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Hayden Northern A quarterback in Switzerland, far from Indiana

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Hayden Northern (left) prepares to pass the ball in a game against the Calandra Broncos in Chur.

Hayden Northern (left) prepares to pass the ball in a game against the Calandra Broncos in Chur.

( popcornphotography.ch)

Football player Hayden Northern is open to new experiences. As quarterback of the Bern Grizzlies he’s sharing America’s signature sport with the Swiss. In the first of a series of profiles of US expats flying the flag in Switzerland, he tells his story to Jeannie Wurz.

Ever since I can remember I had a football in my hand. When I was five or six, I remember putting on pads and playing tackle football. It’s kind of funny how people only start playing American football when they’re 15 or 16 here. I guess they start soccer when they’re five.

I came to Switzerland to play American football with the Bern Grizzliesexternal link. My first week here I remember getting off the plane and already having practice that day. So I had a little jet lag. I went to practice, and then during the day I got a tour around Bernexternal link. A couple teammates took me to the cathedral and the bear park. It was a bit of culture shock for me I think, because it’s my first time in Europe.

Trump's arrival, Northern's departure

I came pretty soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration. At the beginning, people maybe asked a little bit what I thought about it, but for the most part we don’t really discuss politics. I guess when people have their opinions of America and Americans, if I believe what they’re saying is a little bit wrong or misguided, I do stick up for Americans in the US. But obviously the US has problems as well, and when people bring up these problems, I tend to agree with them.

I grew up in a small town about 30 minutes south of Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana. It’s not super small like the villages around Bern. We have around 150 acres. We don’t have any farm animals, but we do have four-wheelers. It’s different, living in a city in Switzerland.

The physicality of football

I’ve always liked football. I like the competitiveness of it. The physicality. And the position of quarterback is really mental. Receivers just have to know: “On this play I run this route”. When you’re a quarterback you have to know what every single person is doing. You have to know how the offensive line is blocking the defensive line. You have to know what the running back’s going to be doing. You have to know all the plays. And sometimes one of our plays is no good against the other team’s defence, so you have to change to a different one.

I played football in college. One of the Grizzlies coaches heard about me and contacted me on Facebook in 2015. I couldn’t come because I was graduating in May and the season here started in March. So after I graduated I worked for seven months as a salesman. I managed 60 rental properties and sold cars at my friend’s Dad’s car lot. I waited a year and the Grizzlies contacted me again out of the blue. And I ended up taking the job, to experience Europe and Switzerland.

Hayden Northern plays football for the Bern Grizzlies.

(Jeannie Wurz)

I’m not really homesick. After high school I went to college at Western Illinois, which is about a six-hour drive from where I’m from. So I think I was kind of used to being away from home. And I was talkin’ to my Mom the other day and she said that of all the kids – all four of us – she thought I would be the one to move out and go experience things. And she was right.

What to do after the game?

I don’t have much to do other than go to three practices a week and play in the games and watch films of the games – that’s my job while I’m here. I lift weights and work out. We have practice Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, two hours a day. In the States we practiced four days a week for about 2 ½, almost three hours a day.

A lot of my teammates started playing when they were around 15 or 16. But there are older rookies as well. I guess a lot of the players probably watched NFL and thought: I want to play football. The Bern Grizzlies have a junior programme, with teams for players under 16 and under 19. I’m 22 – almost 23 – and I play in the National League A.

Usually the clubs here bring in a couple of American imports. They’re allowed one offensive and one defensive player. And most of the time the Grizzlies players have at least one American coach to teach them the rules of the game and the fundamentals. That’s one reason that having the American imports is good. We come over and share our experience of football with them.

We have players that are 20 years old, all the way up to a 39-year-old who’s playing this year. That’s a big difference for me. I’m used to playing with guys that are 18 to 22, in college. To come over here and play with people who have been playing football for 15 years but are 35 years old – that’s pretty cool.

Not in it for money

I’m the team’s only quarterback. I get a monthly stipend that covers living expenses, health insurance, a phone, a pass for the buses and trams in Bern. Basically I spend the salary on food and travelling around Switzerland. I’m just here till July, when the season’s over.

Mondays are my meal prep day. I cook all my meals for the week.  Yeah, I can cook. Or at least I try. Right now I’m trying to eat a little healthier. It’s a lot easier to eat healthy in Switzerland than in the States. There’s a lot less processed foods here. And when you eat the meats you can taste the difference. Of course the steaks are good in the States, but I haven’t eaten a lot of steak here. Beef is really expensive. Mostly I eat chicken and fruits and vegetables and rice. And yeah, I eat a lot. Around 3,000 calories a day.

One thing I find pretty cool about being in Switzerland is that the Swiss speak multiple languages. Maybe they were forced to learn them in school, but that’s still a good thing, I think. Most Americans can only speak English.

'How are you?' in German

I don’t speak any of the Swiss languages. I’m picking up on some basic phrases – “Hello”, “How are you?” – that kind of stuff – but other than that, just English.

The other day I went into a store and I was shopping and the storekeeper started talking in Swiss German, and I said “English?”, and he said: “Oh, you’re an American!” So the first assumption, once I say “English”, once they know I don’t speak German or Swiss German or Bern German, they kind of realize I’m American.

One time, though, I was helping one of my teammates move, and his girlfriend’s Dad asked if I was from the UK, because a couple times I was carrying stuff and walking on the left side and I was speaking English. I thought that was pretty funny.

The people on the team, a lot of them have been to the States at least once, have experienced the US, and a lot of them do like the States. I think they think it’s pretty cool I’m from America, and I think it’s pretty cool they’re from Switzerland.

Hard-headed?

My dad travelled a bunch in Europe for his work, and has done a bunch of stuff overseas.  I think that’s kind of opened my eyes to different cultures. I guess I’m not a hard-headed American, thinking “The US is the best!” I think every country has something really good about them and some bad things about them.

Am I a typical American? I think so, in many ways. I play sports. Football and basketball. I hunt a little bit and I fish a lot. . . . And I like junk food. I guess that’s typical.”

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