From waffles to gelato: Coach and former NFL player reunite in Rome

The city of Rome, Italy is visited by millions of tourists every year. The city’s unique mix of ancient history, the arts, high fashion, and fine dining create an eclectic culture that gives the Eternal city its name.

This year, Rome has been introduced to a cultural influence of a completely different variety. American football southern style, imported by the Lazio Duck’s head coach Dan Pippin and former NFL wide receiver Matt Hazel.

The pair have been reunited after more than a decade after turning North Augusta High School into a powerhouse program in South Carolina and the reunion is starting to make a difference.

It started with the arrival of Pippin in Italy earlier this year after spending 28 years coaching high school football in South Carolina. Coaching at Aiken and Greenwood high schools as well as North Augusta, in the heart of the South, Pippin was a fixture in the competitive southeastern high school football scene.

It’s not the Waffle House but Coach Pippin with wife Laura and Matt Hazel can still enjoy a similar atmosphere while in Rome

Pippin most recently served as the head football coach and athletic director at Greenwood from 2014-2019, before making the jump to Italy for personal reasons.

“I loved being athletic director, but it was a tremendous amount of time. Coaching football in the south, we had spring practice, seven on seven’s in the summer, and the season until November. So, from the middle of December to November it was football all the time.”

After the passing of his mother and his in-laws, Pippin and his wife Laura decided they wanted to take a new lease on life and concentrate on enjoying their time together and family. Their focus shifted away from the grind of top-level high school football to traveling and searching for new unique experiences.

“I had a pretty successful career. We won a lot of games and did really well. Then my mom passed away along with my wife’s parents. We are both in our early fifties and love to travel. When our parents passed away, we decided for a change.”

Soon, a fitting opportunity arose as the couple jumped at the chance to move to Rome and coach the Lazio Ducks. So far, the two have enjoyed their experience in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Later this month they’ll be joined by their extended family who are eager to enjoy Italy’s capital.

Dan Pippin coaching North August HS in South Carolina Photo: Mike Adams, Post and Courier

Pippin commented on some of the uniquely Italian experiences he’s enjoyed:

“We went to the Vatican and walked through all of downtown Rome, it’s amazing. After the Milan Rhinos game we were sitting outside enjoying a meal at a castle. Then we beat Florence and we were eating Florentine steak with a view of the Piazza del Duomo.”

As a coach in South Carolina, Pippin helped develop dozens of division one players and sending several of his alumni to the NFL. One of them was Hazel who was one of his all-time favorite players and a person he had stayed in close touch with over the years. So when preparing for his first international season he reached out to Hazel. Pippin had coached Hazel back at North Augusta high school from 2005 to 2009 where Hazel was a centerpiece in the team’s offense as the two were able to turn the program around from a 1-10 record to 11-2 in Hazel’s senior campaign.

Pippin commented on Matt Hazel’s profound impact on the North Augusta program:

“Anybody knew he was special; you could have absolutely no knowledge of football and know Matt was special. His junior and his senior years were just incredible. Matt’s work ethic is phenomenal.”

After being a star on Friday nights, Hazel went on to play at Coastal Carolina University where he racked up 2,553 yards and 28 touchdowns as a Chanticleer. His great collegiate numbers and excellent combine testing made Hazel an intriguing pro prospect. So much so that he was drafted in the sixth round by the Miami Dolphins. For the next five years, Hazel bounced around different NFL teams between the practice squad and active roster, playing for the Dolphins, Bills, Redskins, Browns, and Colts. In 2019, Hazel spent a short time with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the CFL before he started seriously considering a reunion with coach Pippin.

Matt Hazel played with the Miami Dolphins in 2015-16

Pippin on signing his former standout player again:

“We were talking last March, and I told him it would be fun to get him out here, I was just joking around. Then I’m at the Gym and Matt texts me ‘If you really want me to come to Italy, I’m coming’. I stopped my elliptical and gave him a call.”

In typical southern fashion, the two decided to meet at the Waffle House to discuss business. The meeting took place at the same small town Waffle House where Hazel once had a meal specially named after him following a breakout performance playing for Pippin in high school.

Pippin on the delicious discussion:

“We went and drove up to North Augusta and met Matt at the Waffle House. It was like me and Matt were back with the high school. We were at the same Waffle House where all the kids went after high school games. I couldn’t believe that he did it, and that he wanted to do it.”

The thick combination of syrup, nostalgia, and a call to adventure were enough for Hazel to sign on the dotted line making him a Lazio Duck.

For the former NFL wideout’s Rome reunion with Pippin presented a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Italy has always been on my bucket list to come visit. As time went on the thought kept coming up. People back home told be they thought it would be a good idea. It was on my mind and I thought I’ll give it a shot.”

Since arriving in Italy, Pippin, Hazel, and the Ducks have slowly been building their football culture brick by brick. Hazel’s play on the field and NFL experience make him a great fit for helping Italian players develop high level football habits. For the head coach, having an import player he knows so well, makes life that much easier when building a program.

Pippin on the introducing his football culture to the Ducks:

“The best thing about coaching here is that the players have really bought into what we are trying to do. For them to change their mentality as far as to practice and to keep playing the entire game is a great credit to them.”

Matt Hazel catching a pass against Milano Rhinos Photo: Stefano Scaccia

Hazel’s international adventure has been truly unique. He’s enjoyed his time both on the water and basking in the cities amazing history. The former North Augusta Star’s time experiencing a new culture has been both eye opening and mouth-watering.

“I love Italy, Italy is definitely going to be my second home. As a vacation spot, I gotta come out here every year. I’ve fallen in love with Carbonara, I eat Gelato almost everyday.”

On the field, Hazel has been hard to miss, playing receiver, defensive back, and kick returner. Currently he sits among the league’s leading receivers with 829 yards and 9 touchdowns in only five games. Reuniting with his high school coach 14 years later in a foreign country has been comforting for Hazel. Playing for Pippin again is helping for the former NFL player dominate on the field once again.

“I’ve known coach Pippin half my life. We are family.  He said I’m like a son to him, and he is like a father to me. Just how much he believes in me plays a big part in it, and that helps me continue to do what I do. It’s funny how life works. Sometimes I sit back and laugh about it.”

On the gridiron, the Ducks have turned it around after two double digit losses to kick off the season. Coach Pippin’s team has shown great resilience fighting back from large deficits and winning two of their last three games. The recent success has thrust them back into the playoff picture.

Pippin on coaching a tough-minded Ducks team.

“The guys never quit. That’s credit to everybody. Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, it’s a big deal that we’ve have gotten that this year.

The North Augusta duo and their Lazio Ducks will face off against the defending champion Milano Seamen this weekend. If coach Pippin and Ducks pull off the upset, they can potentially punch their ticket into the playoffs.

 

Alex is a former professional American football player who is now studying in London. His goal writing for AFI is to stay involved with the game that has given him so much. Alex enjoys covering leagues and players and sharing different football stories from across the globe.