International students taking Football 101 at SHAPE
With the exception of placekicker Christoffer Nielson of Ringsted, Denmark, SHAPE's Model U.N. of a football team gets their heads together during a recent practice at Mons, Belgium. Kneeling is Enrique Perales of Ferrol, La Coruna, Spain. In front are, left to right, Lars Bonnevie-Svendsen of Fredrikstad, Norway; Luis Diaz of Cadiz, Spain; Santiago Gamboa of Madrid; Fernando Royo of Madrid; manager Meghan Fleet, a Canadian; Ignacio Gamboa of Madrid, and Eimad Ismail of Amman, Jordan. Behind them, from left, are Emil Magnussen of Elvrum, Norway; Marek Gernat of Presov, Slovakia; Kristjan Lozar of Ljubljana, Slovenia; Manuel Golmayo of Madrid; Havard Bjornbeth of Maura, Norway; Argios Kollcaku of Tirana, Albania; Luis Palau of Valencia, Spain, and Antonio Chonevski of Bitola, Macedonia.
American football isn’t even close to being the national game of Albania.
But for Argios Kollcaku, a native of the Albanian capital of Tirana who plays fullback-middle linebacker for the SHAPE Spartans, American football is rapidly becoming his game.
“It’s like no other sport I ever played,” said Kollcaku, a 5-foot-9, 179-pound senior who’s playing football for the first time this season. “It’s not a pick-up game like soccer or basketball. You have to take it seriously.”
For his part, Kollcaku, who played soccer and basketball his first two years at SHAPE, takes the game seriously enough to lay down an ultimatum to his parents, who forbade him to play last year.
“They thought it was too dangerous,” Kollcaku said. “This year, I told them, ‘I have to do this.’ ”
Although a neophyte, Kollcaku, 17, knew he wanted to mix it up in the middle even before he reported to his first practice last August.
“I had seen some football,” he said, “and I knew what I wanted to play. I wanted to be a fullback because you have to be tough.”
When Kollcaku reported to that first practice, he wasn’t the only international player there. Seventeen of the 51 players on the 2012 Spartan roster are non-Americans. They represent no fewer than nine European countries and, in the person of junior Eimad Ismail, a 5-9, 167-pound offensive guard-nose guard, the Kingdom of Jordan.
“Moat of them had never played football before,” SHAPE coach Kenny Potter said of his internationals. “Our job as coaches was taking the skills they had developed from playing soccer and rugby and turn those skill sets to American football.”
Seven Spaniards, whose speed impressed Potter, make up the largest international contingent on the squad. Three Norwegians and a Dane represent Scandinavia; Kollcaku, Slovenian Kristjan Lozar and Macedonian Antonio Chonevski form the Balkan element of the team, which is rounded out with a Slovakian and a German, both linemen.
The situation calls for creativity from Potter and his staff of seven volunteer assistants, who together have more than 106 years of experience, Potter said.
Not the least of the challenges is language.
“We speak football-ese,” Potter said. “We’ll go over something with the ones who speak good English, and they pass the word to the other players. The internationals listen carefully. They really want to learn.”
For Kollcaku, the team’s leading rusher of whom Potter said, “has taken to football like you wouldn’t believe,” the learning process started at ground level and went up from there. In the first five football games of his life, Kollcaku is averaging 5.32 yards per carry, and has racked up 19 solo tackles, 12 assists, a sack, a tipped pass and a forced fumble.
“The coaches took us step by step,” Kollcaku said. “In the beginning, it was learning how to wear your pads and helmet. Then we had to get used to the hitting.”
After that, it was passing along the intricacies of the game, few of which are instinctive.
“One of my Spaniards told me,” Potter said, “‘I enjoy it, but there are so many rules.’ ”
The internationals must like their first taste of American football.
“Here’s what fascinates me,” said Potter, who’s relishing this year’s coaching process. “We had 51 come out for football, and we still have 51 out.”
Winning helps. The Spartans are taking a 3-1-1 overall record and 3-1 Division II-North record into Saturday’s game against visiting International School of Brussels, and a victory would land them in the following week’s European Division II semifinals.
Win or lose, however, Kollcaku has found a new athletic favorite.
“I’ve played more basketball,” he said, “but I like football best.”