- 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 as a linebacker 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 anyone wants to talk about is the finals. It's as though there's nothing else going on in sports.
Knowing my expertise, my sports-junkie friends ask me a million questions. What are the key matchups? Is the rivalry what it used to be? Can the offense get the ball inside? Will the defense be man or zone?
But beyond the specifics, what people really want to know is my opinion. Who do I think is going to win?
That's easy -- I'm taking Valencia.
On Sunday, the Firebats traveled north to take on the Badalona Dracs in the semifinals of the Liga Nacional de Futbol Americano, the Spanish NFL. Although the travel arrangements weren't perfect (4:30 a.m. bus departure), the weather was, and the sun was shining while the Firebats took down the Dracs 27-21.
This means that, like that other final you're watching in the United States, there are two storied franchises fighting for the title. On Sunday, the Firebats will travel north to play the Barcelona Pioneers. In fact, the Pioneers and Firebats are two perennial powerhouses featuring individual greats and a rich history of finals matchups. In fact, they're almost like the Celtics and the Lakers. Or the Yankees and the Red Sox. Or Harvard and Yale -- almost.
But this isn't basketball or hockey or one of your other operatic sports; it's football. There's none of this best-of-seven business and a week and half of waiting between games. The championship is the championship. One game for all the marbles. On the 13 de Junio, Spain will have its Super Bowl.
And what would a Super Bowl be without media day?!
The annual media day before the Super Bowl is my favorite football day of the year. Because the players are allowed to be themselves (and temporarily escape the Belichick school of media interactions), Media day is the spectators' only real chance to get to know the athletes. There's the enticing chance that somebody is going to get loose and blurt out what's really going on.
But unfortunately, there is no Spanish media day. It's especially unfortunate because there are so many great storylines leading up to the finals. Here are some could-have-been clippings from the LNFA Super Bowl media day that never was.
Firebats hope fourth time's the charm
In December, when the Firebats lost to the Pioneers in the Spanish Cup (a preseason tournament of little actual significance), it was "get 'em next time."
The next time, traveling to Barcelona for the first of two regular-season games, we got smoked 39-0. After the game, drenched in rain, we Firebats swore that we'd get 'em next time. We swore it again after the Pioneers traveled to Valencia and beat us on our home turf.
And now, with the season on the line, there is no "next time." Ganamos o perdemos. Vivimos o morimos.
Ehrlich looking to make his mark
It's not that I've played poorly against the Pioneers; I just haven't done much of anything.
In the first game (while I made some devastating blocks on offense), I was marginalized on defense. As an outside linebacker, the Pioneers limited my impact by running the ball weakside and using the running back to double-team me in pass protection. I'm not sure I had more than two tackles.
The second game, I didn't even play. Still nursing a sprained ankle from our win over the Frenchies, I sat out the rematch with the Pioneers. It was nothing serious, but at that point in the season, resting for the European quarterfinals was more important.
But all blocking schemes, injuries and excuses aside -- two tackles in two games? I'm calling myself out here. Time to strap 'em up.
Average workman partially blames his tools
OK, last excuse for my uneventful defensive performance: my equipment.
In our first meeting against the Pioneers, I was using a terrible set of equipment. Although I understand I'm equipment-spoiled from five years of college football, this stuff was bad on any level. The Little Giants would've deemed this stuff unusable.
This time, I'm geared up and ready to go. I now have a real set of shoulder pads and a helmet that's fit for a lineman. But most importantly, I now have a face mask. The last time we played the Pioneers, I looked more like Scott Player than Jared Allen.
History repeats itself. Again
Even before the final kicks off, the 2010 Firebats will have made history. For the first time since the LNFA was conceived, a team will be playing in its fifth consecutive final. (The Firebats have won three of the past four finals.)
And for the third time in the past five years, the Firebats will play the Pioneers. The most recent finals meeting was in 2008, when the Pioneers came out on top.
But although the Firebats can point to 2008 for motivation, the Pioneers need not look so far. Last year, with three seconds separating the Pioneers and a trip to the finals, the Firebats completed a hook-and-ladder trick play to win the semis. That game, like the 2006 finals, ended in a Firebats victory over the Pioneers.
Either way, history will repeat itself. We're just waiting to see which history that is.
Ehrlich reaggravates ankle, is day-to-day
After spraining my ankle a month ago, my trainer encouraged me to play it safe until the final. "Don't risk anything," she told me. "Keep it iced and elevated." Hielo and elevacion.
Taking her advice, I cliff-jumped into the freezing-cold Mediterranean Sea.
(Note: I would say the jump was at least 50 feet, but you can guess for yourself.)
As I know now, hitting the water from that high creates a huge impact. At 275 pounds, my weight didn't help much, either. After falling for what felt like forever, I hit the water with more force than I thought and jarred my ankle in the process.
But, as the Black Knight would say, "'Twas only a flesh wound." Don't expect me to be missing any snaps of the final.
Ehrlich and Hayes work with media in different ways
I like it when titles rhyme.
This past weekend, after we beat the Dracs in the semifinals, a local reporter asked me about the game. Pushing through my exhaustion, I managed to string together a few acceptable Spanish sentences in response.
As it turns out, because of the language barrier, I turned a little Belichick in my postgame interviews. In Spanish, keeping it simple is the only way I can keep it. The Dracs were a great team. The Pioneers will be a tough opponent. We need to practice hard this week.
But although I threw myself into the fire and broadcast my terrible Spanish across Spain, Sean Hayes (my former Harvard teammate) didn't take the same risk. In his interview after the semifinals, Sean answered the questions in English and had it dubbed over.
C'mon, Sean, we took the same level Spanish classes at Harvard! Step your game up!
Panzer's got stones
Literally. Kidney stones. Three weeks ago, Panzer, our 43-year-old team president and starting offensive lineman, began to experience serious pains in his kidneys. While awaiting updates from the doctor, the team spent a week or so fearing that Panzer's kidneys were shutting down.
Luckily, it was just a bad kidney stone. (I get double points for using "luckily" and "kidney stone" in the same sentence.)
But stones or no stones, nothing keeps Panzer from the field. The morning of our wild-card playoff game, Panzer escaped from the hospital and tried to suit up. He literally got up from his hospital bed, grabbed his belongings and escaped from the hospital to play a football game. When he got to the field, he was still wearing his hospital band.
After showing up at halftime, he was concerned to see the team on the verge of a first-round exit. The Firebats losing during the wild-card weekend would be like a 1-seed losing to a 16-seed on the first day of March Madness.
Panzer, who wasn't interested in seeing any miracles, couldn't bear to watch from the sideline. Casually pulling his shirtsleeve over his hospital bracelet, he asked me for the keys to the locker room.
Of course, I told him he wasn't allowed to play. My mother would've killed me if I had let him in that game.
After we pulled away and won the game, Panzer gifted me his hospital bracelet. It's currently hanging on my wall, a minishrine to one of the toughest guys I've met.
Can the Firebats stop Matt?
In two games against the Firebats, Matt Lien has had a career. In the first game, Matt beat the Firebats' secondary for two touchdowns. That, as it turns out, was an off day.
In the second meeting between the teams, Matt took over. Not only did he return the opening kickoff for a touchdown, he also picked up a second-quarter fumble and took it to the house. To complete the touchdown trifecta (offense, defense, special teams), he caught the winning touchdown pass with only seconds left in the game.
I wouldn't say that he beat us single-handedly, but he does usually beat us with one hand. In addition to having a nose for the end zone, Matt also makes some of the best one-handed grabs I've ever seen. You can catch a clip of a one-handed interception on this Spanish newscast.
In full disclosure, this is a biased account of Matt's performance. Because he let me crash on his couch in Barcelona, I owe him some positive writing. That, and we're planning on some postseason European travels.
Football rivalries aside, the Pioneers are some great people. During my midseason trip to Barcelona, I met most of their team, and they all went out of their way to make me feel at home.
That being said, if I took them to my home, my mother would have a heart attack. With the highest tattoo rate in the LNFA, the Pioneers look every bit a professional football team.
And no two look more intimidating than Goku and Fredi. Shooting the breeze after our last game, I got an up-close look at these two beasts. With arms like legs, legs like torsos and tattoos on every visible patch of skin, Fredi and Goku look like a WWE tag team that got lost on its way to the ring.
The coolest thing about these two is that they have matching Pioneers tattoos on their forearms. The least cool thing is that I'll be spending this Saturday lined up across from them.
Ehrlich gunning for Hayes
Did you really think I would end this blog without talking trash to an old teammate? Let's get it, Hayes.
Carl Ehrlich and the Valencia Firebats are preparing for the title game.