This feature story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 31, 2005.
NAU’s international outreach
By Ed Odeven
Before the widespread use of radios and automobiles, televisions and airplanes, Americans watched and played football on grassy fields in small towns and large cities.
Overseas, the sport took longer to gain a respectable following.
But Larry Kentera has seen firsthand how football has grown in Europe. He coached German club teams during the 1993-95 seasons. He worked for an Italian club in ’97.
“American football in Europe is big, in Germany, in Spain, in Sweden,” Kentera, Northern Arizona’s head coach from 1985-89, said in a phone interview. “I’m talking about the people playing it. I’m talking about how the people are interested in it.”
This is especially evident in Germany, he said, noting that four of NFL Europe’s six teams are based there.
Though football is now well-established in Germany, it is still in its infancy in other countries, including Serbia and Montenegro.
Kentera left Phoenix Monday for a trip to the Eastern European nation, where he’ll accompany ex-Arizona State football assistant Gene Felker to teach the game to high school and college-age students. Both are volunteer coaches.
ACDI/VOCA, a private, non-profit organization which works to promote broad-based economic growth and the development of civil society in emerging democracies and developing countries, is paying the coaches’ expenses and sponsoring the trip.
Starting today through June 19, Kentera and Felker will visit several cities, including the capital Belgrade, for a series of practices, clinics and meetings.
“The biggest part of our trip there is going to teach them fundamentals,” Kentera said, “and then more technical parts of the game, like different techniques for offensive linemen, linebackers and running backs.”
In Serbia, the ex-Yugoslav republic that now forms a confederation with Montenegro, American football is just beginning. The Serbian American Football Federation, a five-team league comprised of the Wild Boars, Belgrade, Legionaries, Panthers and Steeds, completed its first official season in 2004.
“It is fun to see a country start American football,” Kentera said. “It’s going to be interesting.”
And Kentera, who is of Serbian descent, is eager to lend a helping hand.
“These people want to get a program started. They want to know more about American football,” said the 80-year-old who grew up in Globe and later worked for 13 years as the Sun Devils defensive coordinator under legendary coach Frank Kush.
“We are going to help them on some techniques and schemes, offensively and defensively.”
NAU is also playing a role in this trip. The university has donated approximately 500 pairs of athletic shoes — some shoes that remain in their original boxes, many of which date back to 1981 — and an assortment of used shoulder pads, practice shirts and pants to ACDI/VOCA.
Equipment is scarce overseas, Kentera said.
NAU’s equipment, meanwhile, has been collecting dust in the Skydome for years, according to Lumberjacks equipment manager George Fox.
So why couldn’t the school divvy it up among local schools? NCAA rules prohibit university athletic departments from giving equipment to high schools because it’s considered illegal recruiting.
That said, this isn’t the first time NAU planned to donate the equipment. Fox, a retired Air Force major, wanted to send a shipment of athletic shoes to Iraq.
“I’d see some TV clips of young kids playing soccer there and they are barefoot,” Fox said. “And that’s when I got the idea, ‘Hey, maybe we can … send them over there.’
“We had worked it out last year (that) we were going to try to send it to Iraq because there was a program going on that FedEx would ship them free. But that program shut down in a hurry before we could get it together.”
Fast forward to 2005. Recently, Kentera called NAU athletics director Jim Fallis to inform him of his summer trip. Then Fallis called Fox to ask him, ‘Hey, is there anything we can do to help these guys out?'” Fox recalled.
So the equipment was rounded up at the Skydome and put on wood pallets. Swift Trucking Company made the recent pickup. The supplies were taken to New York, where other equipment had been stored before it was sent overseas.
“It’s an opportunity to do something good, so we were glad to be a part of it,” Fox said.
Said Kentera: “NAU was very nice to provide assistance. We appreciate the equipment to help this program out.”
Kentera, who was 26-29 during his tenure with the Lumberjacks, is semi-retired and lives in the Valley.
He runs 2 miles or plays golf every day. He’s also a consultant to a sports agent, offering evaluations of potential clients.
When you speak to him, his love of football and NAU is evident immediately.
“I tell you what,” he said, “some of my greatest memories are being at NAU. We just loved it up there, the wife and I.”
“Just the other day, a group of our players when I was up there called me and said we’ve got to get together.”
A group of ex-Jacks visits with Kentera three to four times a year.
But before he returns home, Kentera has plenty of fun activities planned. He’ll visit some of his former German players in Kiel, Germany, a coastal town on the Baltic Sea. He’ll hang out with cousins in Budva, a Montenegran city on the Adriatic Sea.
“When I’m there, I might as well enjoy myself,” he said with a good-natured chuckle, revealing he won’t be back in Arizona until July 6.
All in all, Kentera sees nothing but good things coming from the grassroots development of football in Serbia.
“(Through sports), people get together and congregate and express their ideas and express their culture, express their personal life,” he said. “You get a lot from being in sports, playing against each other, with each other.
“I think that’s a good thing about sports.”
Even far away from home.