My first season playing Football in Europe was a unique opportunity that I will always appreciate. That second season in Italy taught me life lessons about the world outside of football. But playing football in Brazil changed my life forever, and gave me the focus to become the person I am today.
During my last few weeks playing ball in Italy, I was looking towards my next opportunity. Individually I had one hell of a season, and was enjoying the Italian scenery more than a young man should. But I had been bitten, by the football ball. I was on top of my game and wanted to keep it going, instead of returning to the states and the 9-5 grind that was waiting for me.
FROM EUROPE TO BRAZIL
After doing a little bit of research into Australia and South America, I connected with a small team in Brazil. The team president agreed to pay me a very small salary and find me a local job in the area. The catch was that I would have to buy my own plane ticket. Luckily, money wasn’t my motivation, I just wanted to continue balling and see the world! As I was preparing to purchase my flight tickets and travel arrangements, things took a strange turn. The team president contacted me saying that the team could not find me any accommodation and could not afford to pay the agreed salary!
As a 25 year old from Texas, planning to leave Italy in the next week, this was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. The team president was a decent man, and connected me with a few other teams in Brazil who might be interested in my football services. After a few intense online interactions, I finally agreed to play for the Criciúma Slayers in Criciúma, Santa Catarina, Brazil.
COOLEST BLACK GUY IN BRAZIL
My point of contact was the team Head Coach, Gustavo Casagrande. At the time, I did not know that he would play a huge role in my life both personally and professionally. After going through the awkward process of obtaining a visa to Brazil (while in Switzerland), I boarded a plane and took a 27-hour trip to an airport in Florianopolis. I was properly greeted by the team’s board members, with Gustavo holding a sign that read “COOLEST BLACK GUY HERE”. That first impression let me know everything was going to be okay.
Once I arrived at the house I would be staying in, it was a pleasant surprise that I wasn’t rushed to a football practice right away. I spent the first few days meeting my roommates, teammates, team supporters, and just getting acquainted with my surroundings. Of course, this was because the team only practiced on Saturdays!
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Before my arrival, the Criciúma Slayers had been in existence for three years and had accumulated zero wins. I had agreed to play running back and cornerback for the team, since those were my positions previously in Italy. After the first practice, and a few meetings with the coaching staff, I was given the opportunity to make some much-needed changes within organization. I was tasked with creating an entire offensive, defensive, and special teams playbook for the team. The offense was tailored to what the coaches wanted at the time, Chip Kelly type plays, and I was given autonomy to create the defense how I wanted as I would be the defensive coordinator from that point going forward. In addition to that I created a simple special teams design that would benefit the players we had on the team.
Before joining this team, I had never seen myself as a coach, only a player with the ability to make my teammates better. But now I was put in the position to make my ENTIRE team better! As I think about it in hindsight, the trust that the team put in me is what motivated me to take on the coaching role. Besides that trust, was the pure thirst for knowledge that everyone had. I asked the best players on the team to become positional coaches to help me reach more players at the same time. The players gladly obliged and took their positions very seriously. We began having weekly meetings where I would coach the coaches how to coach their positions! In between these meetings the OC/HC Gustavo would grill me with schematic questions about the playbook, EVERY DAY! This was the football drug I was looking for!
Adjusting to my new coaching lifestyle did not mean I forgot that a baller must ball. I adjusted to a pretty rigorous schedule of working out 2 hours a day, and carb loading like I was trying to become a sumo wrestler. Because of the once a week practice schedule, I had to create my own cardio during the week. I settled on Basketball and the local park, a few soccer games here and there, and some crazy difficult agility and conditioning workouts. From 8am to 8pm football ruled my life, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
I can’t speak for the level of physical commitment my teammates gave to the sport on a daily basis, but I do know that when it came to practice, the Criciúma Slayers were all in EVERY Saturday. During the week, I did individual position training with 3 or 4 players who had the time, and wanted to get better. Before each practice, I would have a 30 minute meeting with a specific position group to teach basic knowledge of the game, and how to better be prepared on the field mentally. Practice was always a smooth ride, segments were timed accordingly, competition was always high, and the players never loafed on the field. The three hours of practice were as efficient as they could be every week.
BRAZIL HEAT IS NO JOKE
I went to Brazil looking for a football life, and I had found it. But obviously, there was a lot of down time that needed to be filled. When in Brazil. . .. BE HOT! Criciúma is a small city in the Southern part of Brazil, so the weather was cooler than what some people experience there. But It was still 30+ during the middle of the day! After lunch from 12:30-15:00 every day I had to take a mandatory nap. The reason for these siestas was not because of leisure, but out of survival. After a few weeks of sweating buckets during the middle of the day as I walked around my house in my underwear, I succumbed to the weather and just slept through the heat of the day. This meant afternoon showers to get the sweat off, and then heading into the center of town that was surrounded by trees to work on football schemes or get online to contact the other side of the world. The best thing about the heat, was minimal need of clothes. A muscle shirt, a pair of shorts, and flip flops completed my wardrobe for those six months.
BRAZILIAN FOOD REMINDS ME OF HOME
Brazil was by far the easiest place for me to enjoy food. Pizza, fried foods, burgers, and barbecue were all readily available in abundance! Being from Texas, I took offense when I was offered Barbecue and everyone kept saying Brazil does it best. By world standards, it was some of the best barbecue I have ever had. But I’m from Texas, so I’ve had better. Besides the barbecue, I loved the generous pricing of the food in Brazil. 4 reais would get you a bacon hamburger with all the fixings! This was the time I was introduced to the only soda I have ever loved, Guaraná! Guaraná is a soda made using the guaraná fruit which is only available in Brazil, if I remember correctly. All I know is that it tastes like sunshine!
The local culture in Brazil matched my personality perfectly. I lived in a small house with two guys who did not speak any English, but that did not stop us from communicating. Sometimes me and my roommates would sit in front of the computer and give Google Translate a good hour or more workout! I wasn’t into the local party scene, but I attended a few events here and there.
The real value of culture for me was hanging out with the players from the team. The most interesting thing about the weekend hangs and random beach visits was the engagement I had. Not only did I get to know my teammates personally, but I even made friends who were not football related! I wasn’t just the football player; I was included in the group as a true friend. For that inclusion, I will always be grateful of my time in Brazil.
COPA SANTA CATARINA CHAMPS
To be completely honest, the actual football games were not the best during my time in Criciúma. Even though we only lost one game, most of the games were dependent on our defense shutting out opponents while our offense struggled to score. This was the reality, as I was calling the defensive plays while playing cornerback, and later became the quarterback, trying to lead the offense within our desired scheme. But we did win the regional tournament that season, having only one lost and helping the Slayers gain recognition in the area as a legitimate football team.
THIRD SEASON’S A CHARM
My time in Criciúma taught me that I had more to give to football than just my physical abilities and talents. Being a part of such an eager group of young men inspired me to do more with my knowledge of the game. It didn’t happen right away, but I can easily point to my experience in Criciúma as the turning point in my life. I was no longer just a football player; I was an ambassador for the sport! Obrigado Criciúma Slayers!