When Reality Beats Fiction: the Parma Panthers, Playing For Pizza, and a Perfect Season

We are drawn to the unlikeliest of stories. The underdog who takes down a heavy favorite. The unthinkable late-game comeback. The hard-working role player who becomes a championship MVP.

A team’s quest for a perfect season is another one of those stories.  Because perfection so rarely exists. And we realize almost instinctively that the final step towards any lofty goal is by far the hardest. Yet watching it unfold from a distance, as a fan, you feel ambivalent, even as the pathos builds to a maddening crescendo.

Is this a real-life fairy tale? Will the team clear their final hurdle and stake their claim to a championship, and a perfect season?

Or will they implode, unable to withstand the pressure?

And then, sometimes the other team will simply refuse to play the part of the hapless foil in their opponent’s quest for destiny.

Cue Eli Manning and the New York Giants versus the undefeated and heavily favored New England Patriots in the 2008 Superbowl.  Every football fan knows what happened that night in the Arizona desert.

So it was that Saturday, July 17th, on a steamy summer night in Piacenza, Italy, not far from the meandering Po River, the Parma Panthers brought their pristine 9-0 record, including a convincing semi-final playoff victory, to the Garilli Stadium.  They would face their nemesis, the Milano Seamen, and attempt to create their ideal fairy-tale ending.

Parma QB Reily Hennessey #12 Photo: Giulo Busi

The matchup was daunting. The Seamen have been the class of the Italian league for years, taking the previous three editions of the Italian Bowl.  Their only two losses this season were thrilling last-minute barnburners against, you guessed it, the Parma Panthers.

The Panthers would have to slay their foe one last time.

Beating the Seamen three games out of three was perhaps a taller task than achieving the perfect season itself. Though Parma head coach Marc Mattioli, who has been on-point all season, was adamant.

In a pregame interview, Mattioli insisted:

                “Nobody here is thinking ‘Oh, we have to beat the Seamen again.’ Our focus and preparation is for this one game, the Italian Bowl. Whatever might have happened in our previous games against the Seamen is not in our line of thought right now.”

At the same time, the Panthers’ superb quarterback, Reilly Hennessey, was a little more philosophical:

                “The success we’ve had, all the hard work we’ve put in, all the fun we’ve had together as a team, none of that will be diminished if we don’t get the result we want in the Italian Bowl.”

Parma RB Alessandro Malpeli-Avalli #33 Photo: Giulio Busi

And as the game itself began to unfold, those self-assured words rang true. The Panthers looked confident with their play-calling, crisp in their execution.  For a few minutes in the second quarter, the Seamen seemed swamped, overwhelmed. Perhaps they were conceding to their roles as the hapless antagonists, unable to thwart the Panthers’ mission for perfection.

Hennessey was putting on a clinic, moving smartly in the pocket, firing pinpoint passes, running downfield like a man possessed, often plowing lustily into defenders. The Panthers’ beloved veteran running back Alessandro Malpeli-Avalli, playing in the final game of his storied career, was making his trademark hairpin turns and racking up big yardage. Stud tight end Nick Diaco was striking fear into defensive backs and gaining tough yards from the wildcat formation. Another veteran, receiver Tommaso Finadri, caught everything thrown his way, scoring two touchdowns.

The only odd man out for Parma was the phenom receiver Simone Alinovi, recognized this season as one of Europe’s biggest breakout stars. Other than gaining a brilliant first down off a wayward field goal snap, Alinovi was all but invisible.

Still, leading 28-12 to start the fourth quarter, the Panthers had to feel that perfection and an Italian national championship was within their grasp.

But wait.  Strange things can happen when you’re on the cusp of reaching your ultimate goal. You might start thinking about the sweetness and the pain of all that’s happened, how it all began, and those harsh bends in the road on the way to this very moment…

                “Fans of John Grisham live for his legal thrillers, but now and then he serves up something unexpected. That’s exactly what he does, with great success, in Playing for Pizza.”

Turning the clock back to 2007, USA Today’s reviewer was caught off guard by best-selling author John Grisham, famous for his page-turning legal thrillers.  Grisham had just pulled a career twist as sharp as a Malpeli-Avalli slash through the line of scrimmage.  Instead of writing another surefire blockbuster hit, Grisham took a chance, writing something completely different. A story of an unlikely success, a loser who ends up winning big in the most improbable of settings. 

Milano WR Jordan Bouah #1 Photo: Giulio Busi

The novel, called “Playing For Pizza,” tells the story of a quarterback, Rick Dockery, who, having been cast out of the NFL, and for reasons barely explainable even to himself, decides to play professional football in Italy, with the Parma Panthers.  “Playing For Pizza” remains a highly recommended read for any international fan of American football, as well as anyone who enjoys a well-told fish-out-of-water story set in a gorgeous corner of Italy.

The publication of Grisham’s novel was a sort of dream come true for the Panthers. For such a prestigious writer to focus his mighty pen on the doings of the Panthers, well, the stars must’ve suddenly aligned for this little-club-that-could.  In fact, as if scripted, the Panthers soon rose to unprecedented heights in the Italian league, winning four Italian Bowls in a row between 2010 and 2013, under the leadership of legendary player/coach Andrew Papoccia. It seemed there was no goal they couldn’t reach.

But they had peaked.

After the 2013 championship, the Panthers gradually lost their verve, a downward curve culminating with a stunning wild-card defeat at home to the Lazio Ducks in 2019.

We could skip the unlikely twist that occurred worldwide in 2020, and the cancellation of the Italian football season, except for one tragic fact which, in some way, may have been the seed of the Panthers’ rebirth.

Only weeks before the pandemic walloped Italy with its full brunt, the Panthers named their new head coach: longtime assistant and deeply respected wise man Gianpaolo Zardin.  “GP,” as he was known, was a hard-nosed defensive coordinator with a bright mind and a vast range of interests. A curious conversationalist, a man who would listen. GP was the man of the moment.

Then came the cruelest twist of all.

Zardin never got to coach a game, succumbing to a massive heart attack just days before COVID wiped out everything in its path.

Dark, dark days.

Parma WR Nick Diaco #11 Photo: Giulio Busi

In their review of “Playing for Pizza,” Publishers Weekly wrote:

                “A winsome football tale of redemption, replete with team bonding and character building.”     

Redemption. Bonding. Building.

Goals that seemed well beyond reach in 2020.

This brings us back to a Panthers team, ready to start the fourth quarter on this championship Saturday night in Piacenza, thriving under the leadership of Mattioli, minutes away from achieving that improbable goal of a perfect season, after the passing of Zardin.  It felt like something more than a fairy tale. The sentiment was bigger and more profound, like a blessing from upon high.

The problem was that somebody forgot to give the Milano Seamen the script. The Seamen would not, in fact, resign themselves to the role of runner-up and go gentle into that good night.

A proud franchise with an array of talented players and dedicated coaching, the Seamen know how to win championships, no matter the circumstances.

Rule number one: Never give up. Rage, rage.

So, trailing 28 to 12 in the fourth quarter, Milano quarterback Luke Zahradka and receiver Jordan Bouah began playing lights-out championship-caliber football. The Seamen seized the momentum and tied the game with one breathtaking play after another, including a miraculous two-point conversion with less than a minute to play.

Parma Panthers RB Alessandro Malpeli-Avalli Photo: Lorenzo Moffa

 Somehow, Hennessey maneuvered the Panthers into field goal range on a desperate drive in the last seconds, but when outstanding kicker Teo Felli had a kick blocked on the final play of regulation, leading to overtime, it seemed that the die was cast.  The Panthers had simply come up short.

A vague reminiscence of another memorable Superbowl hung in the Po Valley air, this one played in Dallas in 2017, when the New England Patriots came back to win, in overtime, after trailing the Atlanta Falcons 28-3 in the third quarter.

The insane ending of that game, the ferocious way the Patriots had wrested control from the luckless Falcons, this has all become the stuff of football legend. No doubt the Milano Seamen suddenly saw themselves in the role of the resurgent Patriots, and no one in the stadium or watching on pay-per-view would have disagreed. Their victory in overtime seemed a mere formality.

But then came another Grisham-esque twist

Photo: Giulio Busi

The Panthers‘ defense, so stout all season long, but having been shredded by Milano’s brilliant play in the fourth quarter, suddenly rose up in overtime.  All-Italy cornerback Felix Proulx nearly picked off Zahradka. The Seamen could not move the ball.  Forced to try a long kick, they were blocked by Parma’s Federico Rossi, an amazing defensive player in his own right.

Only needing a score, but also needing to avoid catastrophe, the cream suddenly rose to the top. A bullet from Hennessey to the sure hands of Alinovi scored a touchdown and, despite the fact that the clock had long since struck midnight, it seemed a little strange

The game was over.

The pathos had reached its conclusion.

The Parma Panthers had just made a little bit of sports history.  Team president Ugo Bonvicini hoisted the championship trophy towards the starry sky, and no doubt the dearly departed Zardin was among his many thoughts.

Instead of pizza, this time, somehow, they played to perfection.

Alex Byrd Jones is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia currently living in Italy. Besides teaching high school English and working as a translator, he is the English-language play-by-play voice of the Parma Panthers home streaming broadcasts.