For three Yale football players who want to play professionally, the grass is greener on the other side — of the world, that is.
Former Yale standout defensive end Peter Sarantos ’00 is currently playing for the Baden Bruins of the Austrian football league, while fullback Konrad Sopielnikow ’01 and quarterback Joe Walland ’00 will join forces for the Kiel Hurricanes of the German football league. Walland and Sopielnikow begin camp May 1 in preparation for their first game May 26, while Sarantos and the Bruins have already began their schedule, compiling a 1-1 record.
Sarantos — who is tied for fifth on Yale’s all-time sack list — has taken the league by storm thus far, racking up seven sacks and 11 tackles through only two games. He is also playing fullback.
“This is not the NFL and its not Ivy League football, and I am expected to rise above the competition,” Sarantos wrote in an e-mail from Austria. “I am fine with this, though — I really have no problem with hitting a quarterback a million and a half times a game.”
Sarantos said while the rules and premise of the game are the same as here in the United States, the execution is on a much lower level, adding that the Yale junior varsity team would probably give the Bruins a run for their money. Sarantos attributed this to the nature of the game — he is one of only four paid members of the team, which comprises everyone from high school students to 40-year-old police officers. It is in fact a club sport for everybody else — they pay to play the game. This results in a much lower talent level.
“The best tackles that I face over here would rank near the worst ones that I faced in college,” Sarantos said. “If they are big, then they are slow; if they are quick and have good feet, chances are they weigh less than I do. Therefore, I am able to get in and punish the quarterback a million times a game.”
One thing Sarantos was not prepared for was the cavalier attitude many of the other players have towards practice, saying that people skip all the time, but there is nothing the team can do about it since they need all the players they can get.
“It’s not exactly a football mentality, but that is the reality I have to deal with,” Sarantos said. “If they do not show up, I cannot make them run or beat them silly, as they will just quit.”
Sopielnikow and Walland should enjoy similar success for the Hurricanes, but will have better ideas of their roles once camp begins for them in May. While Sarantos is tantalizing quarterbacks, Sopielnikow will be trying to protect Walland — who devastated the Yale record book and set six NCAA-IAA records while at Yale — in addition to blocking for the running backs.
Sopielnikow is most concerned about cultural barriers he may encounter while in Germany.
“I am not sure what to expect, but I know it will be a big cultural adjustment,” Sopielnikow said. “It will be hard to adjust to a different language.”
The presence of Walland on the team will help both make that transition a little smoother.
“I am excited to re-unite with [Walland],” Sopielnikow said. “He’s a great competitor. It’s good to have somebody over there with me who I can relate to.”
Sarantos has experienced difficulty with the language but is finding ways to improvise.
“So far I have mastered German menus and food items, and I have become quite professional at making sounds and gestures to indicate what it is that I want,” Sarantos said. “Sometimes I feel like a 250-pound monkey, but if funny sounds and strange actions are the difference between an ice cream cone and no ice cream cone, it’s Curious George for this guy every time.”
Aside from the language barrier, the only other thing that really bothers Sarantos is the lack of an American fast-food staple.
“We have McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s and Subway, but the sweet, sweet nectar of Taco Bell is unfortunately exclusively American,” Sarantos lamented.
Other than that, though, Sarantos said he has enjoyed Austrian life. Because he only has practice three days a week in addition to a weekly game for a total of about nine hours, Sarantos has had plenty of free time to fill.
“My days are filled with breathtaking walks in the Alpine foothills, relaxing hours at the Baden spas, sampling the glorious European beers, chatting and reading in local cafes, and eating,” Sarantos said. “It really is a fantastic life, and if there was a Taco Bell anywhere around, I would even consider living here.”
Neither Sarantos nor Sopielnikow is sure what will result of this season in terms of furthering their football careers.
“Where I go from here depends on how well I play,” Sopielnikow said. “I will see what happens and then figure out what comes next after the season.”
Sarantos is of a similar mindset.
“I am basically on a seven-month all-expense paid European vacation, and I should be quite content retiring from the game after that,” Sarantos said.
He said he would like to extend his time in Europe if possible, by winning the Austrian MVP trophy, which awards a Mediterranean cruise in the middle of the summer.
Beyond that, Sarantos’ plans are up in the air.
“After the season, it’s off to corporate America for Mr. Sarantos,” he said. “I am not exactly sure what I will be doing to support myself, but I know I will have to work more than nine hours a week like I do now. I will worry about that once I get back to America. Time to live it up now.”
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