UM clinic a ‘big wow’ for French football players

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Paris — There is no money playing American football in France, but there is wild interest in the sport.

So much so, that within three minutes, about 200 tickets were given away to French football players and officials who want to attend a limited-capacity football clinic held by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff Saturday in conjunction with Federation Francaise de Football Americain.

“Unfortunately, 200 is not enough,” Pierre Trochet of the FFFA said. “I could have filled up a stadium. It’s going to be amazing. Having a team like Michigan coming here will attract a lot of media attention. It doesn’t matter if it’s not about football, but if you have 150-200 people, that will be cool. We are very excited about this.”

Michigan’s coaches will demonstrate position drills and there will be a strength and conditioning session, as well. Trochet was in Rome last year during the Wolverines’ spring trip and met Harbaugh at a practice. Michigan practiced three times in Rome but this trip to Paris will be exclusively educational for the Michigan players, and also for French football players eager to learn the nuances of the game.

“Jim Harbaugh comes with a lot of media attention behind him,” Trochet said. “It crossed the ocean and came easily to us.”

The organization has 300 teams across the country and 25,000 players ranging in ages from six to men in their late 40s. The kids play a non-tackle form of football, not flag, and they wear football uniforms, Trochet said, so they can “project what they could see for themselves in the future.”

Then there are the older players in their middle years who can’t shake the love of playing.

“Dinosaurs of the game, 40 to 45 years who try kick the (butt) of the 20-year-olds,” Trochet, a 6-foot-6, 300-pound former offensive lineman — he adds, “at the European level” — said, laughing.

American football came to France shortly after World War II, Trochet said, and was introduced by Americans in a NATO-based military league. When the NATO forces left, there was a large gap of time without an American football presence, but that resumed in the early 1980s.

Harbaugh enjoys sharing the sport with anyone who wants to learn, and said he’s looking forward to working the FFFA clinic. In Rome last spring, teaching the game to the locals was a highlight for the staff.

“We experienced it last year,” Harbaugh said last week. “We may not speak the same language or have the same life experience, but once you break out a ball, barriers come tumbling down.”

Football in France is at its purest level. There is no big payday to be had and the players actually pay to play the game they’ve grown to love.

“I know the coaches want to share the real game,” Trochet said. “There’s no money for us, there’s not multi-billion insurance or no latest Nike contract. They pay to play here. They pay to travel. A football season would cost $1,000 here. You pay for your gym, your equipment, your membership, your team bus. You practice three, four hours five times in the biggest leagues like you do in Austria and Germany. You go to video sessions.

“Here you have bills to pay. Football is a big, big dedication for us. We’ve had an amazing experience with (American) coaches. What is already a big knowledge for us is how to practice, how to organize, how to train and for the youngest players, how to reach your dream.”

The main exposure to American football in France and across Europe is the NFL.

“Actually, the college game is very new for us television-wide,” Trochet said, adding college viewership is increasing with private cable and ESPN’s online availability.

Harbaugh is known among the French players and officials, Trochet said, because of his time coaching the San Francisco 49ers and his time playing for the Colts

But those playing in France have gotten to know Harbaugh and his Michigan team from watching the recent Amazon Prime series, “All or Nothing” which followed Michigan from last year’s trip to Rome through the bowl game and gave an insider’s look into the program.

“I barely knew the players because college football changes every two, three years until the documentary from Amazon,” Trochet said. “(Defensive ends) Rashan Gary and Chase (Winovich) did great in the video. Sound like good men. After seeing documentary, I’m very happy they’re coming to Paris.

“Coach Harbaugh said they would visit Paris months ago. For us, we knew more or less around Christmas something could happen. Things went very fast, then this documentary came out and, boom, Michigan is in Paris. For promoting the sport at the French level, that’s an awesome opportunity for us. We’re a public organization and we rely on ministry for funding to be in the (Olympics) facility, and this brings attention. Maybe all the French media may not know who Jim Harbaugh is, but you still have 150 players and staff coming up. It’s a big wow.”

Sure to be among the discussions Trochet has with Harbaugh and his staff is incoming freshman defensive lineman Julius Welschof. Welschof is from Germany and was on the Team Germany team that played Team France last year. Trochet said Germany has the best American-style football in Europe.

“He’s highly explosive,” Trochet said of Welschof.

On so many levels the Michigan coaching clinic is being highly anticipated by Trochet and the FFFA members, but mostly they want to learn drills and techniques, and maybe, just maybe, there will be a developing French player who makes his way to the U.S. to play college football someday.

“They want to play physical, they want to learn,” Trochet said. “This is a great opportunity for some of our best players. It’s a way for them to live their American dream.”