Imports find love, careers, and a place to put down roots in Europe

The Covid-19 pandemic has posed a unique challenge to global football. Seasons have been postponed or cancelled. Import players were forced to cancel plans or rush home. Some import players and coaches have become trapped overseas, waiting out the virus. However, for a small contingent of import players going home was never an issue. They were already there.

For many imports, European football is an eye-opening exposure to new cultures and languages. Most learn from the experience but some find something unexpected, a place to make a life.

Thonon Black Panthers’ QB Clark Evans saw Europe as a means to continue a football career he wasn’t ready to abandon, signing up for Europlayers on the advice of friends.

“I got an offer from Slovenia and I took the first thing I could,” says the former FFFA Division 1 MVP.

He has since played in Llubljana, Slovenia, Dusseldorf, Germany, Chur, Switzerland (Calanda Broncos), and now Thonon-les-Bains in France.

Swarco Raiders’ QB Sean Shelton had a similar whirlwind experience motivated by an unsatisfying end to his college career.

“I graduated college in December 2013 and I was in Paris by January of 2014,” laughs the AFL veteran who has also had stints with Elancourt, Helsinki, and Turku.

Clark Evans and girlfriend Kim Andrey

Linebacker Ryan Newell had to wait for his opportunity coming from tiny Peru State University and feared his career was over with little European interest. Finally, his college defensive coordinator got a head coaching job in with the Munich Cowboys.

“Once you get over here and you have a decent year, even if its in a lower league, you will get contacted by other teams,” says Newell, now in his second stint in Munich after brief forays with the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes and Cineplexx Blue Devils.

Each player is a multi-year veteran of European football, each has played in multiple countries, and each has decided to put down roots in Europe.

What compels an American to forego a return to his native land and make Europe their permanent home? A number of factors come into play, including the deep connection that these players feel to their adopted cities.

Evans, who now hangs his hat in Switzerland, spent his childhood in the hustle and bustle of southern California. He’s fallen in love with the quaint atmosphere and close knit communities he wasn’t used to growing up.

“You don’t really feel alone like you would in some other places,” he explains. “Being in a small little village, knowing a lot of the people, for me its just a beautiful feeling.”

Shelton has found a similar kinship in Austria.

“In Tirol, I felt comfortable very early. The Tirolian people were in line with my perspective on life and culture-wise very similar, which wasn’t necessarily the case in Helsinki and France,” he says. “I enjoyed my time there but couldn’t imagine calling them home, which I felt very early on in Austria. The people have been very warm to me.”

“I feel like my home is Innsbruck and my home is Tirol and it has been for awhile now.”

A lot of that comfortability comes from supportive teammates, coaches, and team management, who have bent over backwards to make a small town Nebraskan foreigner like Newell feel at home in big city Munich.

“They’ve always been supportive and asking ‘do you need anything’ or ‘do you need any help with this’,” says Newell with gratitude. “When I was trying to get my foot in the door working, I had guys who would come with me to help translate so I would fully understand things.”

Of course, like any home, it helps to have someone to lay your head beside at night. Each of the three Americans has found a local girl that sweetens the deal to stay on the continent.

“Towards the end of 2014, I met my eventual wife. I told her I’d be back in Europe but not in Munich,” says Newell. “I went to Kiel and she flew up almost every weekend to watch me play. Then we moved to Austria together.”

The couple returned to Munich shortly after.

“It turned into me working here as well as playing, and me trying to build a business with my personal training,” he says. “At the end of 2017 we got married, so it was like ‘ok I’m here now.'”

Sean and Lisa Shelton

Shelton put a ring on the finger of a Austrian girl he met in his first season in Innsbruck.

“Obviously that was a strong motivation to stay and build a life,” the pivot laughs. “I enjoy it here. Its where my wife is from. Its where our children will be from.”

While love was a motivating factor, Shelton stresses that he likely would have stayed in Austria either way.

“It was not a scenario of I came over, I found a girl, and now I have to figure it out,” he emphasizes. “The professional path was there. By no means was I scrounging for work or in a bad scenario.”

The opportunity to build a full blown career in Europe was an essential element to each player’s story. All three have been actively involved coaching and all three will continue after retiring as players.

“I just love being around football and I see a great opportunity to not only play, but coach,” Evans told me. “It’s a place where football has a lot of room for growth and I want to be a part of that growth.”

Newell is busy shaping his future as a strength and conditioning specialist, including running the Cowboys’ training programs this year. At the same time, he’s found fulfillment in helping with the youth programs.

“Coaching our youth program, for me at least, was a lot more rewarding,” he says. “You see those kids grow up and become young men. Some of them even get opportunities to play in the States in high school and college.”

For Shelton, coaching was always going to be the end game. He studied education at the hopes of going into the high school ranks but didn’t want to split his focus between teaching and football. He turned his attention to college football by volunteering after his stint in Helsinki, but was quickly turned off by the constant 80 hour work weeks that threatened marriages and would ultimately prevent him from being the husband and father he always wanted to be.

“What I saw from the Raiders is that you can coach really high level football and your job is football  24/7, you don’t have to teach history and then coach in the afternoon,” he explained. “But you also have a life, you can have free time, you can have hobbies.”

“Professionally it made sense and was appealing for the lifestyle I wanted to live within football.”

He believes that European football doesn’t get enough credit as a career option.

“There is not a ton of credibility given to the professionalism of European American football but it is something you can earn a living from,” Shelton insists. “If you are at one of these top clubs and in a stable situation that you can hang your hat on, which isn’t the case everywhere, the benefits can be plentiful.”

Ryan and Stephanie Newell

None of the players see themselves returning to the United States any time soon.

“I do plan on having a long future here in Europe,” says Evans. “Right now its not permanent, but we are working towards a way to make it permanent. I haven’t been home in over a year.”

Newell is leaving the door open to future strength and conditioning opportunities back home, but says Europe is where he wants to be to start a family.

“There is a lot more benefits to starting a family over in Europe than there is in the States, with maternity leave and father leave and all sorts of things like that,” the linebacker acknowledges.

Sean Shelton does miss his family in the US, but believes he is exactly where he is meant to be.

“If I’ve learned anything in my adult life its that you don’t know anything about what your future holds. But I think what’s most likely is I will stay in Austria and build a life,” he told me. “I can’t see what would bring me back to the States, professionally or personally.”

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.