Berlin Thunder’s Canadian HC Jag Bal avoids spotlight but believes in ELF’s potential for exposure

Succeeding in the often cutthroat world of American football so often comes down to the art of selling yourself, but Jag Bal isn’t the type for shameless self-promotion.

The fact that he’s risen to become the new head coach of the ELF’s Berlin Thunder is a testament to his relentless work ethic, not his skills as a chinwagger.

“I’m not really good at pounding my chest. I guess I’ve always kind of viewed myself as an underdog. I’ve always understood that life’s going to be tough and I’ve got to do the best with it,” Bal says. “I just try to tough it out day by day with an eye in the relative future and try to correct past mistakes, but otherwise I’m not hanging on any of it. I’m just grinding forward.”

While Bal puts his head down every day and goes to work, he does occasionally allow himself a chance to look up and see just how far the grind has taken him. It isn’t every day that a kid from Richmond (Vancouver), British Columbia, Canada finds themselves on the other side of the world, aiding in a brave new venture that could shape the future of European football by standing at the helm of the team in Germany’s biggest market.

Still, deep down Bal still feels like the kid who played football at Richmond High.

“Nothing’s really changed, you know? I guess I just feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing right where I’m supposed to be,” he says with a pause.

His path to where he is now was anything but direct. Bal’s future seemed to be playing junior football at home until a former teammate took him down to tiny Butte College in Oroville, California, the same junior college that little known quarterback Aaron Rodgers transferred from the year before.

Butte was a stepping stone to Europe, where Bal found success as a defensive lineman for the Dresden Monarchs, Kiel Baltic Hurricanes and Berlin Rebels. He quickly fell in love with the type of people who played the European game.

“I think the first thing that intrigued me was the passion of the game without an NFL dream in sight. Guys had a different level of camaraderie, a different kind of brotherhood. There was not as much individualism as even back home,” Bal explains.

“Football is interesting; it doesn’t matter what level you’re at, you get to see physical excellence happen all around you at any given moment. Out here that happens more often than not, but nobody’s watching.”

Bal broke in to coaching in 2010 with Croatia’s Zagreb Raiders, before becoming head coach of the Zagreb Patriots in 2011 and Italy’s Catania Elephants in 2012. He joined the defensive staff of the Swarco Raiders the next season, before settling in as defensive coordinator of the Berlin Adler for two years. Exhausted, he stepped away from the game to manage a local gym but eventually the calling returned.

“I realized that if I’m going to work 80 hours a week, it might as well be at football because that’s who I am,” Bal admits.

Slated to lead the Adler in 2020, the pandemic stopped Bal from returning to the field but the upstart European League of Football soon came calling. Originally, the Canadian ex-pat was to serve as defensive coordinator for the Berlin team and lead the recruiting effort while another head coach was found, but people in the league soon realized the man for the job was right underneath their nose.

Though he’d worn the head coach’s hat before, this was a different level and Bal was reluctant to give up more hands-on coaching responsibilities. Humble as he is, even Bal had to accept a more appropriate title at some point.

“I never had the intention of being a head coach, I could care less about the label,” he insists. “At some point I just said, you know what, I am doing the work. I’m the one right here, right now, sacrificing and working on building this team to what it’s going to be for the future.”

That team is a direct reflection of their head coach in almost every way. While other ELF teams have made big splashes and grandiose announcements ahead of the league’s June launch, the Thunder have remained mostly quiet, assembling a team of selfless players behind the scenes.

“There hasn’t been much exposure on what we have here, we’re kind of late to the show when it comes to media promotions, but I think that we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Bal says. “We have tough guys, guys that are really willing to sacrifice. Every guy that we have on our team is working hard every day to be the best they can.”

That is Bal’s own philosophy as well but while he rarely toots his own horn, his belief in the ELF experiment is vocal. It is past time for the superb athletes who toil in anonymity to get the spotlight in Europe that Bal likes to avoid.

“Finally we have a platform that’s going to provide kids with exposure and also expose the game itself in Europe. I think we’ve been missing that because when NFL Europe was around, football in Europe was way better. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just there was more people that were driven for success in football,” he explains.

“Coaches believed that they could have the opportunity to coach at that level and players believed that they had a chance of actually realizing these extreme dreams. Now with the CFL Global program and NFL pathway program, that aids it, but there’s still not a greater level of exposure for young men to be intrigued by football because the only people that know about the CFL program are people that are already involved in football themselves.”

The ELF and its national TV deal can finally break through that barrier to grow the game, something that is good for all leagues in Europe. Jag Bal would just prefer the camera stays off him and on the field.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.