The football season is heating up in France — soccer, of course, but also football américain. At a time when parents in the United States, alarmed by mounting casualties in the ranks of active and retired football players, are signing up their kids for soccer and lacrosse, Europeans are taking to the gridiron in growing numbers.
“There are some really good athletes who for some reason fall in love with football,” said George Contreras, who has spent the better part of five years teaching the techniques of blocking and tackling on the Continent. Since he took a job with the Catania Elephants in Sicily in 2008, he has coached teams in four different countries — Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, and France. His current team is the Bron-Villeurbanne Falcons, based in a suburb of Lyon, France.
“We’re a very small niche of the sports pie,” Contreras conceded. “Soccer is king. There’s a paper in Italy, Gazzetta dello Sport, that’s 48 pages. There are 47 pages of soccer and one page for everything else. But football is growing. There are 65,000 European players.”
Contreras coached high school football in Ventura County for more than 40 years. Fellow coach Rick Scott got him to promise they’d try coaching in Europe after they retired as teachers. Scott died of a heart attack before that could happen, but Contreras kept his commitment. He also drew inspiration from the book Playing for Pizza, John Grisham’s fictional account of a football season in Italy.
Not the least of the attractions, sumptuously described by Grisham, is the opportunity to partake of some fabulous multiple-course pregame meals. “There’s one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true,” Contreras found out. “It said some players were going to give up smoking the week before the championship game. That is not realistic.”
Europe’s gridiron season was just getting started when the NFL playoffs took place in the States. Contreras’s team played two games in December, and another was snowed out. After a break in January — the Falcons held a “Super Bowl Monday” party at a bar in Lyon (the game kicked off at 12:30 a.m. in France) — their season will continue into April.
There is a vast difference between the NFL pros and the gridders of Bron-Villeurbanne, a third division club in France. The homegrown players are amateurs who pay 300 euros to equip themselves for the game. “They’re working guys,” Contreras said. “Plumbers, electricians. … Our left tackle, Babu [Baptiste Gabriac], is one of France’s DNA experts. He missed a practice because he was testifying at a trial in Paris.” The team practices two nights a week.
Because their football experience is limited, and games are not piled together week after week, there is little concern about long-term damage. “In America, you’re talking about guys who played three years of Pop Warner, four years high school, four years college, and, in the NFL, they put up with a lot of hitting from guys with tremendous size and speed,” Contreras pointed out. “It cannot be healthy to be 300-400 pounds in the prime of your life.”
As a high school coach, Contreras would hear complaints from parents: “Play my kid! You’re ruining his chances for a scholarship.” In Europe, he said, “The wives come to me and say, ‘Why do you play my husband? He’s too old. He shouldn’t be out there.’”
There is a youth football program affiliated with the Falcons. “It’s flag football, seven on a side, and one has to be a female,” Contreras said. At high school age, they graduate to nine-man tackle football. Only the “A” team plays the full 11-man game.
The clubs are limited to two or three imports, usually the only players who are paid. In most cases, American quarterbacks are sought. Contreras recruited John van den Raadt, a record-setting quarterback at Azusa Pacific University, to direct the Falcons’ offense. Van den Raadt had no inclination to try out for the NFL. Before joining the Falcons in January, he served on a mission in the African Republic of Malawi.
“The type A, gung ho, kick-ass guys are not going to want to come over here to play football,” Contreras said. “You have to come to enjoy yourself and experience a different culture.”
In a showdown for first place two weeks ago, Bron-Villeurbanne defeated the St-Cergues Bulldogs, 28-7. Van den Raadt ran for the go-ahead touchdown and a two-point conversion.
“Everywhere I’ve been, nobody can kick,” Contreras said. “They tell me, ‘Coach, if we could kick, we’d still be playing soccer.’”