I Wanted to Make an Adventure
Neil Hall '02 discovers fun and celebrity on the gridiron... in Switzerland.
Question: What Kenyon alumnus sports a national football league championship ring?
No, it's not a trick. The answer is Neil Hall, a physics major who graduated in the Class of 2002. Hall is a two-year quarterback with the Landquart Broncos of Chur, in the Alpine canton of Graubünden, Switzerland, the reigning team of the ten that comprise the Swiss league of American football.
Hall led his team to the Swiss national championship last year, putting the Broncos into competition for the 2004 Eurobowl. This season, they not only challenge the rest of the Swiss teams (just in: Broncos over the Geneva Seahawks, 42-0, after invocation of the mercy rule), but they play the champions of the other European countries. On the march to the Eurobowl, Hall and his Bronco teammates will match up with such opponents as the Carlstad Crusaders, the Bergamo Lions, the Moscow Patriots, and the Turku Trojans from Finland.
Imagine yourself at one of Hall's first European games: Chur vs. Paris, at home. Mountains in the background (we are close to St. Moritz and Liechtenstein). A light rain falls. It's 3 degrees Celsius, 37 Fahrenheit. From the sidelines, the coach yells to his team in Schweitzer Deutsch, the Swiss dialect of German. Hall, on the field, snaps orders in English. The Paris Flash de la Courneuve (not to be confused with the Paris Blue Angels, Castors, Challengers, or Spartacus) set up in French. The crowd is going wild, 1,200 football-mad voices sending up a roar in Stadium Ringstrasse.
Quick Paris touchdowns open each half, but the Broncos respond with strong defense. Hall adds some power on offense, carrying the ball thirteen times for 109 yards, making him the leading rusher for the Broncos. It's not enough, though. The Flash (whose quarterback hails from McMurry University in Abilene, Texas) take the win, 28-6.
Despite the outcome, Hall remains determined and cheerful. Soon the Broncos will play Barcelona, warmly away. Travel is one of his favorite things. Winning is another. And the two are linked. "The more success, the more we play!" he enthuses. The more they play, the more of Europe he gets to see.
American football has been on the European scene for twenty years and is well enough established to create celebrities--like Hall. Swiss national television featured the Paris match-up with a day-long filming of Hall preparing for his game. "They were at my house when I woke up," he recalls. They filmed him preparing lunch, en route to the stadium, and in the locker room. They caught warmups. They returned, joined by radio and newspaper reporters, for post-game interviews.
"It was exciting to have that kind of attention," Hall says, "but it was kind of a distraction before the game." Still, he does not hesitate to admit that it's a lot of fun.
And fun is clearly what this is all about. "Each year I think, 'Just one more year, and then I'll get on a career path.' But each year I come back, I love it so much. I would regret it down the road if I didn't do this now." After all, he has his own snug house in the Alps. He eats breakfast at a café down a narrow, ancient street in a city with an 800-year-old cathedral and evidence of continuous habitation since 3000 BC. In the canton of Graubünden, one can still hear Romanch spoken. It's a long way from Ohio.
Hall's path to Switzerland began in Gambier, however. During his senior year, he learned about the European leagues from a former teammate, Anthony L. Togliatti '00, who had played in Copenhagen. Hall was eager to find a way to continue playing; Togliatti encouraged him and passed along contacts.
With the help of Kenyon's athletic department, Hall prepared a personal-highlights tape. It caught the eye of a recruiter for the Eidsvoll 1814s in Norway. After an interview, the Kenyon running back found himself heading for the land of the midnight sun on a one-year contract and then, a year later, moving to Switzerland--in both cases, to play quarterback.
It turns out that in the European leagues, all of the quarterbacks are American. The teams are limited to two or three foreign players; their core members are local, with new Americans brought in each year as the heavy hitters. Hall had been a quarterback who ran the option for his high school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Both the Eidsvoll 1814s and the Landquart Broncos, says Hall, "have been option teams, looking for a mobile, rushing quarterback. So the transition hasn't been too difficult."
Hall still suffers from "Monday-morning aches and pains," because American football in Europe is quite as physical as it is at home. He reports that his European counterparts run the gamut from the massive to slight builds, with a broad range of talents. Since they grew up playing soccer and ice hockey, "they still have the initial tendencies to the skills of those games," and play football without the deep grasp of the game native to Americans.
Some of the teams compare to American college teams, and others fall far from that standard, according to Hall. Usually owned by groups of sponsors who benefit from the advertising opportunities, the teams pay the players on the level of Arena 2 football franchises, so a second job is requisite for most players. Hall himself is a popular substitute math teacher at his old high school in the off-season. The students can't get over the ring!
His glory in Switzerland, by contrast, is sometimes tempered by puzzlement. When Hall started making friends in Chur, many had no idea that the city had its own American football team. Others knew but scoffed. For most of humanity, after all, "football" is a game played with the feet, sans shoulder pads and helmets.
Hall doesn't foresee New World football overtaking the Old World's in popularity any time soon. But gridiron action does hold an appeal among those Europeans whose tastes are heavily influenced by American culture. Hall sometimes feels like an ambassador, introducing a novel pastime. "But," he notes, "the Swiss league has been around for fifteen years already and is continuing to grow in popularity. Who knows how big the sport can grow in the next twenty years? It's exciting to think about the future of it."
In the last analysis, Hall says he went to Europe "to make an adventure." In this, he has been entirely successful. He marvels still at the good fortune that led him to his picturesque Alpine environment and to the wonders of travel around the continent.
But he knows his way back. He poses for team publicity shots in the Kenyon apparel he wears daily. "I love Kenyon!" he says. He is active in the Kenyon Football Alumni Network and comes back for Philander's Phling.
That's for the fun, of course, but it's also for the connection. What Togliatti did for him, he'd love to do for other Kenyon players who want to make their own adventures along the way to the Eurobowl.
Ann Starr '73 is the administrative assistant in the office of public affairs. She is a visual artist and independent scholar who teaches a course each winter in the ethics and humanities department of the Northwestern University Medical School. This is her first feature for the Bulletin.
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