- Carl Ehrlich, Writer
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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.
At the airport, guards waiting to take him away, Kelly gives one last hug to his 2-year-old girl, picks up his baby boy and tells them he'll be home soon.
"When will you be back, Papa?" his daughter asks, her watery eyes shining in the bright lights of the airport terminal. As he kneels down to wipe the tears from her eyes, the guards inch closer, politely reminding Kelly that it's time to go.
"I'm coming," he assures them, standing up and releasing his daughter's shoulder. "Just let me kiss my wife goodbye."
Wedged between two guards as the plane slowly rolled on to the runway, Kelly was too miserable to notice the tiny ball of drool forming on the lip of the guard to his right. Already wheezing and hacking away, the symptoms of the guard's sleep apnea promised to be the only soundtrack to Kelly's sad journey.
But if he thought the guard snored loudly, he should have heard the tackles. Kelly, our backup quarterback and long-time Firebat vet, should have known better than to sit next to two linemen.
Last weekend, the Valencia Firebats traveled to Bergamo, Italy, to take on the Bergamo Lions. Team morale and beautiful Italian backdrop aside, the weekend felt something like an episode of "Locked Up Abroad."
As is usually the case with football road trips, the first five minutes of hotel, err, hostel check-in is spent figuring out where your buddies are staying. Having a buddy in the same room is always a plus. Having two is even better. But when the first five people you ask are all staying in your room, something is up.
In all, eight of us were crammed into Room 211. This "cell" was equipped with four sets of bunk beds. Always quick on my feet, I managed to grab the last available bottom bunk. Lying down to nap before our afternoon meeting, it felt like I was sleeping on a dollhouse bed. With my legs hanging off the edge and arms draped over the side, the mattress might have had an easier time sleeping on me.
But the jail similarities didn't stop with the bedding.
With one sink, one toilet and a shower too small to properly rinse off your feet, all that was missing was the Candid Camera. Try sharing a single bathroom with eight linemen and tell me you wouldn't be eyeing the nearest emergency exit. The fact that the windows didn't have bars was irrelevant; they didn't open wide enough for someone to climb out of.
The skill players, meanwhile, were grouped three to a room, each with a balcony overlooking the entire city of Bergamo. If there was anything that could have made our room worse, it was knowing that our more abdominally gifted teammates were smoking and joking in the lap of luxury.
And I probably would have had a better night's sleep in jail. Ricky, our portly Venezuelan defensive tackle, was sleeping in the bunk above me and must have had one too many Italian helados. Charged with sugar and showing no signs of exhaustion, he spent the first hour after lights-out leaning over the top bunk while singing Venezuelan lullabies. His serenades were less than soothing.
After the lullabies came the wild pillow-swinging and, sensing that I was going to sleep, the blanket-pulling. With my warmth in danger, I caught my second wind. Each time Ricky's hand appeared I slapped it, which then resulted in a minute of muffled giggles and the ominous flexing of the wooden boards above my head. Realizing that the bed manufacturers couldn't possibly have prepared for the convulsive giggles of a man of Ricky's stature, I thought it best to let the game go and get some sleep.
The next morning I woke up to Panzer, our makeshift warden, clanging his nightstick against the bunk-bed ladder. Sleep-deprived from the Venezuelan night torture, Panzer had one grumpy American on his hands and was about ten seconds away from a prison riot. Luckily, the thought of a proper breakfast cooled my morning fury.
Yet a thought was all it turned out to be. In reality, the breakfast "buffet" consisted of bread and coffee. There was also a juice-like substance but, with gobs of sugar floating around, it made Kool-Aid look like a health drink.
Visibly disappointed as I got to the front of the line, the chef gave me a "one-second" motion and ran back into the kitchen. "Finally, some preferential treatment before our big game," I thought. "Bring oooon the bacon!"
Five minutes later he returned and proudly displayed a new basket of bread. "Grazie mille," I told him, reluctantly taking three rolls and putting a frozen stick of butter in my armpit to warm up. With the game only hours away, I was trying to think of the easiest way to get arrested -- three hot meals and a cot sounded like paradise at that point.
But if our pregame preparation was straight from "The Longest Yard," our game performance was something out of "300." Like the Spartans fighting the Persian army, the odds were never in our favor. And with only 24 players dressed for the game, the numbers weren't in our favor, either.
The Lions quarterback, CSU star and former Denver Bronco Bradlee Van Pelt, spent more years in the NFL than our starting receiver spent learning the game. Their roster was at least twice our size, and their offensive line was coached by the NFL Network's Brian Baldinger. Our offensive line was coached by, well, me.
All in all, our chances looked about as good as Baldinger's finger.
Laughing at us before the game, Van Pelt told us our efforts were futile, that his post-corners and 60-yard bombs would block out the sun. "Then we'll play in the dark," said Carles Lurbe, our middle linebacker. If you thought the Spartans' resilience was something, you haven't seen the Spaniards.
So in the biblical mist of Northern Italy, we few, proud Valencians did our best impression of the Battle of Thermopylae. Bringing pressure off the edges, we filtered their offense up the middle and successfully slowed them down for three and a half quarters. With 4:30 left in the game and a 22-21 edge, the Firebats had nearly done the impossible.
But like "300," this game didn't have a storybook ending.
Sensing that a loss was near, the empire came back to life. Stopping us on a key fourth-and-2, the Lions regained some steam. Van Pelt, the Italian Xerxes, took the field with four minutes left and a dangerous look in his eye. A few quick passes here and a 40-yard screen there (leaving out my roughing-the-passer penalty), Van Pelt had his revenge before we knew what had hit us.
Bruised and broken, 24 Firebats hit the showers for a mandatory half-hour of post-loss moping. Changing, packing and then loading up the bus, we delayed our departure for a beer and a bite to eat at the concession stand.
Deflated from the loss and exhausted from the early-morning flight, Kelly gets off the plane, shoulders slouched, bloodshot eyes hidden behind Oakley sunglasses. Seeing his daughter run through the baggage claim, his face lights up and he puts his hands out to catch her.
His wife stands behind the kids, hands on her hips, looking unimpressed.
"All that trouble and you didn't even come home with a win?" she asks.
Now that's cruel and unusual punishment.
In this week's diary, Carl Ehrlich talks about the Firebats' interesting accommodations on their road trip to face the Bergamo Lions.