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27.6.14

Praha pt. 2: A Homeless Football Coach Becomes a Champion

Hello Fellow Fish,

Some of you may be wondering, why I ended up going to Prague in the first place. The answer is quite simple in that I was hired to coach American football for the newly formed Prague Black Panthers. It is in honor of their final regular season game this weekend and with great hope that a win propels them far into the playoffs in the coming weeks.


Football:

First, some team history and a character introduction. I’ve withheld some of the last names so as to protect their privacy and identities as I have not received permission to use their names in this post. Each Team is allowed 2 “import players” and as many “import coaches” as they want.
            -Dan: General Manager of the team-my point of contact and the one who hired me, Czech National
            -Pavel: Team President/player, Czech National
            -Tom Smythe: Head Coach, fellow blogger (his blog), American
            -Taylor Breitzman: Defensive Coordinator, American
            -Andrew: QB, American
            -Andre: RB/DB, American

Now for a bit of team background: The Prague Black Panthers were formed out of the two best, formerly separate, teams in Prague. In doing so, they joined the ultra-competitive AFL (Austrian Football League-one of the most competitive in Europe) and were embarking on the inaugural year full of hope, having combined the two best teams in the country and having a new sponsor who had promised quite a bit of financial support.

PBP competed in two leagues simultaneously: our A-team competed in the AFL games, and our B-team competed in the Czech League games. Having the B-team was a way to keep our starters healthy for AFL games but still stay on top in the Czech league.
 
Uniforms
Starting Out:

As is custom in European football, all of the imports are supported financially, given housing, and pretty well taken care of in general by the team. All of this in exchange for services on the football field. Some positions get more than others, for example, I was just a position coach (not a coordinator) so I was only promised a place to live and a small food stipend. Hence the side job in the previous post.

The team had arranged for all the imports (we were all about the same age), with the exception of Coach Smythe, to live in a hotel close to the stadium in which we played. Being in such close quarters for so long, there is a certain bond that forms as everyone is working hard and playing hard, all while trying to navigate a new language, city, and culture.

Practices were crisp. The players wanted to get better. They welcomed competition and punishment in the form of push-ups and up-downs. For me, it felt great to be around football again after such a long time. We held our training camp about 2 hours outside of Prague, staying in a quaint little village with cobble stone streets. The team lodged in an old monastery which was different. As always, camp spirits were high. We were able to install a lot of our offense and defense, all of our coaches were meshing well and everyone was optimistic.
 
Monastery at camp


If its one thing our team loved more than football, its beer. Our first night after camp was spent filling up and taking over the one pub in town. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The guys were chanting fight songs, singing old Czech songs, and playing a game where, when singled out, you were obligated to drop your pants and flash the ones who called you out. Luckily, I was never called out, but some of the other coaches and American imports weren’t so lucky!



video
 
Install at camp
The Season:

A week before our first game, we had a walk through in an enclosed field due to snow. We were preparing for our first game against Vienna, the reining AFL Champions, Coach Smythe’s old team, and his now nemesis. Spirits were high as we finished up, and the main sponsor of the team was supposed to come and talk to us. He was running a bit late, but when he showed up, since practice was over, he walked in to a chaotic scene of grown men throwing around a ball and chasing each other. He made his way over to the General Manager and then quickly left, saying that he just wanted to ‘see’ the team, not speak to us. (Red flag #1)


Pregame before Vienna

Once game day rolled around the team was excited and nervous. I was just tired (as would become a trend for me, because I worked the nights before our games and would have to be up super early to catch the bus) and cold. The team gathered at our stadium and waited to board the bus that would take us to Vienna. It was a short time before departure that someone realized…no one picked up the Head Coach. (Red flag #2)
 
Coach Smythe before a game
We roll in to Vienna and play a decent game, but couldn’t come out with a win. It was after this game that things started to unravel at the upper levels of the team management. The GM and Head Coach didn’t get a long very well after some decisions were made and disagreed upon. (Red flag #3)


The next few weeks followed similar suit. We found out that the sponsor who had promised his support was backing out. Poor management, which trickled down to the imports not getting paid, and overall disgruntled-ness. All of this coupled with the fact that we were over matched in just about every AFL game (we still dominated the Czech League). As things got progressively worse, the first casualty was the Head Coach who decided to leave because of the disconnect with team management, about three or four weeks into the season. Taylor took over and did his best to turn things around. The players responded well to his style of coaching and if nothing else, he at least got along with the people who ran the organization.

Taylor Breitzman 
The other Americans were getting upset because they weren’t getting paid on time, if at all. I was fine, as I never received a full salary, and I had the bar job on the side. With so much animosity between the imports and management for lack of pay, management called a meeting after a practice.

They explained their situation (which we knew already) and tried to earn our sympathy by telling us how strapped for cash the team is because they lost a sponsor. It was in this meeting that they also informed us that there would be some changes in pay, and living situation. Little did I know, that I would be the next casualty.
 
I was told I had 2 weeks before I had to move out of my apartment, and was responsible for finding something on my own. What made it more difficult was the fact that I worked such late nights at the bar, and I didn’t want to burden anyone with coming in so late. So I resorted to the only thing I thought I could…I slept on the street. I kept all my bags at work, and when I was done, would take just my sleeping back and backpack (to use as a pillow) and walk the streets until I found a place I wouldn’t be bothered. I was lucky after a few nights that I found a staircase to a roof, where I was unnoticed and unbothered (except when it rained). Its not that I didn't have money for a hostel, I just chose not to spend money on a place to stay when there are perfectly good roofs! When the mornings would finally come, I would shower at work and then start my shift. It was not my finest hour.
 
From left: Taylor, QB-Andrew, me
After the 10 days of being legitimately homeless, I was able to persuade the team management to give me money for a plane ticket home, which I just used as a deposit on the apartment I moved into next.

Fallout and Champs:

Not living in the team apartment and not having them give me a food stipend was actually a bit liberating. I was free to work more shifts, and I was making more money as a bar tender anyway. The downside was not being able to attend all the practices from working more shifts and feeling like I was letting my players down after having invested so much time and effort into them and seeing so much progress from where they first started. That was the only reason I stayed on and basically worked for free for the latter half of the season. The final casualty of team mismanagement was Andre, who went to play in Poland.

The AFL season came to a close and we had lost all but 2 games. In the Czech League, however, we were #1. The TAG Heuer Czech Championship game, was between us and the other Prague team, the Prague Lions, but for some reason they had us play in Moravia about 2 hours outside of Prague. We suited up and played our hearts out and dominated the Prague Lions (much like the AFL dominated us) on our way to a Czech National Championship! It was a great way to cap off a season, even if it wasn’t an AFL Championship, winning still feels great. We were presented with the trophy and medals. Andrew, our QB and MVP was given a brand new watch and after the closing ceremony, the party started…right there in the stadium. By 10pm, the whole team was lights out drunk. We didn’t win many games…but we knew how to party like we were the undefeated Champions. This game just happened to be a Championship. Being the end of the season, all the bad things that the imports and the team had to put up with from management seemed irrelevant. Coaches and players just joking around making fun of each other and everyone having a blast.


It was during this time that I realized, the management who were responsible for essentially making me homeless, were not bad people and I was wrong to hold grudges. They were just terrible administrators/managers, but they were good guys. I had a very sobering moment, when a group of receivers I coached came up to me to thank me and ask if I was coming back. The group ranged from our  4th string B-team players to the A-Team starters, but all expressed their gratitude and said they’ve never learned so much in one season before. Which made it all worth it. At other points in the night, various people came up to me to apologize on management’s behalf and were appreciative that I stuck around for them despite the less than ideal situation I was in.


After the trophy started getting used as a shot glass, a group of us left to catch the last train to Prague (The trophy is still missing to this day. That is not a joke). But the party continued all the way home. Chanting, singing, yelling, on the platform, banging on the “sleeper cabin” doors of the train as our envoy came through.

Conclusion:

My time with the Prague Black Panthers was a very tumultuous, but ultimately rewarding experience. We had no business playing in the AFL, but the experience gained from last year was built upon this year, and the team is in playoff contention with Taylor back at the helm. I’m able to watch some of the games streaming which is always great to see how these guys I used to coach are playing at a very high level now.

I had a blast getting to know the players and helping them become better at what they love to do. Some of the most rewarding things about coaching in Prague, was being able to travel around the Czech Republic and Austria, two astoundingly beautiful places, seeing improvement in my players and being able to experience Czech culture in a way that most people wouldn’t be able to. Good luck this weekend PBP. Beat Innsbruck.



Until Next Time,



T-Fish

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