Commentary

Diary of a Firebat

Ex-Harvard captain tells of decision to play pro football in Spain

Updated: January 29, 2010, 8:56 PM ET
By Carl Ehrlich | Special to ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: Carl Ehrlich, who was the captain of the 2009 Harvard football team, is heading to Spain to play football. He'll chronicle his experiences on and off the field for ESPNBoston.com

My name is Carl Ehrlich and I am a Valencia Firebat.

I wasn't always a Firebat. Two months ago I was the 136th captain of the Harvard University football team. Whatever you might have thought about the life of a collegiate athlete, I spent my last season at Harvard working some mighty long hours. Running between Kantian ethics classes and the cold tubs in the training room, I worked my tail off to make the most of my last season. After winning "The Game" against Yale to cap off our 7-3 campaign, I spent the month of December thinking about how to assimilate into the post-athletic world. Shirts with sleeves? Dockers? A job?

In the football program, we sometimes refer to this place as the "Muggle World." My recently employed friends call it "real life."

But literally minutes after my last exam before graduation (which was in December -- I dropped out in spring 2009 and returned this fall to use my last season of eligibility), I received an e-mail that snatched me from the grasps of reality and turned me into an Iberian, heat-seeking, airborne rodent.

A Firebat. The Firebats are reigning champions of the LNFA, or Liga Nacional de Fútbol Americano, Spain's professional football league -- football, not fútbol, thank you -- and winners of three of the last four championships.

[+] EnlargeCarl Ehrlich
Coutrtesy of Harvard university Carl Ehrlich was the captain of this year's Harvard team.

As a concept, however, a Firebat is the most terrifying creature in the world. Shuddering at the idea of such a beast, I read through the team e-correspondence for solace.

The first thing I gathered from my reading was that football Firebats are multitasking creatures. The fellow who e-mailed me was the head recruiter, offensive coordinator and, just for good measure, the starting quarterback.

And the second thing I learned was that the Firebats were interested in bringing me out to play for them. With transportation, a place to live and some spending money to sweeten the deal, this whole "professional athlete" thing was starting to seem like a reasonable alternative to the white-collar jungle.

I started my Valencia research like any scholar would, on Wikipedia at 3 in the morning. My first query was "Firebat," and as soon as I clicked the search button, my computer screen suddenly went black and my music was replaced by the violent flapping of wings overhead. It couldn't be, I told myself. There can't be such a thing as a Firebat.

Putting the thought of this incendiary, sonar-navigated, gargoyle-like vermin aside, I opened the team's Web page to see what they were all about. The page is, not surprisingly, written entirely in Spanish. Having taken a few years of Spanish in school, I pieced together enough of the front article to conclude that we were in fact talking about the same sport. The only English on their home page is a massive banner underneath their logo that reads "JUST WIN." That's a team policy I can get behind.

After checking the team's Web site, I went to YouTube in hopes that I could catch some game film. Success. With uniforms like those of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, the Firebats are playing some old-school football. Two-back sets. Lots of running between the tackles.

The resolution wasn't that good, but I'm fairly certain that I saw a single-bar face mask in there.

Scrolling through some of the team pictures on a third Web site, I did a double-take. Were those palm trees in the background of the stadium? Looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, Valencia's beach season appears to be a bit longer than the two weeks we got in Boston this past summer.

Aside from warm beaches and palm trees, Valencia is also home of a celebration called Las Falles. Las Falles is, put simply, the wildest celebration I have ever heard of. Luckily, I'll be in town for it and will be able to give a firsthand account, but Las Falles sounds like something that goes beyond words. Literally meaning "the fires," Las Falles is a five-day celebration where the city population is more than tripled and the streets are literally set ablaze.

Asking someone who had seen it for a description, he told me to "imagine a Fourth of July parade where the floats are stuffed with illegal fireworks and set on fire." The first line describing the celebration on another Web site is, "Does the smell of gunpowder excite you?" Gravely, I pray it won't excite any of these airborne hellions.

But before I made a final decision on the Valencia Firebats' e-mail offer, I did what any respectable lineman would do before finalizing a deal -- I checked out the local cuisine.

As it turns out, Valencia and I have something in common: Much of our time revolves around food.

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day in Spain. Because Spain starts its workday much later than the United States, lunch is the first big event of the day. It is eaten in huge portions for an extended period of time.

Their favorite meal? Paella. As it should be. Valencia lays proud claim to being the official home of paella. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

And after lunch, the people of Valencia show the second thing they have in common with any lineman worth his weight: They sleep after they eat. After they enjoy this daily feast, the town shuts down again as people go home for their afternoon siesta. Somebody pinch me.

Considering all of the draws of Valencia, I e-mailed our do-it-all quarterback and told him I was interested. A few e-mails and a phone call later, I came to an arrangement with the team president and I was more or less on the team.

I'm not sure how many professional careers are "more or less" started, and I'm not sure this is how we imagine professional sports, but I bet it'll work for me. Let me play some football in the sun and grab a post-paella nap on the beach and I think I'll be OK without the news conferences.

After captaining the 2009 Harvard Football team, Carl Ehrlich played professional football for the Valencia Firebats of Spain. Since hanging up his cleats, he has been filling up his passport doing humanitarian work in Southeast Asia. In addition to his travel notebooks, he has previously written for ESPNBoston.com and the New York Times.

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