Chapman alumni find gridiron success in Italy

Eric Marty '09 (No. 12) and Mike Christensen '09 (in gray)
Eric Marty '09 (No. 12) and Mike Christensen '09 (in gray)

BOLZANO, Italy - Mike Christensen was enjoying post-college life on the sands of Australia when he was contacted by former Chapman University teammate Eric Marty. Marty had been the starting quarterback for Gigantes Bolzano (the Bolzano Giants) of the Italian Football League since February. The Giants were in need of a running back and Christensen was the guy Marty wanted.

"I knew he was capable of thriving in this league," says Marty. "I probably sent hundreds of emails over a couple of months."

Christensen was hesitant, but finally persuaded to take the offer from Bolzano. Months removed from setting a school record with 262 yards rushing in a single game, the 5'9", 195-pound running back left the cozy confines of the Australian summer and traveled for 36 straight hours, eventually landing in Northern Italy where the Giants call home.

Twenty-four hours later, he was in uniform and starting in the backfield in the Giants' 54-9 victory over Catania Elephants. In fact, he ran for 20 yards and a touchdown and even played some outside linebacker.

"My legs felt like Jell-O," says Christensen. "At Chapman we would practice for about a month before the first game, yet I was in Italy for just over 24 hours before my first game."

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Some know the Italian Football League from the 2007 John Grisham novel, Playing For Pizza. However, there are more than a handful of American Football leagues in Europe besides the IFL, including England, Ireland, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Japan and Hungary to name a few.

The Italian League opportunity came about for Marty in part because of his diligence and desire to continue his football playing career after college. But, as they say, it also helps to know someone in the business.

Enter Chapman defensive line coach Mike Wood. Wood had coached for Bolzano in the Italian League for several years and still kept in contact with the team's owner/head coach Argeo Tisma frequently.

Although Marty had networked online with several European teams in different leagues, nothing altogether promising had come of it other than a "small contract with a second division German team." That is until Wood put Marty in touch with Tisma. On Christmas Day, Bolzano made the offer for Marty to quarterback its team.

"It was probably the best Christmas present I have ever received," says Marty.

Marty and Christensen are among just three Americans allowed on Bolzano's 30-man roster, per league rules. With that comes a tremendous amount of expectations. So how have they done?

The Giants are currently in first place with a 7-1 record and one regular season game left to play. Marty has started every game at quarterback (and kicker, and punter) and has passed for 1,442 yards in eight games. He has a 60 percent completion rate (101-for-169) and has tossed 21 touchdowns and only been intercepted four times. In last Saturday's 40-27 win over Emilia Hogs Reggio, the rookie QB set a new career-best with 251 yards passing and five touchdowns. Christensen has rushed for 33 yards in two games, plus a touchdown of his own.

And they are getting the opportunities to make an impact at other positions on the field, as well.

"The part that I have relished the most is that I get to be a football player, not just a quarterback," says Marty. "Mostly because of depth issues, I have had the chance to kick, punt and I have played safety, cornerback and returned two kickoffs.

"During the second quarter (of one game) when Mike had to step in at outside linebacker and I was playing cornerback, I looked at him and said, ‘I could have seen us playing in the same backfield again, but who would have ever thought we'd be lining up together on the same defense?'"

Marty calls the time in Italy "the most dumbfounding, spontaneous and rewarding" of his life and says that he's found a new love for the game through this unique experience.

They say that Division III athletics is about "love of the game". It's comforting to know that even at a professional level this still holds true.

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Note: Marty and Christensen aren't the only recent Chapman grads to play professionally in European leagues. Basketball player Patrick Carney '07 averaged 21.6 points for Velbert in the German League during the 2008 season. Also, baseball players John Alexander '06 (2006) and Gabe Bonfanti '06 (2006-09) have played in the Italian Baseball League. Bonfanti has carved out quite a career in Italy, playing now in his third season as a pitcher with the Avigliana club.