After 12 years crisscrossing Europe with a whistle around his neck, Coach George Contreras will finally make good on the retirement he started two decades ago.
“I’ve been trying to retire for about twenty years but something keeps getting in the way,” laughs Contreras.
He was ready to hang it up four years ago, but a chance to return to Italy with the Varese Skorpions was simply too enticing for Contreras and his wife to pass up.
“I thought we were retired but my wife said ‘Its Italy, that’s different. We have to go’,” he explains.
The long build up to retirement was finally completed thanks to a conversation with one of his grandsons.
“He said to me ‘Papa, you’ve never been at one of my birthdays’,” admits Contreras. “That’s not one hundred percent accurate, but I thought, jeez, maybe its time to make a change.”
“When you are coaching in Europe, you are gone anywhere from six to eight months at a time. We have three little grandkids now. Its gotten harder and harder to miss those once in a lifetime moments.”
Over the last dozen years, Contreras had become ingrained in the European game. His popular blog “Coaching for Pizza” has become a favorite among coaches and imports, even though the name eventually became a misnomer. While pizza was prominent at the start of his European adventure with the Catania Elephants, stops in Sweden with the Hässleholm Hurricanes and Wasby Warriors , Switzerland with the Thun Tigers, France with the Bron-Villeurbanne Falcons, and Spain with the Murcia Cobras, Osos Rivas and Guadalajara Stings, each offered very different cuisines. Ultimately, his final stop in Varese brought it all full circle to the Italian staple.
Given his dedication to the European game, it might surprise many that Contreras was initially reluctant to commit to the venture. Originally, it was the dream of his close friend Rick Scott for the two retired California high school coaches to travel the world while using the game.
“I didn’t really want to do it,” Contreras admits. “I didn’t like the unknown.”
His final decision to face his uncertainties and leave for Europe came down to a fateful car ride to a high school playoff game in 2005.
“Rick was talking about it the whole ride up. He was the offensive coordinator and I was the defensive coordinator, so I was really trying to concentrate on the game ahead. Finally I turned to him as he was talking about Europe and said ‘Hey, we got a big game here. If you just shut the hell up, I promise we’ll go,’” recalls Contreras.
“Unfortunately, we lost the playoff game and the very next morning Rick died of a heart attack. The last thing I did with him was promise that we’d go to Europe. When I retired from teaching three years later, I had to investigate it and I wound up in Catania.”
That first experience in Sicily defied all of Contreras’ expectation.
“It was just so much fun. I was hooked. That one season to fulfill a promise turned into 12 seasons in five different countries.”
That first was just one of several magical moments in Contreras’ European career. There was the season nestled above a castle in the Swiss Alps, helping kids play in front of sold out crowds of over twenty thousand in Mexico with the Europe Warriors, and the serendipitous undefeated season in Lyon, France where everything came together perfectly for a Division 3 championship.
Through it all, Contreras has witnessed massive changes in European football.
“It’s gotten better. It’s started evolving,” he explains. “I tell coaches and imports that you always have to leave the team better than how you found it. You are seeing the impact of that improving things over time.”
When he first began in 2008, Contreras found European coaches isolated and without access to the clinics and resources that might help them grow. That has slowly begun to change and the current coronavirus pandemic has accelerated that process.
“In a way, the coronavirus has been a silver lining because now teams have zoom meetings all the time with coaches all over the world. As sad as its been, it may actually be good for the growth of the game because guys are getting coached up.”
That knowledge transfer, along with the growing use of Hudl and expanded programs by both the NFL and CFL, means that the future of European football has never been brighter. That is part of the reason why Contreras intends to stay involved with the Europe Warriors All-Star game program in an effort to expand opportunities for young players.
“It’s been a really fun project to bring together players from all these different countries and programs and deal with all these different languages,” says Contreras. Making a commitment to go overseas for a couple weeks is a lot different than leaving for half a year.”
“I’m still fired up about football. I’m still doing Zoom meetings with various coaches throughout the world.”
Looking back on his European adventure, Contreras knows what he’s going to miss most.
“I’m going to miss the guys on the field. I love the practices and the game, being around the people. The real good memories are when the coaches and players invite you to their house for a meal and you sit down to talk about life outside football,” he smiles. “We have so many friends now that know if they ever came to California, they have a place to stay at our house. We know that if we ever went back to Europe, we’d have a place to stay with them.”
“When it’s all said and done, you don’t remember the games or the scores. You do remember the people and the times that you’ve shared.”