March 26, 2009

Hello Redbird Fans!

It sounds like Redbird Country has been full of excitement the past few months with the successes of both the men's and women's basketball teams, as well as the new football staff. I was sad to see the remaining coaches from my days in a Redbird uniform go, but I am excited, as are all Redbirds fans, to put the ISU football program on top where it belongs! A warm welcome to all the new coaches into the great Redbird family!

After my days at ISU, I fell into a unique opportunity and continued my career playing ball in Italy of all places. No, not soccer. There actually is football played here! (Get that question all the time!) I fell in love with the team, lifestyle, food and women, all of which contributed to my decision to stay and live in Italy. I played for two years before taking over as the head coach of the team, and I am now in my third year as the head coach.

I am now married and have a two-year-old girl, Helen, who is already in a three-point stance! My story is quite unique, even I admit it, especially when best-selling author John Grisham decided to write a book, "Playing for Pizza," which is very similar to my experience. The book covers life in Italy through the eyes of an ex-NFL quarterback, who ends up playing ball for the Parma Panthers (my team). While the book is quite accurate, I have agreed to send weekly blogs again this season to show a different side of football. I plan on updating the blog as much as possible on the outcome of games. However, I also want to take a closer look into the stories of some of my players. They truly are incredible.

Our season is played during the spring. So, we are actually three games into our regular season already. Our team consists of three American players (league rule), and all Italian players. This year, we brought back two Americans that had played with us before, Craig McIntyre, a wide receiver from Eastern Washington; and Ryan Tully, a linebacker from Harvard. We are always in need of a quarterback, and we found a great one in Joe Craddock from Middle Tennessee State. It's always important to find great players, but it is even more important for us to find great people who can accept the change in lifestyle in a positive way.

We started off the season with two big wins. It is always important to get off on the right foot, and we did with a 27-20 win over the Reggio Emilia Hogs in week one. We then had the task of playing 12-time defending Italian League champs, the Bergamo Lions, in week two. The Lions were actually coming off a loss in week one. So, we were prepared to get their best in week two. We were down 26-7 midway through the second quarter, and it was starting to get ugly. However, we showed tremendous character by coming back to get the win, 30-26. It was a big win mentally for our program, and the first time in many years Bergamo had started a season 0-2. Last week, we really played poorly and lost to the Lazio (Rome) Marines, 33-26. We may have been still in the clouds after the week two win, and we just did not show up against Lazio. The Marines are a good team, but they are a team we expect to beat when we play well.

It can be very frustrating to coach football in Italy. First of all our team consists of roughly 32 to 35 players, ranging in ages from 18 to 44. Yes, 44!! The Italian players do not get paid (hence the name "Playing for Pizza") and actually work full-time jobs off the field. This allows us only to practice three times a week, in which our players are sacrificing their own free time to play football. It's remarkable to see players truly playing for the love of the game. However, each practice presents new obstacles of players missing due to work, family, illness, etc. As for games, we actually have a high attendance level for Italian Football standards, but it is never where you would like it to be. We have already encountered many injuries, which forces us to play young players with very limited experience. Many with only two or three years in the sport!

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT:
Albert Lanzoni - "Lanzo" is our middle linebacker at the ripe age of 38, and he can flat out play. I'm 28, and I have to pull my legs out of bed each morning, but seeing this guy get after, it is something special. He has played football for 23 years, and he is a well-known "icon" in the Italian League. This year Lanzo suffered a broken vertebrea in the middle of his back. He was in tears when he realized he would miss a few games. No joke. I tried to explain that his injury is very serious and his health is much more import then his presence on the field for the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League. However, the injury was sustained in week one, and just last night, at practice, he informed me that he will be ready to play next week. I'm pretty sure he hasn't received a doctor's clearance on that, but that sums up the type of guy I'm talking about. Lanzo is also an avid bicyclist. After Saturday night games, he wakes up early Sunday morning and rides roughly 100 miles to the Mediterranean Sea and back. He will be missing a few weeks in April, as he makes a trip to the United States. However he will not be on vacation so to speak. He is traveling with his friend who was paralyzed in a car accident 20 years ago. His friend will be completing Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica, CA in a hand cycle. Lanzo will be accompanying him for the first few weeks on bicycle. The character of this man is flawless, and he is a great player all coaches dream about to lead their team into battle.

Please feel free to follow up on the team at www.panthers.it This year we are sending live updates on the Web site during the games, which is a big step for us. If any Redbird alumni make the trip to Italy, be sure to look us up or contact me for any info headcoach@panthers.it

I'm looking forward to another interesting week of practice and hopefully we can get back on track this week.

Go Redbirds!!!!

Andrew Papoccia