Italian sport: Gladiatori Roma, 45 years of American Football in Italy

Sep 15, 2018 31

Before the Roman Gladiators

On January 1, 1945, a day of celebration despite the breakdowns of the war, in the stadium of Florence (Toscana) two teams of American soldiers, the 5th Army and the 12th Air Force, face each other in the first and only edition of Spaghetti Bowl. The correspondent of the Armed Forces newspaper, the Sunday edition of Star&Stripes Magazine, tells us about 25,000 spectators, the referee, the two bands of 56 playing elements and the cheerleaders. A show: before, during and after.

Some photos published on LIFE (in a 2-page article published on 29 January 1945) document the scrupulous preparation for the game of the two sides and refer us back to some stages of the game, such as the beautiful movement of the runner John Big Six Moody, an All-American at the end of the thirties, ended in touchdown, with a background on the stands full of people. The Army Krautclouters beat by 20-0 the Aviation Bridgebusters in the first official game of American football played on Italian territory. In the United States, between January 2 and 3, other newspapers such as The Berkshire Evening Eagle (Pittsfield, MA), The Charleston Daily Mail (Charleston, WV), The Era (Bradford, PA) and The Waterloo Daily Courier (Waterloo, IA) will tell the story.

Actually on the 1913 Thanksgiving Day, on a land adjacent to the port of Genoa (Liguria), the teams of crews of the USS Connecticut and the USS Kansas, belonging to the Atlantic fleet of the US Navy, faced each other in a game. And on November 23, 1944, another match called Bambino Bowl was held in an allied military camp set up in Puglia: it was just a game of after-work behind the wheel and fun on a festive day, without the organization, coverage of newspapers, stadium facilities, sports content and spectators of the Florence one in 1945.

In the early fifties other games were organized by the US Armed Forces in the Trieste (Friuli Venezia Giulia) area. In 1969 the NIFL (Northern Italian Football League) was founded in the NATO base, which would organize an annual tournament between the teams of military corps stationed in Italy.

On January 29, 1972, in a characteristic trattoria in Genoa (Liguria), a table of sportsmen decided to found the first Italian Federation of American Football (FIFA), with the desire and the hope of being able to introduce in the peninsula the fascinating competitive image of this sport. The idea is good but the start is, of course, narrow gauge in a country where American football has just been seen in a couple of films or in some rare TV footage.

In September, trying to break the circle, the president of FIFA Bruno Beneck contacts the National Football League. The commissioner Pete Rozelle cools his enthusiasm reminding him that the NFL cannot provide assistance to an amateur activity abroad, but puts him in touch with the Texan tycoon Lamar Hunt, one of the founders of the American Football League and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. He is a businessman with very clear ideas: "American Football in Italy and Europe does not interest me: it is a game too difficult and expensive to be transplanted successfully. With your soccer here in the States I'm living a fun experience but not at all profitable and, I'm convinced, without a future. Easy to learn, inexpensive, but it doesn’t work."

1973-1983

In December 1972, an incredible phone call comes from Dallas: "This is Bob Kapp speaking, President of the Intercontinental Football League Inc. ..." The IFL, financed and directed by Texans from Dallas and Houston, aims to spread American Football in the Old Continent, founding a series of teams in major European cities, waiting to create "indigenous schools". The various teams would be reinforced with the best prospects of US colleges and some loans from the NFL. And so one day "Kicker" Bob Kapp lands at the Fiumicino airport with his great dream. On February 19, 1973, he and Bruno Beneck found the first professional club in Italy: The Roman Gladiators (Gladiatori Roma).

The project has provided the Gladiators with a twinning with the University of Notre Dame and, as possible reinforcements, nothing less than Dan Pastorini of the Houston Oilers, Joe Scibelli of the Los Angeles Rams, Tom DeLeone of the Cincinnati Bengals, Bob DeMarco of the Cleveland Browns, Daryle Lamonica of the Oakland Raiders, Doug Buffone of the Chicago Bears and Nick Buoniconti of the Miami Dolphins: all successful Italian Americans in the pro league.

In 1973 and 1974 Bob Kapp travels Europe far and wide to give life to some teams in Vienna, Munich and other cities, sometimes clashing with the distrust of the national sports authorities. The attempt to organize two games, the first at the Flaminio Stadium in Rome between the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins, also fails because of the renunciation of the official sponsor - the airline PanAm - and so the IFL puts its dreams back in the drawer.

FIFA does not give up and, in the summer of 1977, organizes the first American Football tournament in Italy, in Versilia; Robert Carey, the president of NFL Properties Inc., also takes part to the event, promising Italian managers his interest in promoting the game in Italy.

In March 1978, Beneck and Carey sign a contract under which the NFL undertakes to design the logos of the Italian teams, reserving all rights over them outside of Italy and to assign to the Italian League the rights of exploitation of the NFL image in exchange for modest royalties that would justify the sending of the material and equipment for the game.

LIF, the Italian American Football League, is founded on December 27, 1979 and is responsible for a team that will be made up of Italian players followed by American instructors, giving life after the Gladiatori Roma to 3 other teams: Lupi Roma (Rome Wolves), Diavoli Milano (Milan Devils) and Tori Torino (Turin Bulls).

On January 6, 1980 arrives the Befana from the USA: a good number of crates containing the entire material needed to equip the various formations. In the same afternoon the players of Gladiators Rome show at the Colosseum, performing in a series of schemes of game in front of the cameras of the national TV, which will broadcast the first images of an Italian football team in the evening sports news.

At this point, the leaders of the LIF have the need to have a system always available and fully equipped where to play football in the best possible context, to take advantage of all aspects of entertainment and image that accompany this sport. The league makes contact with the mayor of a country inserted in an interesting tourist area between Lake Bolsena (Lazio) and Orvieto (Umbria), to propose him to host its National Technical Center. Giuseppe Calistri, the mayor of Castel Giorgio, is passionate about the operation and, in a short time, builds the first stable plant for American football in Italy and Europe outside the NATO bases.

In the Roman offices of the league originates the idea of dedicating the field under construction to a great head coach of Italian origin, a winner who died prematurely in 1970, after winning 6 NFL titles and the first two editions of the Super Bowl. “Stadio Vince Lombardi" will be the inscription in cubic characters in blue that will appear on the white background of the boundary wall of the field. The management of the Green Bay Packers will make an important contribution, the two goal posts!

On July 19, 1980 at 17:30 the first game of the first championship of American football in Italy, which will end on September 21, 1980 after 12 games, is played. The Gladiators Roma close the season with a negative record. In the 1982 championship, the Gladiators will conquer the first title winning all the matches without suffering any scoring.

In July, 20 players of the Roman team are the basis of the national LIF selection that in Castel Giorgio faces the then West Germany in the first match ever played in Europe between two national teams.

In the 1983 season there will be the first of a long series of divisions in the world of football in Italy, with the foundation of a competing league.

1984-1993

In 1984 the Gladiators debut in Division I of the Italian championship, but they have a disappointing year; in 1985 they start again from Division II with a record of 9-0-1 and with the best defense of the league. The following year they arrive at the playoffs of Division I leaving in the second round.

In 1988 Bobby Davis, one of the best American import of all time, arrives in Rome; for the Gladiators still playoffs until the quarter-finals; it will also be the last game played in his career by Marcello Loprencipe, the qb from the first hour. The Gladiators withdraw his jersey, the No. 14.

In the four-year period 1989-1992 the Roman team records a series of winning years, culminating with access to the playoffs; in 1993 the Gladiators play the first of the 3 Superbowl in their sporting history, losing against Bergamo Lions.

1994-2003

In 1994 the season ends with the defeat in the Conference Championship Game against the Legnano Frogs, who win the Italian Superbowl. In 1995 the Gladiators close the regular season 10-0-2 and, after the playoffs, they arrive at the Superbowl, where they are defeated 32 to 26 again by the Legnano Frogs. 

The following year, despite some initial difficulties, the Gladiators arrive at the playoffs and at the third Superbowl (another defeat of 25-20 against the San Lazzaro Phoenix). In 1997 again playoffs and then, after overcoming the favorites Munich Cowboys, another defeat in the final of the European Cup against the Paris Flash.

In 1998 the Gladiators, for the first time after 11 seasons, don’t get the playoffs; in 1999 they win the Italian Bowl, the final Division without Americans in the team. After a few anonymous seasons, in 2003 the Gladiators celebrate their 30th anniversary at the Stadio dei Marmi in Rome. In the same year Bruno Beneck, the founder and one of the fathers of American football in Italy, dies.

2004-2018

In the 2005 season the Gladiators return to the playoffs; in 2007 the management decides to re-found the team starting again with the athletes of the youth teams and from Division II.

In 2008 the team returns to Division I with little luck, while in 2009 they are involved in the new diaspora in the world of American football in Italy, with the birth of 2 new leagues with diametrically opposed views. In 2012, the Gladiators restart from the Arena football of FIDAF (the federation that currently governs the American football in Italy) and, within two years they come to play the Conference Championship Game; in the years from 2013 to 2017 they return to Division III and II, landing 3 times to the playoffs. In the spring of 2018 the senior team merges with another team in the city giving birth to the Praetorians Roma (who will reach the final in Division II), while the Gladiators Roma under 19 will play in the fall. Goodbye to 2023 for the 50th birthday!

The book

“GLADIATORI ROMA 1973-2013. 40 anni di football americano” (Gladiatori Roma. 40 years of American football) tells the sporting story of the first American football team founded in Italy, the boundless passion, dream and commitment of some pioneers. A volume with a large format hard cover, 202 pages and 150 color and black and white photos with the memories of the protagonists. More than 600 names and statistics in the appendix. It was presented in February 2018 at the Vince Lombardi Stadium, returned to football after thirty years.

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