The author coaching American football in Moscow.
By Keary Iarussi
“So you play rugby?” – that is the question most Russians ask when I tell them I’m involved with American football here. And when I tell people back home, I’m met with the same amount of bewilderment, albeit stemming from a different place.
Still, no amount of questions and ensuing explanations could make me walk away from Russian football, through which I’ve come across so many good and interesting stories and people. The cool Russian slang I’ve picked up is also a plus (it turns out that Russian football players and coaches have a similar lexicon to those in the States).
Football has been a big part of my life for a long time. I come from Youngstown, one of the most football-rich areas in Ohio and, for that matter, in the country. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in the fall mean one thing. Discussions at the dinner table are dominated by one topic year-round. My dad has coached high school football since I can remember. I played in high school (although my achievements on the gridiron can only be described as modest) and my brother plays now.
Still, when I went to Russia for the first time in my second year at Miami, football was just about the last thing on my mind. Instead, football ended up finding me: by chance I met the quarterback of the Russian national team. Busy with my studies and lacrosse (which I took up then), I didn’t pursue the opportunity his friendship presented to find out more.
After graduation a few years later, I decided to go to Yekaterinburg to continue my studies of the Russian language. Again, football found me: a few weeks after I arrived, an acquaintance casually mentioned he had heard of an American football team in the city. Feeling a little lonely and bored, I messaged the manager of the team that I wanted to help.
My first day at practice was surreal. Pads, helmets, bags, cones – football! I was welcomed as if I was Vince Lombardi. To their surprise, after a short time I agreed to coach (on a volunteer basis). I was to help the offensive line, where I played and my dad coached.
Like my Moscow players now, most of the players there were simple, blue-collar guys in their mid-20s who came to football because they wanted to try something different and quickly got hooked. While some have a distinguished background in sports and serious athletic ability, most are pretty average athletes and find nothing wrong with smoking a cigarette and drinking soda before and after practice.
The challenges Russian players face would seemingly discourage most. I’m one of just two Americans currently involved in Russian football (the other advises a team for a fee). Football in Europe, which is also played on a competitive recreational basis, and even in Ukraine is considerably more advanced, thanks to the continuing involvement of Americans. With no military bases and few missionaries here and little overall interest of Americans in Russia, the opportunities for development are seriously restricted. While the internet is full of resources, most, if not all, are in English, which limits their accessibility: football is jargon-heavy.
The support they receive from the government is minimal to non-existent, while private sponsors are ever tougher to find amid the recent economic downturn and “patriotic” fervor. The country does not even have one field devoted exclusively to football. Games are played on often unlined soccer fields with goal posts assembled from pipes and put up by the players. Most teams are lucky to have a few balls, bags and cones for practice. Needless to say, this situation seriously complicates basic strategy.
Still, year-round they workout and practice after work to play about six to eight games against other local and regional clubs every summer. If they qualify for the national playoff, they get to test themselves against clubs from all over the country – from Kaliningrad to Crimea to Vladivostok. As I learned, football in Russia is not new – it has been around at least since the last years of the Soviet Union, spreading and developing quickly since the turn of the century.
They watch football, play Madden and fantasy football, buy gear and endlessly read about drills and strategy. Their girlfriends, wives and children become big football fans. In fact, in Yekaterinburg some played alongside us on the most successful women’s flag football team in Russia, the Salamanders.
It would seem some players, if not most, spend a considerable amount of their disposable income on equipment, which is all imported, and team fees, which are necessary to rent facilities, travel, and pay officials to work the games.
The raw excitement, curiosity, passion and gratefulness Russian players demonstrate on the field inspire me. Outside of football, they constantly write me, invite me to various events and in general look out for me.
The most interesting thing for me, given my education as a political scientist at Miami, has been seeing this little segment of Russia’s nascent civil society in action. The players support and help each other, including just about everything from giving advice on plumbing issues to raising money for the funerals of loved ones. There are various websites devoted to football, including a handful covering the latest developments and news and equipment stores/exchanges. Meanwhile, some clubs have even started doing community service activities.
Recently, in addition to coaching the offensive line for a Moscow club, I have worked on projects supporting the long-term development of Russian football. One of the highlights of these efforts was the week-long football camp the manager of the Yekaterinburg team and I, with the support of the local consulate and USA Football, organized this spring. Two American football coaches worked with more than 80 Russian players of all ages (boys and girls), most of whom traveled hundreds of miles with dozens of pounds of equipment.
Currently, among countless ideas and projects, local friends and I are in the initial stages of launching an equipment exchange program with US high schools to provide Russian players with cheap equipment and arranging more local camps with US coaches.
My experience has been one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling of my life. Although I rarely look at it in these terms, in the big picture, my hope is that my efforts help enrich the lives of those who football allows me to reach and improve trust between our two countries.
Keary Iarussi graduated in 2014 with majors in Diplomacy and Global Politics and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. He is currently an MA student at the Higher School of Education in Moscow.