ROME– Not a single person on that team wishes they were anywhere else. Some players drive 35 minutes to get to practice every Tuesday and Friday nights, while some take the metro, the bus, and the sidewalk to arrive at Campo Dabliu EUR. For Riccardo Bargagli, the latter is the reality, and it’s not a bad one.

Football in Italy is not a way of life. There’s no such thing as Friday night lights. There’s no such thing as tailgates or homecoming games, or “Sunday Night Football in Italy.” If you want to watch the game or play the game or learn about the game, it’s up to you to seek it out. Those who play American football in this country do so for one simple reason—they love the sport.

Riccardo Bargagli enters his second year playing football and is already slated to be the defensive captain for the S.S. Lazio Ducks U19 team. At middle linebacker, Bargagli serves as one of the premier defensive players, and his role goes well beyond stopping the run. For him, it’s all about pumping up his team. “I really enjoy playing and when I’m surrounded by all my teammates I try to be the first one to say, “don’t worry, we’re good.” I try to bring my teammates to focus on the next play,” said Bargagli when asked about his role as a veteran for the Ducks.

He grew up playing soccer like most other kids in Rome but never grew to love the game like the majority of his peers did. “I used to play soccer until I was maybe 10…First, I tried rugby, but I didn’t like it. After I tried canoeing, but I didn’t like it either.” But for Bargagli, sport was (and is) such a vital part of his life, and he was determined to find his true passion. “Since I was little the only thing I really enjoyed doing was sport, and I think every time you do sport you meet another piece of yourself. For me football is how I explain myself and what I am capable of.”

It does not come as a surprise that Bargagli’s most influential experience with American football came during his time in the United States. “When I was little my father taught me how to play at the beach and also when I moved around in the U.S. I started watching it, so when I came back to Italy I started searching for a team and I found it…” For so many kids in Italy it’s difficult to find American football. The average Italian high school does not have a team where kids can represent their school. Italy is country dominated by soccer and as such very few people care about American football. It takes more equipment, money, time, and patience to field a team. Such resources are sparingly available for teams to survive season after season compared to other sports. Teams convert soccer pitches into football fields after swarms of youth teams finish up their practices. As a result, the Ducks start all their practices at around 7 p.m., causing some players to not get home until as late as 10:30 at night. It’s not glamorous. The Ducks don’t walk down their halls wearing gameday jerseys on Friday nights, and girls don’t swoon over the quarterbacks (well, maybethey do, but probably not because they can spin it on the field) like they do in the classic image of high school football in America.

Most youth football players in the United States would attribute a portion of their love of the game to the culture that surrounds the sport. In the U.S. there is so much more than just the game. There’s watching the NFL on Sundays with friends while stuffing yourself with all kinds of chips, dips, wings and whatever else people have come up with these days. There’s fantasy football—the promise of a new year, a new team thatwill ensure that this year you won’t have to dye your hair purple cause you finished in last place. There’s figuring out what you’re going to say when you walk into school or the office after your team loses a close game the night before. This culture simply does not exist in Italy, at least outside of those few who play the game.

When asked about playing what he described as a “second-rate” sport, Bargagli confessed that it bothered him “a little bit,” but the Duck went on to explain how the lack of interest can actually be seen as an advantage.“Most of the time I think it’s better for us because we don’t have crowds that influence us and make us think about other stuff—we’re able to focus on the sport which is beautiful.” No distractions, no frills, just football.

This is the mindset needed to play football in Italy, the passion that Bargagli and the Ducks show every time they transformthe local soccer pitch into the gridiron. They all want to be there— every practice, every scrimmage, every game. Take last month for example. The Ducks traveled nearly three hours to Naples just to scrimmage a team from the U.S. Military base outside the city. It was business as usual for the entire team. The Ducks defeated their mostly-American counterparts 22-14, and after the game Bargagli held up the red, white, and green flag with pride.

Riccardo Bargagli represents one of many S.S. Lazio Ducks players, coaches, and supporting entities that allhold the same passion for the game of American football. Without the unwavering commitment from members of the front office, the devoted coaching staff, the parents and of course the players,the game of football could never survive across the Atlantic.

From the top down, everyone is all in, and you don’t need to speak Italian to recognize that. The way the team carries itself and the tone in which the coaches work with the players is all I need to see how much they all care. The players are so open and willing to take coaching, and you can see how much they want to improve purely because they love the game. It’s easy to love playingfootball in a culture that gives that same love back right back. It’s something totally different, and much more difficult, to show passion for something when it is not reciprocated. It takes a proactive, passionate, and committed kid to play American football in Italy, and it takes a person of the same qualities to succeed at the sport as well.

The way I see it, those who seek out the sport and commit to playing already pose the traits necessary to excel at it – all that’s left now is practice and execution. The Ducks opened up their 2018 season with a 48–6 trouncing of La Legio XIII Romalast Saturday and look to keep the train rolling when they take on the Guelphs of Florence this coming weekend.

Written By: Dave Peck