Commentary

Ehrlich diary: Football 101

Teaching football to Spanish children takes thought -- and patience

Updated: June 3, 2010, 11:34 AM 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.

All my life, I wanted to be a professional athlete. Now, I'm having second thoughts.

Standing outside the gate of the Firebats' promotional event this week, I wasn't sure I had the energy for this lifestyle anymore. Crawling over each other to get a view, my fans reached through the fence to try and touch me. Clawing at the air, they screamed and pleaded for me to come closer.

"Take off your shirt!"

"Can I touch your muscles?!"

"Do you have a girlfriend?"

This, I imagine, is what every professional athlete has to deal with in the United States. Except real "professional athletes" field these questions from beautiful women. I was fielding them from the fifth-grade class of the Cambridge School of Valencia. This week, the Firebats sent representatives to local Valencian schools to spread the good gospel of football. In these mini-missionary trips, pushing leather balls instead of leather-bound books, the team set out to recruit some talent.

And recruiting matters, because American Football is a tough sell in Spain. The Valencia Firebats have a significantly smaller following than the Valencia Club de Futbol (a huge deal here), so we're reaching out to widen the talent pool.

But before we could teach the game, we had to survive the mob. As soon as the school-yard gate opened, the kids were on me like the plague. Feeling my jersey, grabbing my arms and punching me in the stomach, the recess-ing students had no problem treating me like a jungle gym.

(Note: I will say that, in my experience, Spanish children are much more aggressive than children from the States. And they have much dirtier vocabularies. MUCH dirtier vocabularies.)

Ultimately, the recess whistle blew and I was freed from the grasp of the Spanish lollipop gang.

From there, Canario, Vikingo and I (the three Firebat officials) had two minutes to talk about our plan for the day. To start the class, Canario (the Firebats' pro-liaison) took the reigns and introduced the kids to American Football. Literally introduced them: Disinterested fifth-graders, this is American Football; American Football, this is a class of disinterested fifth-graders.

"Foot-ball Ameri-can-o," Canario told them. It's not futbol, it's not rugby, it's American football. His only rule was that they remember the name of the sport.

Yet still, there were children left behind. In Spain, American football isn't just unpopular, it's unknown. The kids watched in awe as Canario held up a ball, probably the first pigskin any of them had ever seen.

Counting off by threes, Canario divided the class up and sent them to their respective stations. The first group followed me, "on the jog," to my Quarterbacks and Receivers drill.

And then we got there. To my Quarterbacks and Receivers drill. And for the first moment that day, I asked myself, 'What do I really know about quarterbacks and receivers?' Aside from the football daydreams of a lineman, I have little to no experience with offensive skill positions.

But what I do know is that kids need rules. So I took what I knew and added what I've observed and made up a quick list.

Football 101: Rules for Quarterbacks and Receivers; A Spanish Curriculum.

1. Never kick the ball. God gave us opposable thumbs for a reason. Use them! Put a Spanish kid at 15 yards and tell him to get you the football without kicking it and he's helpless. He's more likely to run it up to you than pass the thing -- shades of "Smalls" running the ball in from the Sandlot outfield.

Because of soccer's influence in Spain, breaking the people of their kicking habit is a hard-fought battle. That's why it's rule No. 1. Kick the kick. Teach them to throw. Which leads to rule No. 2...

2. "You ever had a paper route? Chuck it like you throw a paper." Apparently, none of these kids ever had a paper route. Or seen "The Sandlot." When the kids do give up on kicking, their next instinct is to throw the football like a Rugby pass. Because of this, it's important to indicate that we're throwing overhand. Take no football knowledge for granted.

Now, I'm no Benny the Jet, but I can teach a kid a thing or two about throwing. The secret is to break it down into steps. With my tips, I had my guys/girls looking like pros in no time.

1. Step.

2. Release.

3. Follow through/ turn your wrist over.

4. Point at your girlfriend in the stands.

5. Pose for a picture.

Just like the pros. Except that sometimes my guys forgot to grab the laces. Whatever.

3. Except not whatever. Grab the ball by the laces. Seriously.

4. As a receiver, give your QB a target. With two hands. And catch the ball that way.

I like my receivers a little bit "old school." In my mind, a dropped ball looks far worse than a one-handed catch looks cool. Don't risk it. Use two hands. And after you catch the ball -- run for the sideline, lower your shoulder and take the yards you can get.

I do admit there's a reason one-handed catches are so coveted. When done right, they look awesome. My personal catch-of-the-day was a one-hander over two of the kids covering me on defense. I then gave them the "football is stuck to my hand" celebration.

Jumping over fifth-graders to make catches? Celebrating in their face? Will beating little kids at sports ever get old? Let's hope not.

5. Look good, play good. And sound good while you're at it. The only people who say 'look good, play well' probably do neither. There is no grammar on the football field.

Movies like "Invincible" are heartwarmers, but are you telling me Vince Papale wouldn't have looked better with rolled-up sleeves and some eye black? Hell, if he dressed a little better, he might have been more than just a special-teams player.

While I like my receivers to play tough, smart football, that doesn't mean they can't look cool doing it. Sweat bands, skull caps and hand towels are all strongly encouraged. So are visors. Yes, these things have no physical effects, but the ego works in mysterious ways.

Let your hair down, get your swag on and step your game up.

6. Never underthrow your receiver on a deep pass. It's like leaving a birdie putt short. Don't do it.

7. Hand signals. In game situations, hand signals are one of the most useful tools a QB has. They allow the quarterback to adjust to different coverages and defensive sets, picking the perfect play without having to re-huddle.

Spanish kids, meanwhile, like hand signals because they "look funny." I'm with them.

Doing my best impression of an NFL quarterback, the class broke out in laughter as I audibled to different plays using animal names. Using whatever angle I could to get them excited for football, I showed them some more "animal audibles" and they were off to the races.

Each time the quarterback came to the line for a drill, he looked to his receiver, shouted out an animal name and started doing some form of hand signal for that animal. I wasn't sure if it was a terrible game of football or a great game of charades.

"Rhino" was the winner for the day.

8. Celebrate. But do it with your teammates.

Let's be honest, "looking like you've been there before" is a nice policy, but it's terribly boring. On the playground (as I mentioned in my last blog), there's always time for a little celebration. The only rule I gave the kids was they had to celebrate together.

Celebrating alone is for superstars. Which leads to our last and final rule.

9. Don't be a superstar. Thank your linemen.

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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