Commentary

Ehrlich diary: "Panzer" inspires

Updated: April 2, 2010, 4:49 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 in Spain to play football for the Valencia Firebats. He's chronicling his experiences on and off the field for ESPNBoston.com. You can find all of his previous entries here.

Let a quarterback run your team's recruiting and you'll be up to your ears in offensive linemen.

In preparation for this weekend's road trip to Bergamo, Italy, Stuart, our trusted quarterback, hit the recruiting trail in search of big bodies. When Harvard coaches say they'll look anywhere for linemen, it's a figure of speech. When Stuart says it, it's an understatement -- our hunt for linemen spanned four continents.

At one point, we were recruiting a guard using smoke signals.

In the end, however, Stuart found his two offensive linemen. Both are over 6-foot-4, play tackle, and eat more than an entire village. But this is where their similarities end.

The first tackle we signed is Tom Crosier, a New Castle native who Stuart coached back in England. Crosier's professional career began two years ago in Germany but was put on hold for the last year while he completed a master's degree in environmental consultancy. With a voice fit for BBC history specials, Tom spent his first meal in Valencia giving a tutorial on chemosynthetic bacteria while inhaling a large meat lover's pizza.

The second tackle we signed is Jose Miguel Alonso. To his friends, (seemingly everyone in the Spanish football community), he's known as "Panzer," which I'm told means something like "tank." If he were anyone else, I might make a joke about what year this "tank" was made or whether it would pass inspection. I would make these jokes, of course, if he wasn't who he is.

In addition to his veteran role as a punishing offensive lineman, Panzer is the Firebats' team president. A legend in the LNFA, Panzer's No. 65 jersey is widely revered around the league. (Not knowing the historical significance, I donned the sacred jersey for a game earlier this season. Panzer laughed off my apology, encouraging me to continue wearing the number).

Playing for Valencia since 1994, Panzer was with the Firebats before they were the Firebats (pre-1997, they were just the "Bats"). He played 165 of his 171 career games for Valencia and, over this entire span, missed only two contests.

What's more impressive than game totals, however, is the number of times he has retired. Now playing in his third different season since "hanging the cleats up" in 2005, Panzer makes Brett Favre look decisive.

"In June 2008," he tells me while slipping off his pads, "I definitively retired."

While Panzer's return does give me an extra offensive lineman, it also creates problems. During practice, the coach in me yells at the player in him and the president in him yells at the coach in me. Any error he makes can just as easily become a reflection of my coaching. It's like a professional rock-paper-scissors game: whistle beats helmet, checkbook beats whistle. And Europe beats Valencia. Traditionally, at least.

For all of his memories, games, retirements and inevitable returns, there is one thing Panzer has never experienced in a Firebats jersey -- an international victory.

That's what we're out to change this weekend.

There's no denying it will be an uphill battle: There are a lot of things working against us. For one, the Lions' offense is potent. Scoring around 50 points a game, their offensive playbook must look like something out of "NFL Blitz."

Another thing that doesn't help is the limited Firebats' travel roster. With only 27 people booked for the hostel (no, that's not a misprint), the team brings a whole new definition to the term "traveling light."

But believe me, I'm not making excuses. There's no room for excuses in sports.

The "sport" here is the struggle. The sport is not just in the game, but in how the team comes together in preparation: studying film in the airport, reviewing plays over authentic Italian pizza, flipping the mattress up against the wall and using it as a blocking sled.

Sport is the process through which something extremely unlikely feels possible. It's how we go about convincing ourselves that David beat Goliath: how we put aside logic and just believe in something.

Sport is how many times a 43-year-old account manager can dust off his shoulder pads, throw on his old jersey, and put his body on the line for that first international victory.

And if it doesn't work out?

Well, there's always next year. Retirement can wait.

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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