Daniel Levy: All In - My Wild 3 Months In Brazil

Photo: Leo Silveira
With the World Cup opening next month, American football in Brazil is now entering a period of “reprieve”— two whole months without any games, thus leaving me with a lot of time to reflect on my experience thus far.

I will begin my story by saying this: I receive a lot of messages from potential import players and coaches asking for advice, often those who have just agreed to contracts and are preparing to settle in a foreign country for the first time. One of the most common questions I receive is this: “What should I bring with me?”

It is a difficult question because the answer really depends on the country. I usually fall back on the old, “Do you like Old Spice? Then bring some, because you probably won’t see it again until you return to the States.” 

But if someone asked me this question right now, at this very moment, and I had to speak from personal experience, I would immediately hearken back to February of this year when I arrived in my newest home of Vila Velha, Brazil. Returning to my apartment after my first practice with the team, I sunk into my couch, eyelids sagging under the weight of lingering jetlag. With the ocean breeze washing in through my balcony, I opened the Duty Free bag, poured a very, very large glass of whiskey, and asked, “what the hell have I gotten myself into?”

Futebol Americano no Brasil

The best word to describe the common perception of American football in Brazil would probably be “enigma.” Compared to Europe, where football has more or less existed since the end of World War II, football in Brazil is still in its infancy. Most of the established teams have existed for around 10 years, with the majority of those years being played on the beach or on grass without pads.

In 2010 my team, the Vila Velha Tritões, won their first and only national championship during their premier
season of fully-padded football. And while I don’t encourage this (unless you have a strong stomach), if you roll back the film from those days, you will see what I can only describe as the “stone age” of American football in Brazil. Seriously, I half-expected to see players throwing rocks and beating each other with sticks. It was sloppy, disorganized, and frankly, painful to watch.

Yet in just the four years since, the progress has been truly astounding. The level of play and technical detail, while still in dire need of development, has traveled light years from those grainy images of 2010 where a proper 3-point stance was a novelty and the forward pass was at best a luxury and at worst a secret yet to be uncovered. 

But the progress has been uneven to say the least. In Brazil, the growth of football has truly been a force of nature. NFL viewership on ESPN Brasil has increased exponentially, with the ratings spiking nearly 150% each year over the past two years. New teams pop up seemingly every day, with the current number of fully padded teams in Brazil numbering around 100 (this does not include beach and flag football teams). Game attendance for many teams regularly numbers in the thousands, and the passion of the Brazilian people really cannot be measured in words. 

While such yields would seem overwhelmingly positive, the problem lies in that the growth of futebol Americano continues to outpace the development. Yes, the teams at the top (my team among them) have reaped the benefits of sponsorship, and with it the influx of American players and coaches. But there is still exists no safety net for developing teams. No organized grass roots programs to lift them up and teach them to organize and play the sport properly so they may develop into a competitive program and reap the same rewards. 

In short, development of football in Brazil continues to be a top-down process—in a word, “backwards.” While there are individuals in Brazil who are working hard to change this (such as Daniel Condessa, who I will mention again later), the leadership of the two primary leagues—the CBFA and Torneio Touchdown—continue to be divided by political differences and short-sightedness. If these two institutions ever decide to put their issues aside and combine resources, the rest of the world better watch out because the level of football in Brazil will be a force to behold.

My Journey

If you are a reader of my previous articles or a follower of my Facebook fan page (Coach Dan Levy), then my journey in Brazil has been well documented. I arrived in Brazil in July 2013 as one of the six head coaches of the Liga de Futebol Americano, an organization aiming to field the first fully professional American football league in Brazil.

Coach Levy
By October, the LFA had folded. As with the rest of the now wayward gringos, I was contacted by a number of existing teams in need of a head coach. At the top of my short list were two teams, the Curitiba Brown Spiders and the Vila Velha Tritões. At the time I was already living in Curitiba, had just recently leased a very nice apartment and more or less had started a life there. The decision made sense at the time, so I chose the Brown Spiders. 

But as the months went on, my situation with the Brown Spiders grew more and more tenuous. Let me preface this by saying that the leadership of the Spiders is a top-notch group of individuals who treated me like family from the day I arrived in Brazil. However, anyone who has coached—or been faced with a tough decision in any career field—knows that you cannot be led by emotion. The Spiders and I were not on the same page, and I did not agree with the direction of the team. We parted ways amicably, after which the Tritões stepped up with a generous offer. A quaint, beautiful beachside city; a team with a winning tradition. A front office who said up front “We are willing to do whatever it takes to win a championship.” 

For the first time since the collapse of the LFA, I was finally excited again about coaching football in Brazil. 

Right Place Right Time

I am not a big believer in fate. You can call me a skeptic, but I truly believe that every person is free to carve out their own destiny. Our only limits are the number of opportunities we encounter during the course of our lives. And while we are not always in control of the opportunities presented to us, we are in control of whether or not we choose to seize them.

Shortly after I arrived in Vila Velha, I traveled to Rio de Janeiro to participate in a project called American Football Without Barriers (AFWB). What ensued was one of the most amazing and unforgettable weeks of my life. For five days I traveled, went to dinner, partied and ran football camps with 15 NFL players. Guys like Golden Tate, Marshawn Lynch, Deangelo Williams, Alex Mack, and Jordan Cameron—just to name a few. 

The AFWB is truly an amazing initiative—one that was hard work and a ton of fun. If you would like to learn more about the organization and their projects, check them out on Facebook. But I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to recognize and thank Daniel Condessa for personally undertaking and making the AFWB Rio weekend possible, pretty much single-handedly. It is the guys like Daniel who have and continue to make the future of American football in Brazil one of limitless potential. 

Alex Mack

I cannot say enough about the players who traveled to Rio for the AFWB and brought such excitement to the American football community in Brazil. But if I had to single out one individual, that person would be Alex Mack, the Pro Bowl Center for the Cleveland Browns. 

Following our initial orientation meeting at the hotel, most of the players opted to return to their rooms and sleep off the jetlag. Alex and I, however, decided to head to the hotel bar for a few drinks. For whatever reason, Alex and I “clicked” on a personal level. We spent a lot of our off time in Rio hanging out together, drinking beer, eating churrasco, talking about traveling, books, Brazilian girls— really just about anything but football. 

After the AFWB ended, Alex decided to extend his stay in Brazil, so I naturally invited him up to Vila Velha. For five days Alex crashed in my spare bedroom and had a taste of “gringo life” in Brazil. The Tritões embraced him as family and in turn were given an opportunity that no other team in Brazil has ever had or may have: to learn from an NFL Pro Bowler, one who is largely considered the best player in the league at his respective position. Between our time spent lounging on the beach and exploring the Vila Velha nightlife, Alex was gracious enough to help out at practices and share his knowledge and talent with a very wide-eyed group of offensive linemen.

Following our time in Vila Velha, Alex and I hopped a plane to Salvador for Carnival. Our experience there was as one would expect of two Americans rampaging around at Brazilian Carnival. I will spare the details and just say we had an excellent time. We have since remained in touch, and I have a good feeling that Vila Velha and the rest of Brazil has not seen the last of Alex Mack.

The Tritões

So what about my team? What do I have to say about the organization that brought me thousands of miles to lead them to a championship? 

I spent my first weekend with the Tritões as I spend my first days with any new team — observing. I arrive at practice. I speak very little. I run the drills. And I observe.

What I saw in those initial practices was very discouraging—overwhelming even. Players walking onto the field, late, with smiles on their faces and not a care in the world. Guys talking and joking at every possible interlude; sitting in the bleachers and relaxing during water breaks; helmets strewn all over the place. A complete lack of focus and sense of urgency as players strolled around between drills, their minds and mouths on everything except what was happening on the field. 

Sounds pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? After all, I am just one coach, and I am certainly not a magician. 

So I really only had two choices. Tell the Tritões “thanks but no thanks” and get on the next plane back to America. Or to give everything I had of myself—mind, body, and spirit—and begin the process of turning this shit around. 

All In

The next three months were some of the most difficult of my career. A lot of people think coaching is a mix of yelling, cursing, and X&O’s. But it’s so much more. Coaching is psychology. Coaching is sociology. Coaching is reading people, situations, context. It’s knowing how to package a message and deliver it so that it is received properly (and nothing is lost between the translation from English to Portuguese). Coaching is a never-ending balancing act of patience and urgency; discipline and compassion; confidence and humility. 

But for all their lack of discipline, I did recognize something within my players. They wanted to be great. They wanted to excel. Maybe not all of them, but those who did not were quickly purged. The ones who remained, they had it in their eyes. I could sense a real spark within this team. They truly wanted to be great. They just needed someone to show them how.

Now entering the World Cup break, it seems like as good a time as any to evaluate our progress. With a record of 2-0, the Vila Velha Tritões are undefeated and according to the latest power rankings, the best team in the league. But I will be the first to say that we are overrated—vastly overrated. We do not handle ourselves well early in games, lacking focus, discipline and falling into repeated fundamental breakdowns. Being undefeated may feel great, but it hardly makes you the greatest. 

Levy and Harris
What I am about to say I don’t consider a secret. But coaching—and moreover, leading men—is a paradox of sorts. Whether a leader is appreciated or unappreciated really has so little to do with the how good he is. We are defined by our circumstances. Great coaches experience failure everyday while those lesser find success time and time again due in large part to their situation. A lot of times, good coaching comes down to not screwing things up.

Moreover, being a leader is not about teaching your men to be great. It’s about tapping into the greatness that is already in them. I know I will not always say the right things, and I may fall short more times than not, but as long as we all keep believing in the same thing, we’ll continue to move in the right direction. 

In all this has been a historic beginning for the Tritões. An undefeated start. Working with a pro bowl NFL player. Importing an NFL-caliber talent in Nic Harris to play for us, who may be the best player to ever set foot on a football field outside of the United States. But the key to take away from all this is it is still just the beginning. The work ahead is daunting and will require constant diligence, and the margin for error is, at best, razor-thin. 

But it is these challenges that we find addicting. They are what lead us to travel the world for a game born in our very backyards. Football. American Football. Futebol Americano. Call it what you will. The name may change, but the game never really does.

The Answer? 

So how would I answer that initial question? What would I tell a first-time import to bring with them to their new home halfway across the world? 

“Everything.” Bring everything you have. Everything that makes you who you are. Everything you’ve learned. Everything you can teach. Everything you have worked, bled and sweat for. 

Now give it up. Willingly, without question, give all of that to your new team. Your new home. Your new country. 

Go all in. 

If you can do that, exactly that, then I promise you, you will return home with so very much more. More than you could have ever imagined.

Daniel Levy