Saturday, January 07, 2012

Bill's Excellent Adventure

Let's say you're a chiropractor. Let's say you were born and raised in the east, and eventually moved to Arizona. Let's say you have a fairly typical life, including an ex-wife and a son. And let's say you coached youth football in your spare time. Then let's say that one day someone approached you with a proposition: how'd you like to go to India, and spend Thanksgiving teaching American style football to Punjabis and Kashmiris and Bengalis, who think the sport is played with a round ball and your feet?

You might say that idea is crazy. But if you're Bill, you jump at the chance.

Bill is all of the aforementioned, except for the crazy part. In the course of coaching 10 year-olds in the American Youth Football Association, as well as helping to run the local league, he made the acquaintance of some guys who told him about a business venture they were involved with in India. On the surface, it's not a big surprise: the press has been filled with stories about India's size, its enormous population and its emerging economic potential. Driving that emergence is the growth of the consumer class, which is voraciously coveting all things western, including television programming and spectator sports.

Since India grew up British, that would mean cricket, soccer and rugby. But many other sports have flourished and found huge followings as well, like field hockey and badminton. Couple this love of competitive spectacle with the need to fill cable and satellite TV hours, and you have the foundation for the Elite Football League of India, or EFLI.

While the league is fronted by Indian businessmen, its brain trust includes a number of well know American football names. Mike Ditka from the Chicago Bears, Michael Irvin from the Dallas Cowboys and Ron Jaworski from the Philadelphia Eagles are all part owners of the league. Doug Plank, who also played with the Bears and is currently head coach of the Philadelphia Soul Arena Football team, is one of the lead coaches. Together, their goal is to field a slate of eight teams in time for a kickoff later this year.

But to go from nothing to a legit contest between the Delhi Defenders and the Goa Swarm is a monumental undertaking. And that's where Bill came in. Along with Plank and the rest of the American coaching staff, they had to take highly motivated and talented athletes, and teach them not only skills but the game itself. And so Bill put his life on hold, and boarded a plane for the 20 hour flight to India to teach the basics of a slant pattern to guys who grew up thinking that touching the ball with your hands is a penalty.

Not surprisingly, for one who had never been out of the country, Bill's first impressions were cultural. Once there, he had a three hour drive to Pune, where the training camp was located. "It seems that there are no rules on the road, just a mass of rickshaws, mopeds, cab vans and a few cars," he wrote me. "I saw a family of five on a moped with a child and a baby. It's absolutely something I never imagined experiencing."

But once he got to camp and settled in, he found that serious athletes are the same the world over. "I have been pleasantly surprised how well the head coaches are picking up the football schemes and terminology," he noted after a week there. He said they love competition: "The Indian people like ‘Rambo,' they like ‘300,' they want to see gladiators. The desire is there, their hard work is off the charts." And the people? "Generous and genuine. They were very kind, compassionate and hard working."

He was there about a month, both coaching and using his administrative talents to run multiple sessions with hundreds of coaches and players. Now that he's back, I asked him what he learned. He laughed: "I learned how hard it is to get anything done in India, how hard it is to communicate in a country that has so many different dialects and languages. But I also learned that desire and will really count. Skills can be taught, but you can't get anywhere without pride and respect."

He's continuing with the league, moving more into an operations role, most recently helping to hire college level and above coaches to head over. He has plans to head back, this time to help create a database of players. But even if he's in Phoenix on November 12, 2012, I bet he'll have a hot dog and a beer, and be camped in front of a TV watching the opening game between the Mumbai Gladiators and the Pune Black Tigers. And I willing to bet he'll be rooting for both.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has always wanted to go to India. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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