Grads in pads: First U.S. national football team prepares for trip to Japan
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- The red and blue football jerseys never have absorbed a grass stain, and the "USA" on the chest is a pristine white.
The 45 players in uniform steal excited glances at each other in empty Spartan Stadium on a postcard-perfect California afternoon, still soaking in this surprising turn to life after college.
"It feels good wearing the red, white and blue," said tight end Brian Thompson, who had figured his football glory days had ended at Michigan last fall.
Just days before heading to Japan, the first U.S. national football team finally is getting used to the notion of its existence. These graduating seniors from every corner of the nation met a few weeks ago, and now they're almost ready to play in the third World Championship of American Football in Kawasaki.
Who knew such an event existed, or that American football was a thriving sport outside its birthplace? Not most of these players, who focused their lives on the sport until their eligibility ran out last fall.
"I hadn't really given a second thought to football (outside the U.S.)," former Princeton linebacker Brig Walker said. "After knowing about this tournament, it's made me take an interest in what's going on. We're just grateful we got this opportunity."
Under the direction of veteran coach John Mackovic, they'll leave for Japan -- auspiciously on the Fourth of July -- to participate in the six-team tournament. Most of them don't believe Germany, Korea, France, Sweden and the two-time world champion hosts will stand a chance -- not when this is the last chance most of these Americans will get to wear pads.
"We were getting ready to hang up the cleats, and then we heard about this opportunity to keep playing and to get a chance to play for your country, so I went for it," said Thompson, who joined the team along with Wolverines defensive lineman Jeremy Van Alstyne.
The players hail from all levels of college ball, from major programs to Division III Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, the alma mater of quarterback Rocky Pentello. Even serious college football fans probably wouldn't recognize any names on the roster.
But while their better-known former teammates get ready for NFL training camps or explore options in Canada and the Arena league, these grads decided to spend their first summer after college doing a little world traveling -- and making a bunch of new friends.
"It's been a whole lot of fun just meeting guys from so many different kinds of teams and programs," said linebacker Ryan Tully, Harvard's captain last season. "Everybody is used to doing things their way, and now we've got to come together and learn this new system, but everybody seems to be picking it up.
"No rivalries carry over. We're all on the same team now. Once everyone is wearing the same color jersey, everybody gets along."
USA Football, the 4-year-old governing organization, solicited player recommendations from hundreds of college coaches before picking a team on film and advice. They scrambled to round up passports for everybody, even calling a couple of senators to speed up the process.
The players assembled at San Jose State in late June for a training camp, where Mackovic and his five-man staff threw a surprising amount of strategy at the players.
"It feels like freshman year of college," said Walker, who plans to stick around Japan for 10 days afterward to climb Mount Fuji and explore his Japanese-American heritage. "At first, you're thinking it's hard, and we've got all these different schemes, but it's getting easier every day."
Mackovic, the former Illinois, Texas and Kansas City Chiefs coach, said USA Football has approached the event "the way that USA Basketball did it when they began."
"We played with nothing but the amateurs in the Olympics for a long time, and we did very well when the college guys played," Mackovic said. "It's probably a good parallel of where our game is. We hope that someday it'll be an Olympic game, but there have to be more federations around the world. We hope that someday we can look back and say we were a forerunner."
Mackovic was a well-known taskmaster, but he has kept a light tone while encouraging his players to enjoy this unique experience. At a recent team dinner, the offense battled the defense in competing renditions of "Over There," George M. Cohan's classic patriotic song about American troops heading overseas to fight in World War I.
Mackovic, who took over after former Virginia coach George Welsh dropped out, hadn't been on a sideline since leaving Arizona in 2003, but he learned about football's international appeal during previous coaching trips to Konan University in Kobe, Japan.
While the folding of NFL Europa last week was the latest blow to the pro league's decades-old attempts to market its product on foreign soil, the game has a solid following around the Pacific Rim from Australia to Japan. Club teams also thrive in central Europe, and 45 nations are members of the International Federation of American Football.
The international game is played with 12-minute quarters, and the teams play three times in six days during the world championships. While the American players are mildly cautious about predicting total domination in Japan, they clearly would be shocked to lose.
"I don't know what the competition is going to be like, but I've heard it's not up to par to what we're used to," said former Arizona quarterback Adam Austin, who hopes the event will be a springboard to other football opportunities. "It's still good competition, but, you know."
Defensive back Jason Hoffschneider has a better perspective on their task. He left North Dakota in April to join the Hamburg Blue Devils of the German Football League, where he's having "the best time of my life" playing alongside several members of the German national team.
"What's going to win the game is the O-line and D-line," Hoffschneider said. "We're so much bigger, so much faster, and we know football a lot better. That's where I think we're going to totally dominate."