’s basement.
I played for teams in Italy, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, and for the Italian national team in 2013. Every organization was unique. Some teams — like my club in Switzerland, the Calanda Broncos — had wealthy owners who recruited players from across the continent. A lot of the locals even paid the clubs to play!
The athletes weren’t burned out from the endless grind of competing to keep a scholarship or to earn a spot on an NFL roster for a living, like in America. There was a legitimate joy of the game that I hadn’t experienced since high school.
Us Americans had it made. I woke up around 10 a.m., worked out and then ate lunch. The club paid for my flight, lodging, local travel and food. Since most of my teammates were residents who worked day jobs, we only practiced at night, three days a week. The rest of the time, I was free to hit the town. I was expected to be an ambassador for the sport.
NFL Europe folded in 2007, but there was still a lot of passion surrounding the game. The folks who run football organizations overseas want the sport to succeed. American players are brought over as leaders. We coached youth camps, performed marketing outreach, even coached teammates who were new to the sport. As a lineman, the skill differential could be frustrating. Sometimes I felt like a professional poker player joining a game in a random amateur’s basement. When you’re used to facing experienced opponents it’s difficult to anticipate a beginner’s moves. But they’re still learning the game, and they all want to improve.
Austria recently became the first country to have a national television program dedicated to American football. Germany, Switzerland and Italy all love the sport. The struggles elsewhere, I think, are all about marketing. The NFL thought it could compete with European football. That’ll never happen. There’s hundreds of years of passion and culture built around soccer.
Playing professional football in Europe was an amazing experience. I built lasting friendships with teammates across the world and played in venues beyond my imagination. In Innsbruck, Austria, we played for 12,000 fans in the shadows of the Alps in a stadium owned by Swarovski. In Basel, Switzerland, we performed for a large drove of goats.
And now I’m home in Pittsburgh, grinding it out in the business world. I wear a suit.