AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — A chilly wind blows down from the nearby mountains as the sun starts to set. A few hundred feet away, a C-130 transport plane idles noisily on the runway.
After a few minutes, though, it doesn’t feel as cold anymore. And the noise doesn’t seem as loud.
Football helmets keep out some of the wind and a lot of the noise. And it’s hard to concentrate on much else when going through a series of sometimes-unfamiliar drills. Plus, all that exercise negates the cold.
“The coach keeps us pretty well-conditioned,” said Tech. Sgt. Tyron Taylor, who is entering his third year on the Belluno Grifoni. “This is by far the most intense.”
The Grifoni — or Griffins in English — are a squad comprised of Americans stationed at Aviano and Italians from as far as the outskirts of Venice. They play an eight-game schedule of American-style football against several Italian teams and another from Slovenia for the right to play in a championship game in Austria.
Head coach Dan Carr, a soldier stationed with the local American Forces Network detachment, admits there’s not a lot of glory for those involved. The crowds are sparse. The fields are more suited for soccer — or in the case of practices on base, baseball. And there aren’t any huge paydays. Actually, there aren’t any paydays at all.
“Nobody here gets paid,” said Carr, who also plays on the team. “Not the coaches. Not the players. Not even the owner.”
In fact, the players — the majority of whom are Americans — have to pay for their equipment, which can cost several hundred dollars. A sponsorship deal with a local fencing company has provided some transportation this year — a bus that takes them to games that are sometimes a few hours away.
So why go to all the effort?
“To have fun,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Steve Ericson, oldest player on the team at 36.
Ericson’s first experience with football came not in high school or college, but at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany in the early 1990s. He played on the base team back when Air Force bases had teams.
He also had two knee surgeries from his football experience in Germany.
Carr said injuries are a concern. That’s one reason why he and coaches Rick Dahlstrom and Cameron Parker — both teachers at the high school — push the players to be in shape at practices.
That, and the fact that all concerned like to win, something the team has been doing frequently in recent years. Last year, the Grifoni went unbeaten in league play and earned a 40-33 victory over an Austrian squad in the championship game.
This season, the team opened with a 44-0 rout of Udine, a team with a few American players from the base. Many of the other teams in Italy’s second-tier league also have an American or two on the roster.
Venice’s team, which featured a large contingent from Vicenza, had to drop out when the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to Iraq. But none of the other teams has nearly as many Americans as the Grifoni.
Carys says that puts more pressure on the team to succeed.
And he sounds more like NBA coach Pat Riley than a football coach when he talks about his team’s relationship with the officials, who are mainly Italians.
“There are interpretations of the rules that we don’t always agree on,” he said.
Parker played Division I college football at San Diego State, which is more than any of his players can say. He said the closest thing the Grifoni have to a big-time player is Thomas Hackett, a military spouse who plays receiver and cornerback.
“But whenever everybody’s here and we’re healthy, we have a pretty good team,” he said, adding that getting everybody to practices is probably the toughest challenge. Some of the Italians have to drive an hour to practice after getting off work.
But none of them seems to be complaining.
“American football for me is the best sport,” said Diego Mondin, a 34-year-old who first saw the sport on television and has been playing on semi-pro teams in Italy for more than a decade.
“For me, and a lot of guys on the team, it’s a chance to relive the dream,” Carr added.
The dream continues April 19 when the Grifoni host the Ljubiana Silverhawks at the Aviano city soccer stadium.