So You Want to be An Import?

The world of international American football is truly a mystery to the uninitiated.  It is exotic, exciting, and a little bit confusing.  I love being asked “wait, do you mean soccer?” when I say that I have coached American football in Norway, Italy and Brazil.  It is the question that never fails, and my response always initiates a flurry of equally endless intrigue.

In short, being an import is an interesting job. 

But just because a job is interesting doesn’t mean that it is for everyone.  For someone who has never traveled across continents and oceans to play American football, it is simply impossible to understand what it means to be an import.  The big, bold alluring words are obviously FOOTBALL, TRAVEL, and ADVENTURE.  But those are really just the Facebook highlights.

The truth is that being an import entails a lot more, and the more informed you are going into the process, the better equipped you will be to both land and enjoy what is ultimately one of the most elusive and exciting opportunities you may ever come across.

So before you start packing your bags, recognize that the import life is not all about jets, women, and exotic locales.  There are numerous challenges inherent to this lifestyle, and it is best to prepare yourself for this before signing that first contract.  With that in mind, here are the Five Biggest Challenges that come with being an import:

  1. The import market is highly saturated.  Perhaps you are composing a message to a prospective team at this very moment and are leading with something along the lines of, “I am a one of a kind baller.”  Stop now and delete the message.  You may be a great athlete, but you are simply not one of a kind.  The truth is that you are entering a saturated market where there are many more players looking for teams than there are teams looking for players.  Do not expect a ton of leverage with your first contract.  This is not to say you should be desperate or sacrifice all of your rights and your future first-born child to play football in a cornfield somewhere in rural Romania.  Only that the more aware and realistic you are, the better equipped you will be to have an honest conversation with a prospective team—as well as an honest conversation with yourself about the reality of your situation. 
  2. There is Risk involved with being an import.  The biggest one being that the contract you sign is basically an honor agreement.  This is kind of the elephant in the room when it comes to negotiations.  A contract carries a lot of legal language, but the truth is there is no international small claims court designated for settling contract disputes between an American player and a European team.  This is not to say that contracts do not matter—not at all.  Player/team contracts, in fact, offer a framework of expectations and a degree of security to both sides.  You should examine your contract closely, and make sure the language and stipulations are something you can agree to.  At the end of the day, the contract is really your witness.  You, the player, are taking a risk, and so is the team.  Players leave teams all the time for reasons ranging from family tragedies to simple homesickness.  And there are, unfortunately, teams out there who do not keep their promises to players.  A contract offers you a way to provide credible feedback if you are wronged.  Maybe you won’t be able to successfully sue the team for the damages you are owed, but you will be able to get the word out there and protect other imports from suffering the same misfortune at the hands of a dishonest program.  In short, the contract serves—at the very least—as a deterrent to both sides.  No one wants to risk their reputation and future because they made promises that they were unable or unwilling to keep.afi-dan-levy-so-you-want-to-be-an-import-2
  3. American football in Europe—and just about everywhere else outside of America—is not fully professional.  Overseas, the game exists somewhere between amateur and semi-professional.  This means that if you are trying to play “pro football,” stay in the United States.  If you are trying to “get paid,” don’t leave America.  Only a select few teams possess the resources and organization to offer a truly professional setup.  This is not to say that there are not teams with impressive sponsorship, resources, professional staffs and media profiles.  There absolutely are.  But once you target these specific programs, you are narrowing your opportunities even further.  Before you sign with a team, know what you are getting into.  Are these guys football players, or are they a group of men who play football as a hobby?  Chances are you and the other imports will be the only contracted, paid players on your team.  The rest of the guys will have jobs, families, school and other obligations outside of football.  Thus the degree of commitment—practice attendance, film study, dedication in the weight room—really depends on the culture both of the team and of the country they are playing in.  Once again, be realistic about your goals and your expectations before signing that dotted line
  4. Being an import can be Boring.  I cannot stress this enough.  You have to be vigilant when it comes to boredom.  Remember, your teammates have jobs and lives of their own, and most cannot put these things on hold to entertain the foreigner who will be living in their country for just a few months.  You are there to play football, but going to practice, hitting the gym, and watching film can only fill so much time during a 24 hour day.  Prepare yourself for downtime; for solitude.  Develop some hobbies.  Keep a journal.  Start a blog.  Prepare a reading list.  Save up some money before you leave so you can travel and make the most of your opportunity to see the world.  And whatever you do, do not let the boredom consume you, or you will surely look back on the free time you took for granted and regret not making the most of your opportunities. afi-dan-levy-so-you-want-to-be-an-import-3
  5. Being an import involves Sacrifice.  Of all of the struggles that come along with being an import, this is what I believe to be the most overlooked and underestimated of them all.  Why do I say this?  Because it is very easy to get caught up in the excitement and allure of being hired to play football in a foreign country.  But the truth is that if you are not aware of and prepared for the sacrifices that come along with this chosen endeavor, you will be in for a very rough ride.  Because after all the excitement and novelty wears off (usually after about 4-6 weeks of living in your new country), the sacrifices you have made to be there will become very apparent. 

So what I am referring to, specifically, when I say sacrifices?  Well, for starters, there’s the money.  Particularly if you are a first-time import, you will not be making much money and will likely be taking a pay-cut when compared to any 9-5 job you could have had back home.  The average team offers a salary that—when combined with your benefits package of housing, flights, etc.—will cover your expenses and keep you fed.  You will not save much money during your time as an import, and you certainly won’t be booking any luxury cruises. 

Do you have a girlfriend?  A fiancee?  Well then you might want to think long and hard about being an import as it will put a great deal of strain on your relationship.  And don’t expect the majority of teams to fly your companion over with you.

And then there is your independence.  In your home country, you probably live a very independent life with your own car, your own apartment, where people speak your language and you have your own circle of friends and family to count on.  As an import, you will most likely have none of these.  The apartment belongs to the team, and you will probably share it with someone else.  Odds are you will not speak the native language and unless you study extremely diligently, you will not learn to speak it before your contract ends.  And if the team offers you a car, you should really count your blessings because this is a rarity.  So be prepared to rely on others for transportation, unless you take the initiative to learn the public transportation system early and accustom yourself to walking—something I highly recommend so you can avoid feeling like a burden. 

With the challenges addressed, you may be asking yourself why anyone would ever want to put themselves through this.  With this in mind, allow to share with you what I consider to be the Five Biggest Rewards that come with being an import:afi-dan-levy-so-you-want-to-be-an-import-4

  1. You are playing football.  In a foreign country!  Is there really anything else to say?  Because if you are an import, you are one of the few people in the world who is being paid to travel the world and play the game that you love.  If this sounds like a dream come true, that’s because it is.  An uncredited philosopher said that travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.  Now consider that for you, the import, the travel isn’t even something you have to buy.  It is truly a gift—one that will stay with you long after you’ve hung up the pads and cleats. 
  2. You are keeping your football career alive.  And for most of us imports, that means keeping our dream alive.  While playing for a team in Europe, Brazil, Japan, or anywhere else in the world may not exactly be a road map to the NFL, it does buy you time.  You are extending your career and building your resume by putting more of your play on film.  Maybe this will lead to even greater opportunities down the road.  Or maybe not.  But even if it becomes nothing more than a highlight reel to show your grandkids, at least you were able to stay on the field and remain in the game for just a little bit longer.afi-dan-levy-so-you-want-to-be-an-import-5
  3. Being an import will undoubtedly lead to personal growth.  You are seeing the world, experiencing new cultures, new languages, new food and new philosophies.  This leads to incredibly enriching experiences that most people go their entire lifetimes without ever having.  Unless you are someone completely devoid of introspection, your import experience will lead to you growing and developing as a person in a very positive way.
  4. As an import, you are part of a small fraternity.  We are few, and we are rare.  Of all the things I have gained from my time as an import, one thing I am forever grateful for is the individuals I have met along the way.  Be it friends, managers, teams, players or coaches, I have met some incredible people with their own incredible stories.  I have been fortunate enough to plug into a network of people who love this game and are passionate about growing it outside of America.  It may come off as cliche, but this is truly a reward that cannot be understated.
  5. You are living a unique life.  You aren’t working in a cubicle.  You are not adjusting insurance claims.  You are not traveling to Branson or Boise for pencil sales conventions.  You’re playing FOOTBALL.  You’re traveling to Paris, to Rome, to Rio de Janiero.  To some random medieval village tucked away in Eastern Europe.  You are living a life worth envying.  Enjoy it while you can, while it lasts, and for God’s sake make the most of it!

So there it is.  All the cards are on the table, and you’re wondering what you should do next.  While I certainly cannot make your decision for you, I can offer you this final piece of advice.

The quality of your import experience really boils down to your own perspective.  I consider this to be a universal truth in most contexts, and being an import is no different.  To some people this may sound a little abstract, but the truth is that perspective is a fragile, precarious thing.  After four or six weeks of living abroad, perspective becomes something easily lost from the window of your small apartment.  From the crowded space is your rented locker room or the cold bench of the nearby bus stop.

And while I may temper my language when discussing reality and expectations with prospective imports, the one thing I will not hesitate or mince words about is that this is a great life we lead, and most career imports would tell you that boarding that first plane was the best decision they ever made.  You will never find a friend, relative, acquaintance or stranger who will respond to the words “I play/coach American football in Europe for a living” with “that sounds boring.” 

Because this is not just an amazing job.  It is an amazing opportunity—one which you will carry with you for the rest of your life.

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Dan Levy led the Belo Horizonte Eagles to a Brazilian championship in their very first year in the league.

Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy is currently serving as the Head Coach of the Sada Cruzeiro Futebol Americano (formerly the Belo Horizonte Eagles) in Brazil, whom he led to an undefeated, championship season in 2016--the Eagles' very first season of national competition. A staunch advocate for the growth of American football internationally, Coach Levy has experience in over 10 different countries on 3 different continents as a player, coach, and consultant. You can follow him on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/coachdanlevy, as well as his website www.coachdanlevy.com.
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