In a nation of soccer players and fans, the athletes from Bulgaria's first American football team stand out
On a grassy field in Sofia, lit up by artificial green lights, two dozen men in full regalia ‒ helmets and shoulder and knee pads ‒ place two blocking bags about three metres, or 10 feet, apart. "The first two pairs, step up," an American voice says. Four of the guys get into the enclosed space. A quarterback hands the ball to a running back who tries ‒ and succeeds ‒ in evading a tackle from a linebacker by spinning and running. "Good, who's next?" the voice hollers above copious clapping and cheering. Two more pairs step up. This time, the running back pushes his way past a tackle and a one-on-one ensues until they hear: "OK, that's enough, guys."
No, this isn't an American film being shot in Sofia, nor is it a visiting American college football team. It's Team Sofia, Bulgaria's first professional American football team doing a competitive drill during one of their three weekly practices. The voice belongs to the defensive coach, American Thomas Sadowski, who peppers his English language instructions with bravo and dobre. Some yards away, Nikolay Angelov, the team's physical trainer, as well as coach and quarterback, is teaching a dozen young boys body positioning after putting them through vigorous sprints.
Dynamic, exciting, tough, high adrenaline, complex, teaches you responsibility, team work, challenging both body and mind, strategic, a way of thinking and acting ‒ these are reasons fired off by the Team Sofia players when asked why they love their game. After adjusting their helmets, gulping down some water and trading a joke or two, they head back to the field. Athletic and attractive in their uniforms, the two dozen players from the senior team are running drills with gusto, despite the drizzle.
Until a year ago, no one would have thought that American football, a relative newcomer to Bulgaria, could gain such an ardent following here. In the mid-1990s, when interest in the game first flowered in this country ‒ mostly due to midnight games shown on cable TV ‒ an amateur team was formed. It didn't last long though, not for lack of enthusiasm, but for lack of sponsorship. In 1997, a deep financial crisis devastated Bulgaria ‒ and American football, regardless of where it is played around the globe, is a game where the equipment is as important as it is expensive.
A decade later, things took a different turn. In April 2007 billboards around the city announcing the formation of a team drew hundreds of young men to the first training sessions on a field in Studentski grad, or Student's Town, on 3 May. The day made history as the official launch of Team Sofia. In the following months, the practices moved to Akademika Stadium and the would-be footballers were paired down to 30 young men. Only those with an abundance of physical stamina and athletic prowess continued to train.
The person behind both the billboards and the idea of a pro team was a Bulgarian, Christo Gurkovsky, who had returned to his homeland to open a business after spending a good deal of his life in France. After playing American football there for 13 years in the first and second divisions and on the French national team, Christo had a sufficient amount of sporting spirit to believe in his project and plan carefully to achieve it. The Team Sofia founder and head coach was fully aware of the challenges he faced promoting not only a new sport, but also the culture of struggle, stamina and self-sacrifice that goes with it. "American football is not just a game, but a mind-set and a lifestyle. It requires a good deal of physical strength and toughness, but also responsibility and team work." The focus on the latter led to the choice of the generic name ‒ Team Sofia.
According to Gurkovsky, Team Sofia is a social and human experiment that has no equivalent in Bulgaria. "Those who undergo the tough selection process and become players are leaders on and off the field, they learn that they have to sacrifice themselves for the team. What we build is not just strong athletes but responsible individuals, the kind of people our society needs." Gurkovsky certainly knows how to motivate his young men. Within a year under his guidance, Team Sofia grew from a gathering of athletic individuals into a fully fledged team with professional equipment, coaching and values.
Possibly the toughest sport of all, American football requires players to be in excellent physical condition. At Team Sofia, everyone goes through a rigorous development phase, during which their physical strength, sporting spirit and teamwork ability are tested. If they pass, they get a helmet ‒ which they'll definitely need, considering all the physical impact involved in the full contact version of their game. As in the United States, every player owns his own helmet, while the rest of the equipment belongs to the team. Christo helped fund much of the equipment through one of his companies, and now a couple of sponsors have joined in.
Many of the players admit the physical challenge is the first thing that attracted them to the game. "I've always been into adrenaline sports and there's a lot of it here," says Jason George, 36, a motocross champion from Philadelphia. He lives in Bulgaria with his Bulgarian wife and is the only foreign member - a defensive back - of the team. "It's tough and I love it," says Pavel Bichokov, 20, defensive back. "The running, the battle and competitiveness ‒ it's exciting," says junior team member Todor Nanov, 16. "It's the only place where you get to hit people and get away with it!" chimes in Konstantin Chalburov, 21, a student at the American University in Blagoevgrad, who practised there and joined Team Sofia in June. "It's the safest way to take out your aggression and energy," says line backer Alexander Kenanov, 18, summing it all up. "I love the dynamics," quarter back Hristian Chan, 18, adds. They all agree that physical fitness and the opportunity to test yourself is just one element of the game.
"What we're trying to teach is that you can be the fastest man in the world, you can catch everything that's thrown at you or deliver the heaviest hit, but it takes all 11 to win," says Thomas Sadowski, Team Sofia's American coach. Originally from New York, Thomas came to Sofia for his work, has played football all his life and volunteered as a coach after seeing the billboard campaign. "The guys are all fast and strong. Physically they have it, so we work on their discipline and responsibility. They know that if everyone does their job, the team wins." "It's like going to war, you need to be able to count on the person next to you," says Nikolay Angelov, 28. An 11-time Bulgarian Squash Champion and the 2003 World Racketlon Champion, Niki progressed to American football and was amazed at how the team spirit developed in such a short period. "I hadn't seen that in Bulgarian sports before."
The community spirit is there both on and off the field. "It's the friendships I made here that made me stay," says Anton Doykov, 23, receiver. When Anton recently broke his arm, the whole team rallied around him ‒ he was the most important player of the moment. And it was quite a moment ‒ Team Sofia's first international full contact friendly against the Istanbul Cavaliers in May 2008. The Turkish team, which had been together for four years, won, but the Team Sofia players were happy to see they had grown. The players claim that learning the game's basic skills, rules and values has changed them. "I never put myself first any more and I don't make any hasty decisions," says receiver Plamen Slavkov, 28. "I've learnt to apply strategies, plan ahead and improvise when need be," says tight end Daniel Miladinov, 29. "I've developed a lot as a person. Football is not just about what you do on the field but also everything you do off it," says Alexander Kenanov.
What's next? A rematch with the Cavaliers in October, further promotion of the sport in Bulgaria - Sofia Team, Pleven Bravehearts, Blagoevgrad Griffins and Sofia Strays, the US Embassy team, founded the Bulgarian American Football Federation in June 2008 which was accepted into the IFAF a month later. According to Ivo Ikonomov, co-founder and assistant coach, the team will be ready to play in the Central European American Football league within a couple of years.
As Gurkovsky puts it, the players have learned that a whole new world will open up to them if they really want it and work hard for it. "Team Sofia is a society ‒ it's hard to get in, but if you do, you get the ride of your life."
However, Thomas Sadowski has one more dream for the future. "I don't know where I'll be in the world, but the day I read that a Bulgarian student has received a scholarship to go to an American university to play American football, you'll see the biggest smile on my face. I don't think we're that far away."
With a new year of hard practice in full swing ‒ and full contact ‒ the future looks bright for Team Sofia.