By Tim Klapac, Sports Editor
Nearly every major sport in North America has representatives of nations outside of this continent. The NBA’s Dirk Nowitzki has put together a Hall of Fame career, the NHL is full of players from Russia, Germany and the various Scandinavian nations. New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius hails from Amsterdam. However, the NFL is severely lacking in European representation.
European athletics are dominated by soccer, rugby and cricket, leaving it difficult for football to get any attention. However, the sport, characterized as “America’s Game,” is gaining popularity overseas, which is something that Towson has taken notice of.
“It’s very counterculture there naturally because of soccer,” said Towson football Assistant Coach Konstantinos Kosmakos. “They’re very prideful that they play football.”
Kosmakos traveled to Europe in January on a 10-day recruiting trip, visiting football academies and helping players understand the commitment necessary to succeed at the NCAA Division-1 level. Kosmakos raved about the appreciation they had for Towson while he was there.
“Going to those cities and clubs, the gratitude they had was tremendous” Kosmakos said.
Kosmakos visited six different countries during his trip, traveling almost 12,000 miles by planes, trains and automobiles. His adventures were well-documented on his Twitter page @Coach_Kosmakos, where he posted some of the food he sampled, the tourist attractions he visited and the football camps he attended.
“I can’t put into real words how grateful people were that a Division-1 coach was there to recruit,” Kosmakos said. “No one’s really gone there to scavenge for talent the way we did.”
The trip was not without its difficulties, though, as Kosmakos encountered small hotel quarters in France, his first snow of the year while in Germany and had to take a train after an airport strike abruptly cancelled his flight.
“I think I made it look a lot easier than it was,” Kosmakos said as he discussed one day in particular that was grueling. “I would be in a hotel by 2:30 a.m., wake up at 6:30 a.m., get to Rig Academy at 8:00 a.m., be there for three hours, then drive back to the airport by noon, fly to Helsinki, get to the hotel, eat dinner and go to practice that night. That’s two practices in two different countries in one day.”
Among the programs Kosmakos paid a visit to were the Helsinki Roosters and the National Swedish Football Academy. Kosmakos said the composition of these European programs was the main difference he noticed from American programs.
“They don’t have the same structure as us.” Kosmakos said. “Three Hamburg kids go to the same school, but they play on three different club teams and they have different divisions within that, similar to the English Premier League.”
Kosmakos believes that, over time, these programs will begin to adapt to a more North American formation.
“Their schedules are starting to mirror our conference set up, and I think they’ll eventually bridge to a Euro National championship or playoff,” he said. “They wanna be very similar to NCAA.”
Kosmakos’ trip was in the works for years, thanks to the efforts of former NFL players Brandon Collier and Evan Harrington. Collier founded PPI Recruits, a program that specializes in giving European players exposure to NCAA schools. Harrington runs another notable program, Europe’s Elite.
“We’ve got some people over there that we’re connected with that had brought young men here to get evaluated and see where they might fit,” said Head Coach Rob Ambrose. “That’s kinda how we got Tibo.”
Junior defensive lineman Tibo Debaillie is the lone European player currently on the Tiger’s football roster. Debaillie fell in love with football at a young age and aspired to play in the NCAA.
“It started being a dream at age 9 and from then on, I didn’t take my eyes off of that,” Debaillie said.
Debaillie hails from Gistel, Belgium, where he helped to lead his team, the Ostend Pirates of the Belgian Football League, to the Belgian Championship before committing to Towson in early 2017.
Despite being the defensive MVP of that championship game, Debaillie was not getting a lot of attention from NCAA schools. Thanks to Europe’s Elite, a recruiting service for European athletes, Debaillie was able to try out for multiple universities before signing with the Tigers.
“I came here on my own with Europe’s Elite and some coaches didn’t know they played football outside of America,” Debaillie said. “Seeing Europe getting this attention shows how football is making big steps.”
Kosmakos said the coaching staff was blown away by Debaillie’s demeanor.
“When he came to one of our workouts, he blew us away in 98 degree weather,” Kosmakos said. “He gives effort at everything he does, both on the football field and in the classroom.”
Kosmakos made sure to pay a visit to Debaillie and his family while he was in Europe.
“That shows how much he loves his players,” Debaillie said.
The level of talent Towson was discovering overseas was intriguing to Ambrose, which is what made an in-person recruiting trip so important to the program.
“The players we’re seeing over there are well more educated in the game than we think and they’re more experienced than we think,” Ambrose said. “We had a list of probably 30 guys that we wanted to evaluate and we probably saw upwards of 70-80 guys.”
A trip of this magnitude required all-around support from the coaching staff. Once they had enough film on the European prospects, the desire to see them in-person was evident.
“With the backing of other coaches, like Scott Van Zile and Matt Applebaum, Ambrose’s excitement made sense,” Kosmakos said.
Kosmakos’ journey was eventful, and the coaching staff doesn’t expect it to stop with just one trip. Ambrose said there’s “no doubt” about making future trips back to Europe.
“I think the doors are continuing to open in so many places,” Kosmakos said. “There’s more talent to be had.”