From Krakow, Poland to Ohio Northern University

This summer, in addition to the returning veterans and incoming freshmen, two players and two coaches from the Krakow (Poland) Kings are taking part in the Ohio Northern University Polar Bears football training camp. Located in Ada, Ohio, a small town of around 6,000 people in the northwestern corner of the state (and site of the Wilson Football Factory), the university has had Kings’ players attending camp for the past several years.

According to Jacek Malecki, HC of the Junior Team, the collaboration between Polar Bears and Kings began “about 5 years ago” when then-King’s Head Coach Dawid Ostrega sent emails to many American universities. “About six or eight” universities, including ONU, answered.

Listen to an interview with Malecki.

In an email exchange, Polar Bear’s HC Dean Paul told me that he responded to Ostrega because “We believe in promoting American football on a global level. In addition, we respect their passion for the game and want to encourage this love for the game. I also have found that it has been educational for our players and coaches to learn about Poland and Krakow.

Under Paul’s leadership, the Polar Bears have traveled abroad to Germany, Ireland, Italy, and other nations to play games against national teams in those countries. In 2015, ONU football, along with Global Football, the Air National Guard, and the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade also donated helmets, shoulder pads, and other equipment to “help with the growth of American football in Serbia.” In addition, QB Kyle Simmons and DB Zachary Runzo played in Europe after their graduation. Simmons played for the Nürnberg Rams, and Runzo was with the Sheffield Hallam Warriors, a university team in the UK. So the commitment to developing football internationally runs deep.

The Kings have made the trip to ONU a part of their yearly awards program. Each season, the “two best players” and coaches have the opportunity to take part in the experience. In the last two years a member of the athletic trainer’s staff also traveled to ONU. This year, Dariusz Niziol and Dominik Janda from the club’s A Team were sent as the best players, along with coaches Malecki and Roguski.

There is some culture shock coming from Krakow to Ada, but perhaps not in the way most would think. Roguski, the DL coach of the B Team, exclaimed that “Ada is bigger than Krakow!” He went on to explain that while the Ohio village was small, the football facilities where the Polar Bears train are larger than anything they have at home.

Also impressed was Jean-Marc Burtscher, another European visitor, who happened to be in town and who took the opportunity to watch practice. A longtime player in France, he was impressed by the “rigor” of the practices he watched, particularly with the work being done with the linemen, who are sometimes neglected in France.

Malecki mentioned that the Kings now have more than 140 players – sixty on the A Team, fifty on the B Team, and thirty-five on the Junior Team. American football has exploded in Poland since the 1990s, and Malecki estimated there were around 45 teams playing there today, with a lot of the teams having B and junior’s teams, expanding the numbers. He credited movies, PC games, and that football is a “collision game” for the rise in the sport’s popularity.

Roguski found the game when a friend invited him to practice, and the former basketball player thought “Hell yeah! Why not?” Malecki also had a friend who had been to the U.S. in 1992. The friend brought back a football and showed it to Malecki, who responded incredulously “What the f***? What is that?” His friend replied “The best game, you know – running and boom!” Niziol also had a friend that brought him into the game, but Janda mentioned that it was televised NFL games that got him interested in the sport.

Judging from the enthusiasm that the King’s coaches and players showed for having the chance to attend Polar Bear practice, this collaboration will continue. An increasing number of international players are arriving at American universities, and playing the game in its homeland. Likewise, teams from the U.S. are traveling abroad for games with Europeans, Australians, and those from other places where athletes are discovering the joys of collision that is American football.

Katarzyna Ostrega, the team’s president, also offered an invitation to American university teams to visit Krakow. “The Kings are ready and waiting for interested programs to visit their great city and experience football on the other side of the ‘pond!’”

Russ Crawford
Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, OH. The University of Nebraska Press published his book Le Football: The History of American Football in France in 2016. He is currently working on a project exploring the history of women's football.
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