Over the course of my first few months here in Wrocław, Poland, I slowly assumed the role as head coach of a rookie American football team in Oleśnica, Poland, about 30 minute drive east of the city.
The team was founded by Babatunde Aiyegbusi, a massive Polish-Nigerian whose short highlight tape landed him a FA deal with the Minnesota Vikings. To see and read about where he is now and compare to where he comes from is quite a thing.
The players of Oleśnica speak of Babatunde, known as Babs in Western Poland and Minnesota, in reverence, as if he has embarked on a holy mission. Babs in essence is the patron saint of the squad, the founder and supporter of this rookie club I have the joy of coaching. Everyone who knows Babs are so proud that someone from their relatively small city is representing them in one of the world’s most popular sports. Indeed, Babs’ mere presence at an NFL camp, I believe, has put a foot in the door for other unfounded European athletes primed to play American football.
But Babs is not the focus of this story here. He may return in a later post should he officially survive a full NFL camp and latch on to the 53-man Minnesota roster, and that will then be a story of remarkable accomplishment and a modern-day retelling of pursuing an American dream. I want to tell you about the 30-or-so-man roster he began back in his adopted Polish hometown of Oleśnica.
A day before the club’s first match, equipment was distributed. Next to the box of ear pads and shoulder pads were three rolls of carpet padding. Only one pair of thigh and knee pads were available, but they did not belong to anybody. Those single pairs were to be used as stencils, pressed against the carpet padding and a blade used to slice around the edges. In the end, 30 pairs of square paddings were made to be used as substitutes for actual thigh and knee boards.
A few days earlier, in a casual conversation about Babs, team president Przemek expressed hope that maybe Babetunde could ship home some unused Minnesota Vikings equipment for them to use. At the time I thought to myself, “that’s a silly and naïve thought.” But after seeing the team construct their own equipment from carpet padding, I began to hope for the same thing.
A moment like this has occurred more than once in my two-year involvement of American football on European soil. Like the British lads I played with two years ago, these Polish men, many working long hours in tough jobs, mostly midnight shifts, will do anything to get their hands of something related to American football. Youths such as the Oleśnica players must either illegally stream poor quality live feeds of NFL and NCAA football games or recap them on YouTube. To simply order a pair of gloves or cleats often costs most of their monthly pay check, or alternatively they buy second-hand items that has travelled across the face of Europe like a laundered Euro note. I then have to take a moment of reflection and realise how much I took this game for granted. Gear was handed to me every year by my university, and I bemoaned this because I then had nowhere else in my locker to place it!
The club has to go extra lengths just to be able to conduct one practice. Oleśnica borrows shoulder pads and helmets from its “parent” club, the Wrocław Outlaws, the team which I play for. Every other day, someone is elected to drive 45 minutes from Oleśnica to a Wrocław training session to drop of the pads, then wait two hours for their practice to finish to only return the pads for their training the next day. This has been done several months now.
The club’s first ever match, after weeks of trial and error on my behalf on how to single-handedly coach an entire squad, was something special, despite its ending. Many from the city came to watch the match played out on a converted soccer pitch, and there was even a special introduction from the mayor of Oleśnica. Our opponent was another new club but of the Polish 8-man Division, Jaguars Kąty Wrocławskie, and they were coached by a former Polish national team lineman.
By the end of the first quarter, we were winning 12-0. Frankly, I was as stunned as anyone else. We first scored by slowly pounding the ball down the field, scoring on a short QB designed run. Next drive, after a turnover, I signalled in Liverpool, a play stolen from my British club’s playbook, and the deep route ran by speedster Adek Choma in his Green Bay Packer-themed Nike cleats left him wide open and quarterback Adrian Cholewa gunned the ball right to him. The crowd went wild. They had never seen such a choreography of athleticism, and I was being thanked by the players for teaching them such a play.
Sadly, our offence stuttered from then on and the defence did all they could to hold out but the Jaguars walked away the victors 14-12. The loss hurt the team, yes, but the thrill of having just played their first American football game washed over any physical or emotional pain.
Cheers rang: “Dziękujemy! Dziękujemy!” (We thank you) to the Oleśnica supporters, the new lovers of American football. Team photos were had, Tyskies imbibed, pierogis consumed (mostly by me).
It was not until later that I realised I had just coached my first ever football match. And in Poland, to add. I was coaching a bunch of mostly blue-collared working guys who can hardly understand anything I tell them any lest I have Przemek translate for me. I messaged my Dad when I returned home and told him about the match and the final score. He reminded me that he too had lost his head coaching debut by two points. Therein lied a special connection.
I felt tremendous honour in coaching the guys in their first game, and more emotions were added when my Facebook inbox began to fill up with heartfelt thanks from many of the players. Thus far it has been a special journey. Teaching a group of rookies how to play from square one has many challenges (telling offensive blockers that tackling is not blocking was one early hurdle) but, as they often say about challenges, it has been rewarding.
It was a good night sleep that night. With feet aching, and Polish beer and sausage lulling me to sleep, I was feeling something I never thought I would. And it’s a feeling I never would have imagined because I was certain that this was not the path for me (and it is still undetermined if it will be in the long run).
I felt the sense of pride and satisfaction that I am sure all great coaches have felt: These are my guys.
The season is ongoing with a 1-2 preseason record and a 0-2 regular season start. Commentators from around the country have noted how much more competitive Oleśnica has been this season than expected for a completely rookie squad.