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A pigskin odyssey

European football through the eyes of a vagabond QB

Posted: Tuesday April 18, 2006 5:00PM; Updated: Tuesday April 18, 2006 5:54PM
Nick Eyde is a former D-III player who has found happiness on European club teams that are often home to retired college coaches.
Nick Eyde is a former D-III player who has found happiness on European club teams that are often home to retired college coaches.
Beppe Fongaro
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NFL players who serve fine whine about their lack of pay, respect or recognition should spend a season in Italy with Nick Eyde. The quarterback for the Serie A Bolzano Giants could show them a thing or two about having a fine time in a land where pigskin ranks somewhere behind volleyball on the sporting menu.

"When I tell people what I do, they say, 'Oh, rugby?'" says Eyde, 26, a native of East Lansing, Mich., who has been happily playing pro football in Europe since 2001. "For many Italians, their only exposure to it has been what they see in movies like Any Given Sunday. They ask if players really lose an eye during games. But there is an active Italian subculture that loves American football."

There are similarities to the NFL to be found in the Italian brand -- end zone dances, for starters, and one of Eyde's Italian teammates, wideout/kick returner/safety Andre Ventura, has apparently ripped a page from the Terrell Owens playbook. "He's good and he knows it, so he practices only when he feels like it," Eyde says. "He gets away with murder. Italian players can be very dramatic. They'll  swing at each other one minute and kiss each other on the cheek the next."

There are also some notable differences, such as the NCAA rules and the female refs. "They're tough," Eyde laughs. "And not bad-looking."

Bolzano's season runs from April to July, with eight league games attracting crowds of up to 4,000 at some stadiums, such as the ones in Bologna and Rome. There are two qualifying rounds for the EFAF Cup tournament, which includes the top two teams from such burgeoning gridiron outposts as Russia, France, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Spain, as well as Austria and Italy.

"The strongest teams in Italy and Austria can contend with the top 10 teams in Division III," says Eyde, who attracted some attention three weeks ago by engineering a monumental upset of the Bergamo Lions, a team that had won 73 league games in a row, and eight consecutive championships. Bergamo boasts two Seattle Seahawks castaways -- quarterback Kevin Feterik and running back Jay Hinton. Eyde's 30-yard Ave Maria pass as time expired capped Bolzano's 20-14 win and achieved the rare distinction of earning his sport some ink in the features section of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy's most prominent sports magazine.

Eyde played three seasons at Division III Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., before taking off for Europe to satisfy his desire to keep playing, as well as his lust for travel and unusual experiences. He contacted several teams through their websites and beat out two former Division I-AA QBs in a race to secure a passport. He flew into Hohenems, Austria, on a Friday and played for the Cineplexx Blue Devils the next day.

Eyde found himself barking signals in an atmosphere akin to the college game: mascots, tailgating, fireworks, halftime shows and crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 fans watching a rollicking mix of local talent, diehard former collegians and NFL never-weres. But the enthusiasm of the players and fans isn't hard to find. Last year's Austria Bowl championship game between the Innsbruck Tyrolean Raiders and the Vienna Vikings was on national TV. Festivities began early in the morning with a hearty Bavarian breakfast.

"There was fan rivalry, due to the regional and cultural differences between Tirol and Vienna," he says, noting that one of his teammates -- an Alitalia pilot -- regularly spent time in South Carolina doing two-a-days with a high school team simply because the guy was nuts about football. "That's what I love about being here. You have your passion outside of your daily professional identity."