Oct. 26, 2007
Not only has Craig McIntyre read the recently-released novel Playing for Pizza, but he's lived it. He's even in the book to prove it.
The former Eastern Washington University football player was one of the main sources famed author John Grisham used in his book about professional football in Italy. McIntyre, a 2001 graduate of Spokane's West Valley High School, has played the past two seasons for the book's real-life Parma Panthers in Parma, Italy.
"I couldn't believe it," said McIntyre of his first meeting in Italy with Grisham, whose long list of novels includes 11 that have been turned into movies, including blockbusters The Firm, A Time to Kill and the Pelican Brief.
"He wanted to keep it low key," explained McIntyre, who is currently doing his student teaching in Spokane. "He didn't want to be in the limelight and in the media. But he's really big in Italy -- The Broker is a big book there. Bleachers is a football book, so this is actually his second book about football. A lot of our players have read his books."
Playing for Pizza was released on September 25, and is about a fallen American football star who can no longer get work in the National Football League. The player's agent, as a last resort, signs a deal for him to play for the Panthers. The quarterback's move to a small city in a foreign land leads to a series of cultural misadventures.
Those adventures are based loosely on those of McIntyre and his teammates, most of which are native Italians. An afterthought in soccer-crazed Europe, the Panthers play by American football rules but only are allowed a limited number of Americans on their roster. McIntyre was one of the team's five Americans in 2006 and one of just two this past season, in addition to a pair of American coaches.
The Americans on the team -- easily the most experienced and talented players and the only ones to be paid a stipend and expenses -- were the main sources for Grisham's research. The book's title is based on the fact the only pay for the native Italians comes in the form of team gatherings when the owner covers the cost of pizza and beverages -- mostly wine and beer, of course -- for the players and their families.
The Panthers have gone 13-5 in McIntyre's two seasons there and have advanced to the championship game of the Italian Football League. In 2006, the team reached the XXVI Superbowl for the first time ever and advanced again in 2007, losing both seasons against the powerhouse Bergamo Lions.
Bergamo is the Montana of Italian football, having gone unbeaten since 1978 while winning the last 10 Italian titles. Bergamo, which McIntyre said has far more financial resources than Parma, has gone on to win three European titles and has played in two other championship games.
Parma lost to Bergamo in double overtime in the 2007 Superbowl after leading at halftime 28-14. McIntyre did his part with five touchdown catches in the loss.
"It's different on every team," said McIntyre of the pay structure for players. "But not one Italian on our team gets paid. A lot of them have families and work all day, then practice at night. At least once a week and after we win, the whole team goes out to pizza joint. It's a big part of what the team is all about and the owner picks up the tab."
What about when the team loses?
"We don't lose too often," laughed McIntyre. "We still get together - it's just not as festive. It's still a reason for everybody to get together and enjoy the good food and drink."
"They are very content to play the game for the love it," said Grisham in a recent interview with National Public Radio. "And the pizza."
So is the book accurate? McIntyre thinks it is, although he says it somewhat sheepishly because of the gallivanting that is described in the book.
"It's pretty right-on," he said. "We've done a lot of what's in the book - I'm not going to lie. I always want to play my best and do my best, but I treat playing in Italy as a vacation. It's a pretty unreal experience for me."
McIntyre Hears of Idea for Book in 2006 . . .
McIntyre was in his first season as a Panther in 2006 when he first heard that Grisham was considering writing a book about his team. At the time, Grisham had completed The Broker and had learned of Italian football while doing research for that novel.
"The first guy I met was a big, tough Italian guy - a wonderful fellow," Grisham said in the NPR interview. "He was telling me about this league and a lot of stories about American football there. The Americans get paid a little bit of money - not much - and I said, `do the Italians get paid?' He said, `oh no, we play for pizza.' And that's what they play for - the beer and pizza after practice and games."
McIntyre and his American roommates were at home one night when Grisham called and talked with American Ed Pricolo, who played collegiate football at Sacred Heart in Connecticut. Grisham's communications with the Americans were his greatest source of content for the book.
"They were pretty curious," Grisham said in the interview with NPR. "I told the coach up front what I was doing and I was not going to embarrass anybody. When I arrived they were guarded at first, but as the weeks went by and the book was about to be published, they were genuinely excited about the fact they were going to get a lot of attention because of the book."
McIntyre said Grisham wrote the first half of the book and then came to Parma early in the 2007 season. By then, the five Americans the team was allowed was reduced to two -- McIntyre and quarterback Mike Souza (formerly from Illinois State). The team's head coach (Andrew Papoccia) and defensive coordinator (Dan Milsten, formerly from the University of Washington) were also members of the team.
"He had dinner with us three or four times and ate with the whole team a couple of nights," McIntyre explained of Grisham's week-and-a-half visit. "He just picked our brains about our experiences there. He took notes and thanked us for our time."
"The food is incredible," Grisham said in his NPR interview. "They took me to the restaurants and the places around Parma. It was tough, tough research."
Grisham returned to the United States and completed his book, then brought his family back to Italy for the Superbowl. The book's "Author's Note," written on June 27, 2007, thanks McIntyre and his American teammates:
"Their coach is Andrew Papoccia, and his assistance was invaluable. Their quarterback Mike Souza, wide receiver Craig McIntyre and defensive coordinator Dan Milsten were extremely helpful. When it came to football, these Americans answered all my inquiries. When it came to food and wine, they were even more enthusiastic."
In September, about two weeks before the book was released, McIntyre received four copies directly from Grisham. In one, it says: "To Craig. Thanks for all your help. Go Panthers."
"It was a really good present," said McIntyre. "It's a quick and easy read. When it was released I had to go to the mall to make sure it's up front and out there."
McIntyre previously knew of Grisham, but mostly through his movies.
"Now I've read about eight of John Grisham's books," he admitted. "Once that phone call came, we started reading and doing research. I like all of his books. From then on I became a Grisham fan."
As he was reading Playing for Pizza, McIntyre couldn't help but see a little of himself in a confident, sometimes show-boating, Italian receiver named Fabrizio.
"I could see myself in some parts of some characters, including him," said McIntyre. "I was cocky - I admit it. I talk back and forth with opponents - that's something you can't do at Eastern. But over there it's allowed and I would say things that would get the other team fired up. It made the game fun for me. So that receiver could be me a little bit."
McIntyre Originally Found by Parma via the Internet . . .
How McIntyre got to Italy and began playing for the Panthers is a story in itself. Two years later, he can't wait to return for the 2008 season if things work out that way.
He still wants to play football, the same feeling he had in 2005 after he helped lead Eastern to back-to-back Big Sky Conference championships and berths in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs.
Just after his EWU career ended, he learned of the website europlayers.com after talking with his former Eagle teammate Javid Shoemaker, who was playing in Sweden. After registering his name on the site, McIntyre began corresponding with Papoccia, who had played with Souza at Illinois State. Papoccia was familiar with Eastern Washington because both schools are in the same collegiate division (FCS).
His first season, he had about five days to practice with his new team and in new surroundings before his Italian debut. In 2007, he finished his winter quarter classes at EWU, caught a plane and flew to Milan, drove 1 1/2 hours to Parma and then caught a train to Naples where his team was playing the next day.
"It was pretty amazing to be in Cheney and then playing in a game there 24 hours later," he laughed, adding that he caught three touchdown passes and had more than 100 yards in receptions in that game. "Once I got out there I just felt lucky to be able to play. It's like riding a bike. That's what you do."
As a paid American, he gets paid roughly $2,000 per month for a season that lasts from April-July. In addition, his transportation to and from Italy is paid for, as well as all his living expenses. He shares an apartment with the other Americans, as well as a rental car and cell phone. Membership at a local gym is also part of his compensation.
But because he was one of the only paid players, a lot was expected of him. Besides receiver, he was a running back at times, played as a defensive back and was on all of Parma's special teams. In six games during the regular season in 2007, McIntyre caught 45 passes for 995 yards and 15 touchdown.
"It helps the team to have the Americans out there all the time," said McIntyre, who equates the level of football played in that league to junior college or maybe NCAA Division III. "We have good football players, but every team has weak spots - way more than you see at the college level. What you have is what you have. It makes it fun for me because it makes me the superstar again."
The team was 7-3 his first season there and then 6-2 in 2007. McIntyre missed two games with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Papoccia. Although only 3,000-5,000 people attend the Superbowl there, McIntyre enjoys the opportunity to help educate Italians about American football, in fact, he helps coach a 19-and-under football team in Italy.
"We teach them basic fundamentals and help keep kids playing," he said. "Every kid in Italy is a soccer player, so we're trying to find some football players."
"Obviously, American football is not that important to people over there," he continued. "But it's a really good atmosphere. They are good soccer fans, so they know how to be good football fans. They have a flyover for the Superbowl and it's under the lights - it's definitely a fun game to play in."
"The guys on my team are absolute football fanatics," he said. "They come to practice in old college jerseys, pro player jerseys -- they just love the NFL. They don't get to watch games on TV but they keep track of it all on the internet."
"There is a small few who play, but they have a passion for it," he added. "There are teams all over the country playing. It's pretty poor football compared to what is played in the United States, but there are a lot of guys giving up their weekends to play."
McIntyre Hopes to Return to Italy in 2008 . . .
Depending on how many Americans the IFL decides teams can have on their roster, McIntyre expects to return to Parma for the 2008 season. McIntyre said there is a chance that teams will only be able to retain one American, and he said that spot would most certainly be filled by a quarterback.
"Half of me wants to stay in Italy," he said. "I really like it over there and want to keep playing while I'm young. I consider my teammates my family too - a lot of them offered to take me in until I find a job."
McIntyre loves the laid-back lifestyle in Italy, where he says Italians tend to stress "family, relaxing and enjoying life. Here, we are more work-driven and about making money. They tend to stress enjoying good food with your friends."
Besides his playing career in Italy, he has fond memories away from the game during his short stints in the country. He has attended two of the biggest wine festivals in the world and visited some renown wineries. But three other events stand out in particular, including his visit to Germany to visit with and watch his former quarterback at EWU, Erik Meyer, play in NFL Europe.
"This past year I stayed with Meyer in Cologne for about a week and it was a blast," he said of the now defunct league. "It was a great experience to see an NFL Europe game and see one of my best friends. The league lost lots of money but had good crowds. They had a good fan base and it's sad to see the league go."
"In my first year, Italy won the World Cup in soccer," he added. "Every game was a big party and it was fun to be a part of that.
"And, of course, having John Grisham come to Parma was amazing,"
McIntyre will finish his student teaching in physical education this fall at Seth Woodward Elementary in Spokane, and helped coach a seventh/eighth grade combo football team at Centennial Middle School to an unbeaten season. Eventually he expects to become an elementary P.E. teacher and coach.
But first, he's living out a dream playing football and enjoying life in Italy. Just rubbing elbows with John Grisham has made him sort of a celebrity in his own hometown.
"One of my students brought the book and wanted me to sign it," he laughed. "Even a few aunts and uncles of mine. That's a little strange, but I'm more than happy to do it."
Not bad notoriety for a former Eagle Playing for Pizza.