By Mark Gregory
When the word football is heard in Italy, the first thing that comes to mind is players in shorts kicking a white and black ball into a net – or soccer as we would call it here.
Over the last five years, an organization called American Football Worldwide is looking to bring the game we call football in the states to places that are just starting to learn the game.
Among the 28 players from 15 states that will play in Italy April 22 against the Italian national 19U team, which comes together a couple times annually to train and compete against other national teams in Europe, will be Lovell Houston, Jr.
Houston is a Joliet resident that was a running back the past two seasons for Plainfield Central.
During his senior season for the Wildcats, Houston carried the ball 137 times for 734, an average of 5.36 yards per carry. He also scored seven touchdowns while only fumbling once.
“I practice and work hard. It was a great feeling that they asked me to play for this team,” said Houston, who will play football at Millikin University in Decatur, IL next season. “I was accepted in December and I have been training in track and I have been preparing for this.”
Houston is one of five players representing Illinois, the most of any state.
The athletes will leave April 15 and will travel to Italy to practice before playing the game on April 22 in Milan.
“It is great to be able to go over there and play the game that I love and show other people the game,” Houston said. “I am a very quick learner when it comes to football and I am pretty sure that was one of the reasons they picked the other athletes. Football to be is all about having fun and just playing the game that I love.”
The athletes will not only practice and play football, they will also see the sights of Italy, including the Colosseum and Forum in Rome along with St. Peter’s Basilica and museums in Vatican City. Days later the group will move north through Tuscany with stops in Siena and Florence. The tour concludes with a stay at the tip of famous Lake Como just north of the Milan.
The team will be coached by Jim Barnes, AFW President and a 16-year veteran as a head football coach at the NCAA Division III level.
“This is the fifth season and it is the first season we are doing two tours,” he said while with a group in Ireland. “American football is a growing sport in Europe, especially in the Under-19 and U-20 level s. It has really only been trickling down to younger than 18-year-olds for a few years now. This will be the third trip to Ireland to play the National U19 team.”
While Barnes said he sees the pride in the athletes as they get to compete for the United States, he also knows they are learning a lot more than just the game.
“When they get here, their eyes are really opened up when they get to experience a culture first hand and get to see history and touch history,” he said. “For many of the guys, this is a great launching point as they go off to college. I think maybe they can think about the world and their place in it more expansively.”