American Football is now an international sport, being played in over 90 countries around the globe. In different countries, to help develop the sport and keep competition at a high level, American players are “imported” onto club teams in various capacities. These players get paid to play the game they love while seeing the world and experience different cultures. 2017 Graz Giants (Austria) American import, O’neil Blake, allowed me a detailed interview about his experience in Europe.
How many years have you played in Europe/overseas?
This past season was second year playing in Europe.
How did you get here? What’s your football journey?
I played high school football at Osceola High School, which has a very rich football history. I went on to play collegiate football at Lenoir-Rhyne University’ (Hickory, North Carolina). While attending LRU, I was a part of a program which won 4 consecutive South Atlantic Conference (SAC) championships. In 2013, we had a great season which ended with a Division 2 national championship appearance. After graduating LRU in 2014 I went on to workout for several CFL teams and made to the preliminary camp of the Edmonton Eskimos. After getting release from the training camp I returned to my alma mater to start coaching as a graduate assistant. While working as a graduate assistant, one my colleagues Jonathan Dally who formerly played in Europe told me about different playing opportunities in Europe. He introduced me to Europlayers.com, and from there different teams throughout Europe contacted me and presented with playing opportunities.
LIFE IN AUSTRIA
How do you like it in Austria?
I enjoyed living in Austria. The experience was totally transforming. The Graz Giants gave me my first opportunity to play football at a pretty competitive level and travel throughout Europe. The organization also fulfilled all their contractual obligations. My teammates were welcoming, and I enjoyed living in the city of Graz. The people in Austria are warm and quite welcoming for the most part, especially the people there that support American Football.
What is your go to meal in Austria?
I would have to say Wienerschnitzel.
Do you spend a lot of time with Austrian teammates or on your own/with other imports?
I shared a house with another American import while I was there both seasons. The other import and I got along really well, so we and our Austrian teammates did a lot of social activities together.
FOOTBALL IN AUSTRIA
What level would you compare the football played in Austria to in the United States?
I would compare the overall playing level in Austria to a lower Division 2 conference, however, I think the league is growing and the completion level is getting a little stronger throughout the league.
What do you see as some of the biggest differences between football in the states compared to Europe/ Austria?
The biggest difference to me was the coaching and the fact that the players there had other jobs besides football. Here in the States most teams have a fair number of coaches on their staff that really know the game, in Europe you will only have a few coaches that are really competent with the X’s and O’s.
How have you personally helped your teammates and coaches develop their American Football knowledge during your time abroad?
Part of my role within the Giants organizations was to coach the program’s youth teams, so I was responsible for coaching the DB’s in all of club’s youth teams.
What are your plans after the season concludes?
I am currently back in the United States, and I am the Defensive Backs coach at St. Andrews University (North Carolina).
What advice would you give to someone playing football in Europe/overseas for the first time?
If the opportunity presents itself take it! Be open minded and humble. Travel throughout Europe while there every time the opportunity presents itself.
Can you sum up what American Football means to you?
American football has definitely transformed my life. I have used American Football as a bridge to gain two collegiate degrees. The sport has given me the opportunity to travel across the world and experience things I never vision of experiencing. American football is the bridge between myself and everything that I have achieved in life thus far.
O’neil Blake has launched his own clothing brand, BridgeMQ, to give travellers across the globe a sense of sentiment pertaining to travelling and seeing different bridges in different parts of the world.