May 4, 2009

The last three weeks have seen the highs and lows that come during the course of a season. Of course every team hopes for more highs than lows, but that's not always the case. The first five weeks of the season put us in position to challenge for the top spot in our league. We put ourselves in a position to control our own destiny concerning our rank for the playoffs, which as a coach; I was feeling very good about. We were sitting with a 4-1 record and heading into Week 6 against the undefeated Bolzano Giants.

We were playing our first road game since Week 1, so our schedule had been favorable thus far. However, this week we were playing away in Bolzano, Italy. Bolzano is a very unique town. At one time it was part of German territory. After World War II it was claimed as Italian, however half the town still speaks German today. All the signs are in both languages. Bolzano is up in the mountains, and the stadium is just one of the two in Italy that are actually American football stadiums, not soccer or rugby fields. For years they had artificial turf, very similar to that old "carpet" that ISU had back in 1999, which I still can thank for my troubles of getting out of bed in the morning. However, Bolzano's was actually worse! It was basically laid over cement and the yard lines, hash marks and numbers on the field were painted over so many times that it felt like marble. You always remembered playing in Bolzano from the scars the field left on your body. This year, they finally changed the old carpet and put in field turf. It was great to play on. Yes, I had to suit up again, substituting for one of our injured American players.

Bolzano has an American running back, Reggie Green, who has actually been over in Italy longer then me! I think this is his eighth or ninth season, and he is still in legit shape at 32-years-old. He played collegiately at Siena, and set several records during his time. He holds every record imaginable in the Italian Football League. So nonetheless, we had our hands full. In the first quarter, we went down and scored on the opening possession. We showcased our empty package and came out throwing, also with some no huddle mixed in. They have some big linemen that play both ways, so we wanted to wear them out. It worked.



However, Bolzano's offense is potent, and they came back and answered with a 20-yard run by Mr. Green. We continued to have success on offense, and we caught a fortunate break in the second quarter when Reggie pulled his hamstring on a long would-have-been-touchdown run. With Reggie out, I thought we would have a much easier time stopping Bolzano's offense, but that wasn't the case.

The game went back and forth, with big crucial plays being made by both teams throughout the second half. Bolzano tied the game late in the fourth quarter, 28-28, but the Panthers responded with a touchdown with less than 1:30 to go, making the score, 35-28. The Giants started the next drive around their own 35, and quickly marched down the field. They converted a crucial fourth down play, and eventually punched in a touchdown with 20 seconds to go. They opted to go for the win rather than kick for the tie. So the battle for the top spot came down to this 2-point conversion.

The Giants received a delay of game penalty that backed them up to the 8-yard line, but they still opted to go for two. The Giant quarterback rolled to his right and threw backside to a wide receiver crossing the middle. Our defensive back made a great play and broke up the pass, but a referee threw a flag for pass interference. It was a horrible call (many in this game)! So they had another chance and the quarterback sneaked in behind the fullback and running back, barely getting the ball across. The 2-point conversion was good and the Giants were up, 36-35.

It was the first time they had the lead during the entire game. Their players went crazy, throwing helmets, throwing some friendly hand gestures at our sidelines, while running on the field. They ended up receiving two personal fouls for the celebration, which had them kicking off from around their 10-yard line. We returned the kick to their 45-yard line, and we had 14 seconds remaining with two timeouts. We tried to hit a pass over the middle to set up a field goal, but our quarterback was pressured and drilled while throwing the ball for an incompletion.

With 10 seconds left, we tried for another quick completion and hit a curl route that broke for a 25-yard gain. I thought time had expired and that was it, but the wide receiver who caught the pass, which also happens to be our kicker, laid on the ground holding his right knee (kicking leg) after the catch. We called timeout and tried to regroup. We were on their 10-yard line with three seconds on the clock and a field goal wins the game.

During the timeout, former Redbird wide receiver and now Panther offensive coordinator, Nolan Gatewood grabbed our kicker/wide receiver and told him, "You can be hurt for the rest of the season, but for these next three seconds you need to suck it up and drill this thing!"

He calmly said, "Okay." We took the field ... snap ... kick ... down the middle! Panthers win! It was truly a great game to be apart of. We were drained physically, mentally and every other way possible. However, we left the game on top of the Italian Football League standings.

We were back at home and playing in our first game in the European League. This league consists of some of the best teams around Europe, and we were playing host to a French team. We turned out to be pretty banged up after our big win the previous week, and thus were missing several players, including all four of our starting wide receivers!

We went into the game understanding we were going to have our hands full. The French team ran a Wing-T offense (no joke) with two American running backs. We were just trying to field a team at times, and struggled mightily and lost to the tune of 40-14. It's amazing how seven days can deplete a team that had just hit its stride. Losing this game, in all likelihood will eliminate our chances of moving on to the playoffs of the European League. That's a big disappointment, since we made it to the championship game last season. However, now we could put all of our attention on the Italian League, and focus on winning the Italian Super Bowl.

We were playing back at home against an underachieving Milan Rhinos team for Week 8. They came in with a record of 1-3 in our league, but had a dangerous weapon in running back Jason Butler, who played at Wagner. We have been having trouble stopping the run in recent weeks, so I went into the game very cautious and was sure to emphasize the importance of getting out to a good start. The worst thing we could do is let a team like Milan stay in the game with us and allow them to build confidence. However, that is exactly what we did.

We came out and played very poorly on offense, and gave up two touchdowns in the first half. We finally put a drive together before halftime, and threw for a score, but trailed, 13-6, at halftime. In the second half I was expecting to see a more determined team, knowing that this game would be a deciding factor in us retaining our No. 1 spot in the league standings. However, we never got it going and ended up losing, 20-14. We actually had a chance during a last-minute drive. We got down to the 15-yard line, but we snapped the ball over the quarterback's head for the eighth time, yes eighth time, during the game. Obviously that played a huge part in our poor day offensively. Either way, we let a huge opportunity slip through our fingers, and now find ourselves third in our league with two games to go.

This weekend, we have a much-needed bye week. We have several injuries that have limited us in recent weeks, so we hope we can get some of our guys back after the bye.

We have been fortunate to have several American tourists pass through Parma thanks to John Grisham's "Playing for Pizza," which is always welcoming. Recently, we met a soldier based at an Army base in Italy who had some leave time and came to check out a game in his free time. He's been to two games now and usually comes out to eat with us after the game, and then stays with the American guys at their apartment. He has invited us up to the Army base tonight, as Toby Keith will be playing in concert. So in a few hours we will be rocking out with some American soldiers, and drinking a few cold ones with Toby Keith. I'll be sure to take some pics, and get back with updates soon. Should be a blast!

While following, it sounded like the Redbird football team had a successful spring. My brother and former Redbird player, Brett Papoccia, went to the Annual Red-White Spring Game after being invited by Coach Spack. I'm glad to see the new staff reaching out and bringing back the Redbird football alums.

I hope I can make it back soon and drop by the office. I never thought I'd say this, but I sure miss sitting in front of my locker dreading another day of practice. I knew I would miss the games and the atmosphere, but never practice. That being said, I still don't miss one second of winter conditioning! That I can definitely do without!

Go `Birds!!!!!

Andrew Papoccia