Daniel's Diary: A Ticket To See The World

If someone had told me 10 years ago that football would one day afford me the opportunity to travel the world, I would have… well, I actually don’t know how I would have reacted. Rolled my eyes? Laughed? Bought them another drink? But here am I today, a testament to that fortuitous—albeit hypothetical—prediction. 

But my import story is not your father’s import story. My first opportunity did not arise from my college coach calling me into his office to tell me about the options overseas for “less-than-NFL prospects.” No, my story is a different one, one that starts with a 21-year-old student who had already given up on his football dream. 

I discovered American football in Europe much by accident—coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing. It was during a semester abroad in Ireland that a very lanky and unimposing Irish student came into our international orientation session to recruit Americans for his team, the University of Limerick Vikings. That student’s name was Liam Ryan, and he has since become a legend of sorts in the IAFL (Irish American Football League). But to me, at that time, he was just some skinny guy who looked like he’d break if I hit him hard enough. Yet from the moment he spoke those magic words—“American football”—my heart began beating like a bass drum in the pit of my chest. I couldn’t wait for my first practice. And honestly, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. 

During my three seasons with the Vikings, I was lucky enough to be a part of a growth process that saw a team emerge from an IAFL bottom-feeder to a national champion and top-20 ranked team in Europe. Moreover, it was because of the Vikings that I found my calling as a coach; that football really began to embed itself deep into my bones. To flow addictively through my veins and take hold of me in a manner that would prove unshakable, no matter how persistently I tried.

After the Vikings, however, my career as an import did not exactly find traction. I had discovered Europlayers and landed with a team in Poland, only to realize that the magic I had experienced with the Vikings was not something easily captured in any environment. A very forgettable season filled with injury and loss, both in my professional and personal life, had me doubting myself for the first time in years. My friends and family could not understand what I was doing or why I was doing it, and I ultimately decided that maybe it was time to follow the advice of outsiders and find myself a real job that didn’t take paragraphs of qualification to explain the uninitiated.

So I did just that. I moved to Washington, D.C. and began a Masters program in Strategic Intelligence. I went to work for a defense contractor and had myself a real job, one with decent pay and a retirement plan. I’m not sure why I chose a niche field such as intelligence and national security. It was surely an interest of mine—something that seemed mysterious and exciting. But I think the real reason was not simply that I thought the field was interesting. I was still looking for that ticket to see the world. The truth is that no matter how good my former employer was to me, no matter how nice it was to have a stable paycheck and to be earning it in an exciting and fast-paced field, it simply couldn’t scratch the itch that was with me every second of every hour of every day. My time with the Vikings had shown me how integral football was to my identity, and the more I denied it, the more it attached itself to the very fiber of who I was as a person.

So in 2010 I made the biggest decision of my life. I left my promising career in Washington, D.C. and returned to football, this time as a high school coach in Baton Rouge. I also enrolled in a Masters program for Creative Writing—an interest of mine that I decided to pursue while rebuilding my football career. I reactivated my Europlayers account, and it was not long before I came into contact with the Kristiansand Gladiators, a team competing in Norway’s second division. The Gladiators were, to say the least, a team searching for direction. And to my fortune, they were willing to take a chance on a very young head coach in hopes of finding their way. 

My time with the Gladiators, on the surface, played out much like a fairy tale. Truth be told, however, it was a period full of peaks and valleys. My inaugural season with the team started off with a bang as we came out of the gates hot, dismantling every second division team that stood in our path. Players were motivated, practice was productive and I, the head coach, could do no wrong. But complacency eventually reared its ugly head, and the season ended in disappointment as we finished as the runners-up in 2nd Division. 

It was then that I found myself, once more, at a crossroads. Part of me wanted to just call it quits. I didn’t exactly get along with my Athletic Director, who I felt was a micromanager in the worst way and never really willing to place full faith in me. I saw a culture and a team that lacked the motivation and commitment to really compete at the highest level. I saw players who possessed the talent to take the next step toward greatness but not the foresight to see it for themselves. In our final meeting before I returned to the U.S., I told what was left of the team (about 18 players, less than 10 of whom would return in 2012) one simple truth: that there is a thin line between greatness and obscurity, and it is the choices that we make—and the faith that we are willing to invest in one another when faced with those choices—that will determine on which side of the line we fall. 

Ultimately, I would return to the Gladiators in 2012 with one goal in mind: a 1st Division championship. It didn’t matter what happened in 2011. Nothing less than this level of success would be acceptable. And for the first time in the team’s history, we were able to import a class of American players. Things were sloppy. Improvised. But through sheer intestinal fortitude, this team held it together. 

Even a midst a disappointing 1-2 start (thanks, Lonnie) and the unrelenting onslaught of doubt and mockery thrown at us from the media and the league at the sheer notion that the Gladiators—another perennial bottom-feeder, a team JUST returning to the respectable ranks of 1st Division—could ACTUALLY compete for a championship, this team managed to win out. The 2012 Kristiansand Gladiators were able to put together a streak of nail-biting triumphs (only one victory decided by more than 7 points), the likes of which I have never seen at any level of football I have ever participated in. The team was playing for each other. And when nobody else—including certain individuals within the organization itself—believed in us, we refused to waiver, refused to lose, and instead chose to fight, to scrap, and find a way to win, no matter the cost. We literally left everything we had out on the field, each and every game we played. 

Despite the disappointment of coming up just short in a hard fought championship bout, I have never been prouder of a team. After the game, a video of my pre-game speech found its way onto YouTube and the front page of Europlayers. A former player of mine from the Limerick Vikings, who had seen the video for himself, soon said to me, “Come on, Dan, how many times did you rehearse that speech the night before the game?” The truth is this: not once. The night before the game, after everyone had retired to their respective hotel rooms, I simply took walk alone. I eventually found myself sitting in front of a nearby lake in the early hours of the morning, watching the sun rise above the horizon. It was there that I finally let it all wash over me. How hard we had fought. The improbability of our saga. How close we had all grown in just a few short months. And in that moment, I was left speechless and overwhelmed. 

So there we stood, in a cramped locker room at Frogner Stadium in Oslo. I can honestly say that those four or five minutes I took to speak to the team that I now considered family—never before have words been as unplanned, and come from somewhere so deep within that they left me emotionally exhausted. On July 7, 2012, I was able to be a part of something special. We all were. Something so special that no one outside of myself and those 35 men in that locker room will ever fully understand. 

And that’s what American football in Europe is all about.

I did not return to the Gladiators in 2013, and I can honestly say the decision was made on my terms. Since then, I have completed my masters, as well as my first novel, and spent my newfound free time focusing on my writing and working as a private coach/consultant in Austin, TX. Upon returning from Norway, I was once again convinced that my time spent coaching overseas had come to a close. I was ready to move on with my life, perhaps settle down somewhere and begin a high school or college coaching career here in the states. But lately, I get the feeling that my days of traveling the world on an American football ticket are far from over. Go ahead and call it an itch, but it’s actually something far more potent. An addiction—one that is only felt by the small fraternity of men who have stepped on a plane to travel to a new country, be surrounded entirely by new people, and to enter a foreign world where the only source of equilibrium is the sport that we love and can’t rid ourselves of, no matter how hard we try. 

Football: A ticket to see the world. 

It is exactly that… and so, so much more. 
Daniel Levy
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