What the Hell Happened to the Liga de Futbol Americano (LFA - Brazil)? (by Daniel Levy).
My career as a head coach with the Liga de Futebol Americano was bookended by two very contrasting phone calls.
The first occurred on April 9, 2013, when Casey Frost — an American football player living and playing in Brazil—pitched me on becoming one of six American head coaches for the Liga de Futebol Americano, a new fully-professional American football league that would be kicking off its inaugural season in Brazil in 2013.
The second call happened on October 7, when Darrell Stewart — my Assistant General Manager for the Missão Paraná franchise—informed me that the season would be ending before it ever started.
What transpired during the few months in-between was an odyssey of twists and turns that is difficult to put into words. Until now, the LFA has simply been a matter of speculation on social media, blogs and message boards. Most of the public information regarding the league has come from groups or individuals with very transparent agendas. A few have sought to protect the intentions of the league and insist it will return in the future. Many others have taken the position of "I told you so." Parties who were hoping for and hedging their bets on the LFA's failure from the very start.
What follows is my account of the LFA, from birth to death, and what I believe to be the truth behind an endeavor whose ambition was equaled only by its overwhelming disappointment.
Being Sold Half an hour. That's all it took for Casey to sell me on the LFA. I had just returned from a trip to Brazil with my girlfriend and had heard rumors about a professional league being in the works down there. But this was the first real information I had received. TV contracts. Big-name investors. A booming economic landscape to go with a sport that had grown exponentially over the past few years. It all sounded too good to be true.
Now some people are going say that I was "tricked." But let's be clear, there is a huge difference between being tricked and being sold on an idea. I wanted the LFA to happen. I wanted to be a part of it. All Casey did was share an idea and offer an opportunity. He was forthright, honest, and impressive in his pitch. So I was in, it was that simple.
And three months later, I left for Brazil.
Hard Work Rather than signing directly with specific teams, the LFA chose to sign each coach and find the best matches between them and the AGMs of each franchise. The reasoning given for this method was to ensure that there would be minimal conflict between coaches and managers. Which may have been true. But it also told me that operations at all levels were meant to be centralized.
The name of the game was control. The control of quality. The control of decisions. I'm sure there is a Wizard of Oz allegory to be had here, but that is probably best left up to the message boards. My purpose here is to simply share my particular experience.
I was fortunate in that I was matched with a great AGM in Darrell Stewart. Darrell was the only franchise AGM who would also be participating as a player for the franchise he was operating. It sounds complicated, impossible even—but it worked. Darrell and I had a great relationship from day one. Even before I arrived we spent hours scouting the players, preparing for the Brazilian draft, and just shooting the shit about football all day, every day.
We were also able to recruit a couple of Brazilian coaches to serve as coordinators on my coaching staff. Shailan Patel, the offensive coordinator from the Coritiba Crocodiles, and Paulo Figueira, a player/coach from the Curitiba Brown Spiders who had chosen to relegate himself to the sidelines while he recovered from a broken collarbone.
I could write an entire article just about 'Shaye' and Paulo. The work these two guys put in before ever signing their contracts was truly humbling. Day in, day out, they sacrificed time from their families, friends, jobs and lives to be a part of the LFA. To study under me, to learn this game and to be a part of Brazilian history, completely buying into our goal of building a championship-caliber franchise. They are as loyal and honorable as any men I've met, and they made the experience all the more enjoyable while it lasted.
The Draft With the core of my coaching staff in place, Darrell and I headed to São Paulo for the first draft in the history of Brazilian sports. We had spent months scouting and evaluating local and national talent. My first couple of weeks in Brazil had been a series of 16, 18… 20-hour days, and a lot of sleepless nights. But I knew we were ready.
The draft experience itself was something I will never forget. For starters, this marked the first time that I was able to meet the other five head coaches and their AGMs, as well as a number of Brazilian assistant coaches. I made a lot of friends that weekend. Guys like Clayton Lovett, Moe Banks, and Tommy Kudyba. A Brazilian 'wiz kid' named Brian Guzman, who I would without hesitation recommend as a coach anywhere in Europe or the United States. Men who were in Brazil to make this thing a huge success. While being a part of this select group instilled a tremendous sense of pride, I also found it humbling. I can confidently say that one thing the LFA did right was hiring each and every one of these guys.
And then there was the actual draft. I suppose this was the second thing the LFA did really well. They made it into a production. A show. Darrell and I, along with many of the other franchises, made a point to call each of our draft picks before their selection was announced. Once again, I was humbled to hear the excitement in their voices and, at times, tears of joy on the other end of the line. I don't want to hyperbolize anything here, but it truly was inspiring. I couldn't wait to get back and work with these guys—this top 5-10% of American football talent in all of Brazil.
The Downward Spiral But things became a lot more convoluted after the draft. The next step was the visas for the 42 American players, which were delayed and ultimately resulted in the postponement of the season. This led to the postponement of the contracts for the Brazilian players and coaches. Payments began coming in late. Budgets were being sliced. Things were certainly not going according to plan.
But Darrell and I pushed onward. He had the thankless job of disseminating each item of bad news to the team. Me, well… it was my job to keep them motivated. To unite what was ultimately a team of bitter rivals.
To be clear to the uninitiated, the Coritiba Crocodiles and Curitiba Brown Spiders were the two amateur American football teams who had years earlier participated in the first fully-padded game in Brazil. To call them "bitter rivals" would actually be a gross understatement. These teams hated one another. To illustrate just how much they hated each other, I had one player from the Crocodiles who sported a tattoo depicting an actual helmet-clad crocodile violently squashing a brown spider beneath his foot. Even putting these guys together in the same room could have created a volatile situation.
It just so happened that these two teams comprised about 75% of my roster.
But what makes the fate of the LFA all the more disappointing is how truly professional each and every one of these players were. Following the draft, the aforementioned rivalry between my Crocodile and Brown Spiders players lasted about 5 minutes. All it took was one evening of running these guys up and down a hill together, and their differences disappeared. We all wanted the same thing: the first national championship in LFA history.
The End I must have stared at the wall for a good hour after getting off the call with Darrell. We were both devastated. Me, I had relocated and spent the last three months pouring myself into this opportunity. For him, this was the end of an endeavor that he had worked on for the last two years of his life. And for what? To see it all just slowly sliver down the drain? It all felt like one big, sick joke.
The commissioner called me after Darrell to offer his "condolences," and to try and explain how the failure of the league was due to something out of his control. The official line is that the main investor in the league pulled out, leaving the LFA with insufficient funds to move forward as planned. And maybe that is the honest-to-God truth.
Yet in reality, the writing had been on the wall for months. And not because this was some sort of "scam" or because there weren't good people involved at various levels, working hard to make it happen. It ultimately came down to neglect. Neglect from the individuals at the top, who ignored the details, constantly missed deadlines and thought they could just postpone again and again without repercussion.
I don't claim to be a businessman… but even I know that’s not how you run a business.
The disappointment was monumental. The prospect of telling the players who for years had dreamed of being professionals in the sport they loved that this dream was over; telling our families who questioned our decisions that this had blown up in our faces; that we were, as of October 7, 2013... unemployed. The whole thing was just nauseating.
Where do we go from here? I woke up on the morning of October 8th with a terrible hangover. Darrell and I had spent the entire previous day drowning our sorrows in cachaça and really delicious fried chicken. I stayed in bed for a few hours—cell phone off, computer dead—just wallowing in the silence and self-pity of having my dreams crushed right before my eyes.
It wasn't until well into the afternoon that I finally turned my phone on. A gang of messages instantly popped up. Brazilian American football teams from across the country were contacting me, asking about my availability now that the LFA had "tragically" folded.
I think I already thanked Clayton Lovett, but I will again for paying it forward and recommending me to a number of teams. All of the coaches were fortunate in that none of us were unemployed for long. Tommy is now the HC for the Vila Velha Tritoes. Moe is coaching with the Vasco da Gama Patriotas. And I am now the head coach for the Curitiba Brown Spiders.
I can safely say that the LFA was the most exciting project I've been a part of in my career as a coach. All the way up until it became the most disappointing letdown. But the real story here is about football in Brazil. The LFA may be dead, but American football is very much alive and growing in this country. I have been in contact with a number of prospective imports in the days since I signed with the Brown Spiders, and while there is a tremendous amount of interest from the international community, the perception of football in Brazil is unfortunately being shaped by two very negative stories: the failure of the LFA to make good on its promises, and the reputation a single team has garnered for mistreating its imports.
The reality could not be further from this. American football in Brazil is an experience I would recommend to anyone looking to continue their career outside of the United States. Maybe one day someone with the right methods will come along and pick up the pieces that the LFA left in its wake, and there will be a professional American football league thriving in Brazil. But until then, I'll end this story on a quote used by Darrell which I found to be particularly appropriate:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. -Theodore Roosevelt