October 16, 2009

Former Crusaders Make Their Mark In Europe

Video: Frank Herlihy & Ryan Maher

By James Greene
Special to GoHolyCross.com

Holy Cross enjoys a rich football tradition. During the program's first golden age in the 1930s and 40s, 23 former Crusader players spent time in the National Football League, although most were there for only a season or two. There were a few who bucked the trend, like Bill Osmanski, perhaps the greatest Holy Cross football player ever, who played seven seasons for the Chicago Bears. His brother Joe, also a Holy Cross graduate, spent five years with the "Monsters of the Midway."

Professional football has changed immeasurably since then. The NFL, once a fledgling outfit of semi-professional teams, now features 32 stable franchises, 19 of which are valued at $1 billion or higher by Forbes Magazine. The league's growth has coincided with the sport's incredible rise in American lexicon. Baseball might be "America's pastime," but pigskin is without a doubt the number one sport in the country today.

After that first golden age of Crusader football, the program transitioned, but still sent players to the pros. When professional football began featuring rival leagues, such as the American Football League in the 1960s, former Holy Cross players found work there. There was the USFL in the early 1980s, and five former Crusaders played for six different franchises. The Canadian Football League, which played its first season in 1954, has been home to six former Crusaders, among them Gil Fenerty (who also spent time in the NFL), Lee Hull and Peter Muldoon.

Like Holy Cross, the NFL has changed. As the league established a stranglehold in the United States, it had also eyed European expansion for several decades. Following a series of successful preseason games in the late 80s, the NFL backed the creation of the World League of American Football in 1990. The league suspended operations after the 1992 season to reorganize, and it re-emerged as the World League in 1995, eventually morphing into NFL Europa before it ceased operations in 2007. When the league dissolved, it featured six teams, five of which were located in Germany.

In the wake of NFLE's demise, a few small leagues were left in several countries, including Germany, England and Austria. Similar to NFL Europe, they provide opportunities for American players to continue playing and showcase their talent in the hopes of someday landing a spot on an NFL roster.

And then there are the ties between Holy Cross football and the sport in Europe, which is not a new phenomenon. Following four seasons as head coach on Mount St. James, Peter Vaas '74 eventually made his way overseas. After spending two seasons as an assistant with Barcelona, he took over as the head coach of the Berlin Thunder in 2000, and proceeded to win back-to-back World Bowl's in 2001 and 2002. After four seasons at the helm of the Thunder and two more with the Cologne Centurions, he made his way back to the States.

Current Holy Cross athletic director Dick Regan also knows a little about NFL Europe. Following his service as the Vice President of Finance for the New England Patriots from 1985-1988, he moved to the NFL's offices. In conjunction with the World League's reorganization in 1992, he was named by NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue as managing director of NFL International, Ltd., where he oversaw the league's business interests in Europe. Regan played an instrumental role in the execution of the NFL's preseason games in London, Dublin, Barcelona and Berlin, which were crucial in making Europe a potential location for future league franchises.

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"To be honest, I thought I was finished playing football after my last game as a Holy Cross Crusader."

Frank Herlihy could not have been more wrong. After four seasons on the varsity for the Crusaders, he graduated in 2007 looking for a way to continue playing football. "I was approached to play in Europe by a team in Austria that two former teammates of mine, Steve Silva and Luke Dugan (both Class of 2005), played for in the year prior," he said. After his employer, Deloitte & Touche, granted him a leave of absence, Herlihy packed his bags. "Never having the opportunity to travel or study abroad during college due to football commitments, I looked at it as the perfect opportunity to see and experience different parts of the world while getting paid to play the sport that I love."

Knowing Silva also proved valuable for Kent Flanders ‘08. The former Holy Cross strong safety finished his career in purple with 163 tackles (130 of them solo) in 42 games. "While at Holy Cross I had aspirations of playing in the NFL, CFL, NFL Europe and Arena 1," he said. "I actually knew nothing of playing overseas until Steve Silva went over to Austria to play during my sophomore year. I took a trip to Italy in June 2007, the summer after my junior year, and stayed in Naples for three weeks. After going to Italy I knew I wanted to go back to Europe and that's when I decided I wanted to go to Europe to play."

Ryan McGuire and Ryan Maher, both '08, followed similar paths to Europe. McGuire also heard about playing overseas from Silva, Dugan and Herlihy, while Maher's path was slightly more circuitous. "Having had a successful junior year and continuing that success into my senior year, I had hopes of participating in NFL combines and hopefully making it to a minicamp," he said. But a torn meniscus suffered in the second-to-last game of his senior season derailed his immediate plans. He rehabbed for six months following surgery and set his sights on CFL combines, but no offers came. "That's when I decided that Europe would be my best chance of continuing to play football."

McGuire was also contacted by former Holy Cross assistant coach Bob Bradley, who had worked under Rick Carter, Mark Duffner and Dan Allen and was then the head coach of the Carinthian Black Lions on the Austrian Football League. "He offered me a position as a tight end, wide receiver and an outside linebacker," McGuire recalled.

Each player made it over at different times. Herlihy worked a year before resuming his football career overseas, first spending a year in Austria and then this past season in England. Flanders had a chance to leave school early to keep playing, but opted against it. "Unfortunately the teams needed me in April and of course I didn't graduate until May 23," he said. "There was no way I was putting off graduation to play football in Europe."

Instead, Flanders also looked at other avenues outside of football while keeping alive his dream of playing professionally. He spent a summer volunteering at a web design firm and then participated in tryouts with a few Arena 1 teams. An opportunity didn't arise with those franchises, but getting face time certainly did help. "I used my presence there to network with Arena 2 coaches and hand out film, just in case," he said. "During the same time I was getting things in order to prepare myself for a combine for an up and coming league, the United National Gridiron League."

The combine never happened, and neither did the league, but Flanders was soon contacted by a European football coach last March. He made the decision to go overseas and became a member of the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes of the German Football League.

The transition was equally herky-jerky for McGuire and Maher. After graduating last December, McGuire worked as a sales associate for a company in which he'd worked between his junior and senior years at Holy Cross. By March 1, he was on a flight to Europe.

For Maher, he worked at a non-profit daycare as a classroom assistant and after-school counselor before signing with the Vienna Vikings in Austria. But at first, it looked as though he might not get his opportunity so quickly. Europe became an option after appearances at various football combines didn't lead to anything. "I was given a website where I could browse teams and make inquiries about available spots for American players," he explained. The response initially wasn't good. All the teams he contacted already had full rosters, but in a stroke of luck, he heard from a team that wasn't on his list. "I was called by a coach from the Vienna Vikings and was told that they had an open spot after they lost one of their American players," he said. "The crazy part was that I had to be willing to leave within the next three days because the team was four games into their season and their roster needed to be finalized within the next week.

"I jumped at the opportunity without hesitation."

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American football takes on a different light outside the NFL. Head north to Canada and you're introduced to the 55-yard line. When you put the game inside an arena, the formations are different, the rules altered and the crowd becomes part of the action. But cut down to its core, football is football. The object is still to run, pass, hit and outscore your opponent.

The impressions of the four former Crusaders on the European take on the sport varied. They were all thrust into entirely new environments. "My first impression of playing in Europe was no different than my first time playing in a game for Holy Cross or my high school," Herlihy recounted. "The butterflies were still there before the kickoff and the adrenaline rush that you feel during all of this was the same as any time I've ever suited up to play a game. There are not as many fans, it is a bit more laid back, and the national players are not as talented and football-savvy as guys who play in the States."

Herlihy also found himself facing tough competition. "The other American imports were the best individual players I've ever played against in my life, coming from the Big 10, PAC-10, Big 12, etc. Also, the [European] national players are big, strong and athletic, but they just haven't grown up playing the sport like we have."

McGuire was enthusiastic about his time in Europe, but realized immediately as an American player, he would be relied upon for leadership. "As an American player in Europe you are really expected to be a player/coach," he explained, "so you have to set out a practice plan for the position you play and coordinate with the other American players and head coach to develop weekly game plans. This was a great experience in that it allowed us to teach the game as best we could to many of the Austrians who were new to the game and eager to learn."

Maher's assessment was frank. "My first impressions were that it was a lot more laid back, the referees were terrible and the speed of the game was much slower," he remarked. "Yet being an American on a team made up of mostly Austrians, there was still the same sense of camaraderie and kinship that I felt on other teams that I had been on. It was great being able to hang out with the players and just get a feel for their way of life. The other Americans and I were just amazed at how fortunate were to have had the opportunity to be a part of the whole experience."

Flanders agreed that the atmosphere was more relaxed. "My first impression of playing here was, ‘Where's the intensity? Where's the swagger?'" he explained. "Honestly it's not the same game here because it's not in their blood like it's in mine. They try to be intense but at the same time to them it's just a game and to me it's been my life for 15 years now because I started when I was nine years old. But the fans here, for the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes, are great. They take care of us, help us out with everything. They drive all over Germany to come to the games and have team barbeques for us. The fans are great and they really want to understand the game because a lot of them don't like soccer and are former fans from NFL Europe." 

Though not as popular in Europe as soccer, football has gained a small, if passionate, following. "The fans were great," McGuire said, heaping praise on those who attended his games. "They appreciated the game greatly and they loved us American players because of our play. Often times after a big win we were greeted with Austrian beers and wiener schnitzel, which was a great way to exit our locker room."

Despite the distance, to a man, each Crusader explained their respective families were excited they opted to play football in Europe. Herlihy's explanation might best sum up the collective impressions. "At first it came as a shock because I was leaving a pretty good job in New York City to play a sport in a country where most thought it was non-existent," he recalled. "However, they respected my judgment and decision, and once it was made, they supported me fully and continue to do so today in everything I'm doing."

Each Crusader has met success in Europe. Herlihy has already spent two seasons playing overseas. After one year in Austria, he moved to the Coventry Jets of the British American Football League. His team qualified for the playoffs and even made it to the BritBowl, the league's championship game. "It was a great experience," he said, "and I got to see a lot of things and meet a lot of people that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to had I not taken the contract to come play in the UK. Making it to the BritBowl was also a really cool experience. American football has really picked up in the past couple years out here with the NFL playing games at Wembley [Stadium] and having people embrace the sport."

Flanders' season also ended with a loss in the league championship. "For me it was a great experience making it to the league championship," he said. "I hadn't been to the playoffs since I was 12 and I had never played in a championship game before. But the nervousness that I had was no different from the nervousness I get before every game. I wish we would have won the game though." He also noted football fans remain, even with the dissolution of NFL Europa in 2007. "We played in the old stadium of the Frankfurt Galaxy, an old NFLE team, and there were a lot of fans," he explained. "There were even some NFLE fans there. They wore the jerseys of the Frankfurt Galaxy, Amsterdam Admirals and Berlin Thunder. You can see that football is still alive in the hearts of some Europeans and they miss NFL Europe."

Despite the loss, Flanders is already chomping at the bit for next season - one that might feature a reunion for all four. "Actually we are trying to set something up for us to play in Spain, France or Italy starting in January," he explained. "I really hope it works out because it would be great to be around those guys again and have a chance to play on the same team again."

Maher also made it to a championship game - and won. "Winning the Austrian Bowl was such a gratifying feeling for me," he said. "After coming up short three years in a row for the Patriot League championship, it was great to finally win a championship. The season had been such a wild ride for me." That ride of emotions included playing his first game in over a year and losing four straight, but turning the season around in time to sneak into the playoffs and eventually win the league title. "I was very proud of perseverance we showed," he beemed.

As for the future beyond just the next season, it remains open. American players are mostly under year-to-year contracts, and are free to sign with anybody in any country during the offseason. Both a blessing and a curse, it can give players flexibility while leave open the question of when - or from where - the next check will come.

McGuire is examining his options after this season ended in the playoffs of the Austrian league. In addition to the prospect of playing with his former Crusader teammates again, he has an offer to return to the Black Lions. As for the future, he's keeping an open mind. "I'm not really sure about building a life in Europe after football," he said. "I guess I'll just have to see how things play out."

Beyond football, the other three Crusaders said they're open to the prospects of building a life in Europe, but for now, their focus remains on plying their passion. "I absolutely love it here," Herlihy said, "and I could see myself setting up something more permanent or where I can spend significant amounts of time here in the future if the right opportunity presents itself."

And Herlihy has a message for those who might balk at playing in Europe. "I think every graduating senior who has the opportunity should take advantage of what these leagues have to offer, not only with allowing an athlete to continue his playing career, but also cash in on the invitation to get paid to travel the world, playing the sport you love," he said. "The experiences I've had and friends I've made traveling and playing this sport over the last 18 months are invaluable to me, and the memories and relationships will go far past my last game over here.

"Life's pretty good right now and, in many ways, I have Holy Cross to thank for that."