Quarterback Alex Niznak Carving International Football Career in Sweden, Brazil
Alex Niznak was already formulating his post-football playing career days when a chance meeting in Texas reeled him back in.
One random encounter with a Japanese businessman is all it took for Alex Niznak to morph from a stateside soul into a world traveler, an international professional football player who recently finished his debut season in Sweden and now embarks on a new adventure in Brazil.
Niznak, who led Ithaca High School to its first of five Division 6 state championships in 2010, went on to play collegiately at Central Michigan and Southeast Missouri State.
After transferring to Southeast Missouri State in 2014, he suffered a pair of “bad timing injuries” as he called them which hurt his chances to see significant playing time either season on the Redhawks’ roster.
“If you would have told me three years ago while soaking wet, humbled, not in the best mood and very confused after being benched during the New Hampshire game with Central Michigan about everything that has happened since I wouldn’t believe you,” Niznak said. “You would have told me I’d finish my degree, transfer to Southeast Missouri, get hurt twice, get another degree, give up on football and love it again three weeks later – then travel to Texas, Tokyo, West Michigan, Sweden, Brazil and be home for Christmas. I’d have replied, ‘How is that possible?’ Who could even script that?”
Upon earning his Master’s Degree in higher education from Southeast Missouri State, Niznak contemplated his next move. He thought about a low-level college coaching job or perhaps going after his Doctorate, anything that might either keep him around the game of football or kick start his professional career in the field of his choice.
Japan comes calling
At that point, his mind was far away from playing football.
That is until January of this year when Niznak attended the American Football Coaches Convention in San Antonio, where he stayed for three days networking with as many people as possible and found a job board where he pinned his resume.
It was the spark that lit the flame once more in his football career.
“I get a phone call later that day from a Japanese guy,” Niznak said. “I thought someone was messing with me and that it was a prank. I hung up on him and he called right back saying, ‘Hey, we must have had a bad connection.’ He said he was a general manager with a Japanese football team and that he was looking for an American quarterback, someone who can work with us and help develop Japanese talent.”
Niznak was admittedly not in tune with the international game and also still convinced it was an elaborate prank, but decided to take up the offer for a meeting at the coaching convention.
“He walks over and talks to me for about an hour,” Niznak said. “He had all my college information brought up and watched video of me on his phone, even interviews I had done five years ago. He laid it out and explained all about his team, the Obic Seagulls in Tokyo.”
Niznak was interested, but still in the dark so he did not commit to anything at that point.
The general manager, Ken Namikawa, remained persistent.
“He said he was very impressed with what I had done and explained they were looking for someone who can not only play the game but also mature enough to do the administrative side of it,” Niznak remarked. “I said, ‘Whoa, let’s talk. I’m in Texas for three days.’
Niznak would eventually travel back to Michigan and received an offer to play for American Indoor Football’s West Michigan Ironmen (Muskegon).
Namikawa called back while Niznak was in Michigan, saying he had three candidates including Niznak he wanted to bring to Tokyo for a week-long interview process which included training and working out.
And just like that, Niznak applied for an expedited passport and was off to Tokyo. He had never previously traveled internationally.
“I interviewed for three one-and-a-half hour sessions with straight questions and no breaks,” Niznak said of his arrival to Tokyo. It was great and I loved it.”
He returned to Michigan knowing a possible opportunity was on the table, but was still awaiting an official offer from the Seagulls.
Royal opportunity in Sweden
Meanwhile, Niznak was also exploring other football possibilities which included the Tyreso Royal Crowns in Sweden.
“I was talking to TRC around the same time and they told me their offer,” Niznak explained. “We went back-and-forth on a few things and I let them know that I had been to Japan and was blown away. I let them know I needed to make sure what was going on in Japan before I committed to anything in Sweden.”
Namikawa called Niznak back saying he was one of the top two candidates for the quarterback job, but ultimately they decided to go in another direction.
“They offered me a coaching job because he was so impressed with how I interviewed,” Niznak said. “They wanted me to be a scout for the organization. I let him know that I appreciated it, that it was a blast and that I’ll come back to Japan at some point in my life. But right now, I still wanted to play. I still had a passion for football and being on the field. I couldn’t stop that to start coaching and scouting now. He totally understood.”
He also graciously turned down the offer from West Michigan, meaning it was full speed ahead with Tyreso.
“I let West Michigan know that I appreciated the offer and that they’d have a great year, but that the international game was more interesting to me,” Niznak said.
Niznak started at quarterback for Tyreso and helped guide the way to a fourth-place finish with a 5-5 record to qualify for the postseason, where the Royal Crowns lost a tight 24-21 decision to the Carlstad Crusaders on July 3.
“I played with some great guys, I got to do a lot of sightseeing and I had so much fun,” Niznak stated. “It wasn’t the way we wanted to end it in the semifinals with a heartbreaker, but that’s football. What I’ll take away most from Sweden is the passion that everybody has for the game. In the United States, I loved it and was around a lot of great people. But their excitement to play over here is incredible. You can talk about money and scholarships and motivations, but people over here just really love the game. And it is going to continue growing internationally.”
The very next day following the semifinals loss, July 4, the Recife Mariners on the coastline of Brazil announced they had agreed to terms with Niznak to be their quarterback for the upcoming season.
No break was in the cards for Niznak as Recife opens its season July 9, six days after the conclusion to the Tyreso season.
Niznak has spent all week Skyping with Recife coaches, getting up to speed on the playbook and the intricacies of his new professional football club.
After traveling the entirety of Thursday from Sweden to Brazil, Niznak will use Friday to acclimate himself as much as possible with one practice before taking the field for Saturday’s game.
“I was researching my options internationally during the Tyreso season to try and find a team I could link up with during the fall,” Niznak said. “I was 100 percent focused on what we were doing in Sweden, but I also needed to figure out my next move. Recife actually messaged me at 3:30 a.m. one night and we had an hour conversation before I said, ‘Guys, we’re going to have to do this tomorrow.’”
He agreed to terms with Recife and Niznak, who only seven months earlier assumed his playing days might be over, will take snaps for yet another new football team during the upcoming months.
“It’s all been piecing together to where I can play in Sweden and then Brazil and be home for Christmas,” Niznak said. “Then maybe next year I’ll go back to Sweden or go to a different country during the spring and summer. I’m trying to stay one step ahead of what I’ll be doing and yet still focused on what I’m currently doing.”
Niznak certainly does not forget about Ithaca as he frequently visits the town where his football career blossomed as the initial quarterback for a Yellowjackets program that would go on to a historic 69-game winning streak and five state titles in six years.
Ithaca is still the place he calls home.
“I appreciate all the support from Ithaca,” Niznak said. “They were always my biggest fans. I didn’t exactly give them a lot to cheer for when I was in college, but they stuck with me and the support I’ve gotten since I’ve been overseas has been pretty amazing for such a little town.”