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NFL: The Slavic connection in American football

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American football appears on the surface to be a game played by primitive brutes – three hundred plus pound neanderthals battling over turf, centered around a lopsided pigskin bladder. In actuality, NFL football is like chess played with live bodies. The best coaches are grand masters, swapping players in and out of games to counter the constantly changing offensive and defensive schemes of their opponents. It is brutally physical and injuries are common, but success is more dependent on detailed study and planning and sharp quick thinking from both the coaches and the players on the field.

Sociological background of NFL players

Sociological observations have turned up some interesting facts. It’s obvious that the majority of players are black. Several of the fastest receivers in the game grew up in an area of Florida where they were hired as boys to run down and catch rabbits that were plaguing local farms. A huge number attended Catholic schools, apparently benefiting from the stricter discipline. And many were children of single mothers who struggled to support them, and their success stems from a fierce drive to repay their love.

Of the white players in the game, Slavic-Americans are represented in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the US population. In their case, it is undoubtedly the same sense of personal responsibility and drive for excellence that Slavic-Americans exhibit in other occupations.

The two most brilliant coaches in the game today, universally acknowledged as the very best of the best, are of Croatian descent. University of Alabama’s coach Nick Saban has led the “Crimson Tide” to seven national championship wins in college football and each year delivers several first round players into the NFL draft. In the NFL, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichik has earned an amazing six Superball rings, with his two most valuable players also having Slavic roots.

Allegedly they are also best friends, going back decades. Czech-Bohemian George Halas was one of the greatest coaches of all time, as well as a co-founder of the NFL. He won six national titles in the pre-Superbowl era and played in five other championship games.

The Central and Eastern European roots of the NFL

Slovak Chuck Bednarik was a phenomenally successful player on both offense and defense, back when the game was much more physically demanding than it is today. He won two championship rings and was included on every 25-year anniversary team to date, 8 pro-bowls and 10 all-pro teams. A top award in his name is awarded to the best defensive player in college every year. George Halas’ protege Polish-Ukrainian “Iron Mike” Ditka also has two championship wins, the first as a tight end, the second as coach. He was the first tight end to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame – an honor which will undoubtedly be awarded to current superstar tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce.

Gronkowski collected multiple Superbowl rings playing under Belichik in New England, along with Tom Brady, universally acknowledged as the GOAT – the “greatest of all time” quarterback, who is part Polish. Gronk has reunited with Brady on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and are currently making another end run towards the Superbowl. Movie star handsome Brady is married to supermodel Giselle Bundchen, and has authored a book pitching his Spartan diet and fitness regime, which has facilitated his ongoing success at the age of 43, long after the normal retirement age for NFL players.

Another Pole, Kevin Stepanski is a bright young coach who took the Cleveland Browns from being one of the worst teams in the league into the play-offs in his first year as coach, an extraordinary turnaround for a team that was the butt of jokes for decades. Czech Mike Vrabel has been steadily improving the Tennessee Titans, taking them into the playoffs in 2 of his first 3 seasons. Superbowl winning coach Jon Gruden is Slovenian. After a long hiatus as a TV commentator he returned to coaching and resurrected a failing Oakland Raiders team.

The high hopes for the team were dashed by multiple key injuries, but prospects look good for a Superbowl appearance in the near future. Known for his tough attitude, Gruden has been dubbed “Chuckie” – a playful reference to the evil doll in the horror franchise “Child’s Play.” Hungarian Don Shula was another legendary coach and a seminal figure in the NFL. He took his team to the Superbowl four times, winning twice, and they made it into an astounding seventeen other play-off games.

The Slavic quarterbacks

On the player side, the quarterback is the “queen” on the chess board, the versatile centerpiece of every play and by far the most valuable player on the team. To succeed at the Superbowl level they must have lightning fast reflexes and make consistently smart decisions in just a few seconds. Lithuanian Johnny Unitas won 3 national championships. Joe Namath was Hungarian, and Joe Theismann half-Hungarian. Pole Mark Rypien has a son who is also a quarterback and two cousins playing hockey in the NHL.

Dan Marino, another legendary quarterback, is half-Polish. Despite never having won a Superbowl, he set multiple records and collected countless prestigious awards and some experts argue that he’s the best quarterback to ever play the game. Ron “The Polish Rifle” Jaworski made it to the Suberbowl but didn’t win, as did Jimmy Garoppolo who is part Polish.

Rex Grossman, whose mother’s name was Miska, also took his team to the Superbowl but didn’t win, before losing his career prematurely to injuries. Dan Orlovsky played twelve seasons, and is now a highly regarded analyst featured on multiple sports shows. Two of the best field goal kickers were Polish immigrant Sebastian Janikowski and Polish-American Stephen Gostkowski, who had a phenomenal 100% scoring record in 8 of his 12 seasons.

A promising future for Slavic-American football players

Slavic-Americans have performed exceptionally well in the tight end position, which requires quick thinking and reflexes to get open and catch balls, as well as strength for blocking schemes. Besides Gronkowski and Ditka, the Celek brothers Brent and Garrett were exceptional talents for the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers.

Travis Kelce is a star on the reigning champions the Kansas City Chiefs, whose brother Jason is a much loved center for the Philadelphia Eagles – all of whom have Superbowl rings. Jason won the hearts of American football fans with his “underdog” victory speech delivered while wearing a wild Philadelphia mummers costume.

Line men Mark Stepnoski and Bill Romanowski both earned multiple all-pro honors and multiple Superbowls playing on more than one team each. Receiver and kick returner Gunner Olszewski is a rising star on Belichik’s Patriots and several young Slavic-American players who excelled on college teams are projected to be picked in the upcoming draft. And off the field, one woman is to be included on our list. Football commentator Kay Adams (Adamczyk) is the daughter of Polish immigrants and speaks fluent Polish, branching out into non-sports entertainment.

By Joe Augustyn

Staffed with a growing team of passionate journalists and local contributors, our Kraków office is fully dedicated to covering all-things Polish, from reporting on the latest news to promoting fascinating local initiatives across Poland.

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