Bucket-List Football Experience
Pagliaro Represents Yale in Italy
By Steve Conn, Yale Sports Publicity Director
When recent college graduates have to determine a path of sustenance, they often seek once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to help clear their heads after four years of studying. Some, like former Yale football player John Pagliaro Jr '11, are fortunate enough to get a special chance… maybe even check off a "bucket-list" experience.
The former Yale linebacker not only got a chance to clear his head, he was able to bang his into others while combining his desire to see Italy with his love for football.
"I always wanted to travel abroad during my time at Yale but never could because of my football commitment. Playing in Italy was the perfect opportunity to travel, experience a new culture and do something that I love," said Pagliaro, who started on offense and defense for the Ancona Dolphins during a 12-game regular season last spring and then playoffs before making the Italian National Team.
Things got off to a slow start for him upon his arrival last February. A blizzard, extremely rare for the area, hit the mid coastal section of the country and dropped enough snow to shut down Ancona for a while and force the first five practices indoors, on a cement surface.
"They weren't very productive practices, but it was good to meet everyone on the team. All of the guys were very friendly and welcoming of the three Americans who joined the team," said Pagliaro, whose father, John '78, was an All-America running back and two-time Ivy Player of the Year for Carm Cozza.
Pagliaro's Ancona teammates ranged from 17 to 45-years-old, which he said made it much more interesting and exciting. They practiced two nights a week after players were out of work or school, and the routines were very similar to college football workouts. The games were typically on Sunday with a few Saturday night contests mixed in.
He played running back and slot on offense, linebacker and some safety on defense, and every special teams unit for the Dolphins.
"It was very rare for me to come off the field, the first time since high school that I had played that much football," said Pagliaro, who had parents in the stands for a few games. "It took a couple of games for my body to get into actual playing shape, making the three or four days after our first couple games pretty painful."
Ancona won five of its first six games before getting hit with a string of injuries that resulted in a 2-3 finish and a loss in the opening round of the playoffs, the Dolphins first post-season contest in eight years. Led by quarterback Rocky Pentello, the team averaged 50 points.
There were some memorable games and plays the former Bulldog will never forget.
"We were playing the Reggio Emilia Hogs and were up by three with a few minutes remaining. They were driving deep in our end. I missed a tackle and had already been upset with my play for most of the game. Doug Rosnick [Colgate] told me to forget about it and that I would make a play on the next snap. The next play they run the ball and I force a fumble, which we recover and end up winning the game. My parents were there, so it was great to have them be part of that win."
His Dolphins team stuck together off the field as well. They went out for pizza once a week and many of the guys would invite the team to homes for dinner. Pagliaro, who needed to speak the language to survive in this city, made it clear the food and wine stood out almost as much as the girls. "This was a real Italian experience, not touristy at all," he said.
Not all the aromas were as good as the food experiences. There was a road trip that caused an uncomfortable situation.
"We had to fly down to Catania, Sicily, for our second game. Our bus to the field was about an hour late. This meant the game ended later and forced us to rush back to the airport without showering, and about half of us still wearing our football pants. So there were about 50 dirty, smelly football players running through an airport and then sitting on a small plane together. I felt bad for the people who had to sit around us. We won the game, so it made that experience much more tolerable."
Pagliaro didn't quite fill his appetite for football, so he was fortunate to play well against the Bologna Warriors in the playoff game. One of their coaches, Vincent Argondizzo, the head coach of the Italian national team, asked if the former Yale standout would play in the Four Helmets Tournament in Florence in late July. The team consisted of all the best Italian players from all divisions.
"It was great because I got to know all of the guys I was playing against the whole season. They come from all over the country, from Sicily, to Rome, to Venice and all the way up in the very north of Italy."
The national team experience was brief but rewarding. The first practices, two each day in hot weather, took place in Varese shortly after the Italians played their Super Bowl. They moved on to Bologna for more workouts. The coaches decided to use the former Eli at running back and on all the special teams.
Italia, Denmark, USA and a Florence team competed in the tournament. Pagliaro's team lost to Denmark (which won the championship) and then beat Florence to take third place.
"We were disappointed (in third place), but it did not stop us from having a great night together in downtown Florence that Saturday night," said Pagliaro, who along with other Americans helped the coaches make some adjustments on the field.
"I appreciate all the players and coaches allowing me to be part of a season. It meant so much to me."
Pagliaro noticed that the Italians playing football love it as much as he does. In fact, none of them are compensated. They play because they love the game.
"One of my teammates, Stef, was the best offensive/defensive linemen in Italy. Some of what drove him to play was to see how he compared and competed against the Americans on opposing teams. He could have easily played college ball in the states," said Pagliaro.
Every team has three Americans who are compensated for their services, and they are typically matched up against other former U.S. players. The difference is the team's Italian players. According to Pagliaro, the best teams assimilate the Americans well and get everyone on the same page.
"We weren't the most talented team but we were close, we played together, and we knew what we had to do. That is why we were successful this past year."
The former Timothy Dwight College resident relished life in Ancona. He and his roommates were in third-floor apartment that was above Saint George Pub and a five-minute walk from the beach, where they attended parties, harvested and cooked mussels and played football soccer and volleyball. They even occasionally slept on the beach.
"After the season, we planned on doing a lot of traveling but we got stuck on the beach. They are the most beautiful beaches," said Pagliaro. "It's a small city, so the social scene consists of a lot of the same people and everyone becomes very close. There is no violence."
Pagliaro's Italian adventure was not just about playing the game and living like a native. He was also there to educate Anacona youth about American football. During the middle of the season they were asked to teach a gym class at a high school. The students didn't know much about football, but he and some of his teammates were more than willing to show them.
"They were very interested to learn and many came out to our games. Going to the school helps the sport grow, and we made some great friends in the process."