More than Pizza

It’s early in the fourth quarter of a blowout football game. The crowd of about 1,000 people scattered around an 80-year-old former cycling velodrome is happy but bored. It’s Saturday night in Milan, and the 2105 Expo Milano is underway. Milan is jumping if this game is not. It’s third-and-5 and Paul Morant, one of only four Americans on the field, takes a shotgun snap and heads off tackle. Suddenly, a shark in a pool of guppies shoots through the crowd and levels Morant for a loss.

A shout, heavily accented in Italian, erupts from the Milano Rhinos’ sideline and echoes through the near-empty stadium: “WAY TO GO, BUFFALO!”

After his hit, Parker Orms, seven years removed from being the toast of Wheat Ridge, returns to the sideline as the fourth quarter drones on. The ex-Colorado Buffalo is wearing the trademark long-sleeve white undershirt he wore a lot more in Boulder than the ear-to-ear smile he also sports. This isn’t the Pac-12. It’s the Italian Football League. He’s not getting beat by USC, 50-6. He’s winning, 24-0. Okay, it’s against the Bolzano Giants. No matter. He has traveled 6,000 miles to reclaim a love he thought he lost and found love in a life he didn’t know existed.

He turns to a reporter on the sideline (hey, it’s the Italian Football League) and says, “I’m just out there enjoying it, sitting back and taking it all in. I can’t remember the last time I did that.”

In Italy, football is only one slice of the pizza pie. If the NFL is the No Fun League, the IFL is the I’m in Fantasyland League. He has fallen in love with every shape of pasta that meets his fork and fallen in lust with every long-stemmed woman who walks by. He has found beauty beyond the people, particularly in Milan’s Duomo. Instead of going to Winter Park for a weekend, he goes to Barcelona and Venice.

Orms isn’t totally Italicized. His Italian skills don’t go much beyond telling opponents to commit impossible sexual acts. But Wheat Ridge’s hometown hero, who scored five touchdowns in Wheat Ridge’s 35-31 2008 state title win over Greeley West, has found happiness and enlightenment after an injury-plagued, loss-filled, sometimes heartbreaking career at Colorado.

Milan: It’s where the Buffalo roams.

***

John Grisham’s 2007 book “Playing for Pizza” depicted the Italian Football League through the eyes of a disgraced former NFL quarterback who resurrects his career – and life – with the Parma Panthers. While it libelously misrepresented the role of the media, “Playing for Pizza,” which Orms read, nailed the life of an American player in Italy. The empty pizza boxes on the kitchen table. The swooning over newly discovered Italian dishes. The joy of football with few expectations, small crowds and no pressure.

The book could’ve had Parker Orms as the Panthers’ safety.

His apartment is nearly in the shadow of San Siro, Milan’s hallowed 89-year-old, 80,000-seat soccer stadium. It’s a jabbing reminder of how his meager 1,000-euros-a-month ($1,100) salary compares with the millions the city’s soccer players make or the hundreds of thousands tax-free Milan’s basketball players earn. But Orms gets the apartment free, and he has dog-eared his free public transportation pass.

When you’re 24, unattached and living in Italy, you don’t need a Ferrari and staff for happiness. His apartment is bachelor messy. Black and orange Rhinos gear is everywhere. A jersey hangs on a metal clothesline in the entryway. His roommate, former Eastern Kentucky quarterback T.J. Pryor, is still asleep. Orms is wearing a floppy white Colorado Buffs cap, part of his growing hat collection. With a wispy moustache and scraggly chin hair, Orms looks more cultured, more worldly.

He’s asked what he likes better, playing football again or living in Milan. He thinks for a minute. It’s a tough call.

“I love both,” he says. “The football is nice and relaxed. It’s like Italy.”

Combined, the life is as good as any of his classmates landing six-figure jobs. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he and Pryor meet head coach Alex Trabattoni for a 100-euro meal: the best pasta, followed by steak and potatoes. Wine and beer, of course. This is football training, Italian style.

“You always make sure the Americans are having a good time,” he says with a smirk.

Each of the 12 Italian League Division I teams are allowed only two Americans. They’re the only ones getting paid. The rest show up for practice straight from their day jobs. It’s not much of a sacrifice. The teams practice only twice a week. HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this is not.

The Americans have other responsibilities. Twice a week they coach the area elementary school and high school kids. Orms is the Rhinos’ pseudo co-defensive coordinator, calling many plays using schemes he learned at Colorado. Oh, and the Americans are also supposed to be the unabashed stars. But the rest of the time, Orms sleeps until noon, discovers Milan and occasionally goes clubbing until the sun starts illuminating the nearby Alps.

New discoveries are everywhere every day. Take women. Keep in mind, Orms is in Milan after five years in Boulder.

“Everyone thinks they’re a model in Milan,” he says. “Girls are all wearing their 4-inch, 6-inch heels. They’ll look at you and see what you’re wearing, what drinks you’re buying. It’s crazy. There are some girls who get paid just to go to the clubs. They’re not call girls. They’re just girls they want in the clubs. They’ll take them to dinner then they’ll take them to the club after and make sure they get home.”

Making matters more difficult is a communication problem that goes beyond the pulsating noise of house music than can sterilize cattle at 500 yards. Few in Italy are fluent in English. Orms filled a language requirement at Colorado but it was sign language. Actually, that comes in handy, says his mother, Katherine Orms Korosec, who came for a visit, as “With Italians you have to use your hands and facial expressions.” Orms has only picked up a few phrases in Italian, none appropriate for women wearing six-inch heels. Sometimes women will come over to try on his football helmet. Sometimes they’ll have a friend translate.

“Some girls come over and leave notes for us to try and learn, like this,” Orms says, handing over a phrase written on a notecard. “‘You’re a liar.’”

He laughs. He laughs a lot these days and that translates in any language. Besides discovering the glories of real Italian pizza and ossobuco, Milan’s signature veal and vegetable dish, Orms is playing well. He has no trace of the concussion that cost him two games his junior year in 2012. The knee he blew out in 2010 in his very first college game against Colorado State has healed enough. The 4.47 he ran during winter training camp topped the 4.5 he ran at pro day in Boulder. He finished second in the league in tackles with 5.3 a game. He had a pick-six against Parma (Yes, that Parma), which caused the two Rhinos radio announcers to do the American football equivalent of “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!!!” In the return game against Parma he had 10 tackles and three forced fumbles. He was the IFL Defensive Player of the Week both times.

“I’m making more tackles than I thought I was going to have to, but I enjoy it,” he says. “I enjoy just running around there like high school, just freelancing. I finally feel like I’m enjoying the game out here. There’s not the pressure of you messing up and everyone getting on you about it, what’s going to be in the paper the next day. Out here, you have the game. Afterwards, you’re drinking with the team outside the locker room with the other team out there.”

The players hardly watch any film, and the coaching staff is as laid back as the players. Yelling is at a minimum. Meetings? Yeah, there are meetings. Go to a cafe and have a caffè macchiato. That’s a meeting. At Colorado, meetings are interrupted by the occasional game. Orms misses some of the preparation. It’s somewhat beneficial to watch film of Andrew Luck before playing against him. But in college, football is a job. In Italy, it’s a game.

“You don’t look forward to practice (in college),” he says. “Here, it’s finally 7 o’clock. Now I can finally do something at practice. It’s different from back home. There are always meetings and you’re always worried about what you have to get to next. And you’re tired all the time. Out here you’re happy to do it.”

Speaking of practice, it’s time to go. He and Pryor pick up huge black and orange Rhinos duffel bags and head for the bus stop.

“The only bad part is carrying that bag around the city,” says Orms, lugging it over his shoulder. “That’s why it feels like Pop Warner.”

***

Last summer, working in Milan was about the farthest fantasy from Orms’ world. Then again, working in Syria might’ve been better than what he had. He was walking up and down Colfax Avenue selling office supplies, making cold calls with a memorized spiel that sounded like a death sentence every time he said it. The job lasted one paycheck and he quit. He was back where his mother is a substitute teacher. His father (they’re divorced) sells clothing accessories around the Southwest.

Orms had his degree. His football career appeared over. No NFL team gave him a look because of his knee. At Colorado, he missed 10 games due to various injuries, ranging from leg to concussion to shoulder to that blown knee that cost him the 2010 season. That includes a suspension that nearly cost him his Colorado degree. Five games into coach Jon Embree’s first season, 2011, he included Orms among six players he threw off the team.

“I got suspended for frickin’ smoking weed,” Orms says. “Embree just called us up one random time. What was bull—- about the thing was they accused us of smoking weed in Hawaii (the season opener). And there’s no way I would’ve done that. My first game back from an ICL (interior cruciate ligament)?”

While he admits smoking marijuana after home games at Colorado, he said he did not smoke it in Hawaii. Still, he was a sophomore. He had no team. He had no school. And he was scared.

“There’s no way I could go from a hometown hero to getting kicked out of school and finding another place to live,” Orms says.

So he went into Embree’s office every day until he let him back on the team after missing four games. Orms wound up starting his last two years, albeit on lousy defenses, but earning a reputation as the headiest, most versatile and hardest hitter in the secondary. He also found himself possibly the only white cornerback in major college football. “Receivers would yell, ‘THIS GUY’S WHITE! THROW IT HERE! AND HE’S GOT A KNEE BRACE!” Orms says.

He graduated in communications but he wanted to get into coaching. Greg Brown, his old defensive coordinator at Colorado, connected him with West Georgia, a Division II school outside Atlanta. They needed a grad assistant and cornerbacks coach. Then three days before he was ready to leave, the Canadian Football League’s Ottawa Redblacks called. He gave himself a mental check. Turns out, he wasn’t done playing. So he put coaching on hold and flew to Ottawa with no money and even less clue that they’d stick him at linebacker. He lasted until the final preseason game.

“I wasn’t enjoying the game as much as I wanted,” Orms says. “I was missing home. I was thinking about Georgia, whether I made the right decision. I went home and had no idea what I was going to do next.”

It wasn’t long after he tossed off his coat and tie and threw the ink jets in the same pile that he got a call from Italy. A Redblacks official gave Orms’ name to Joe Bommarilo, a former Jets scout who helps coach the Rhinos. They looked at Orms’ film from Colorado. They saw him knock a Utah receiver nearly into the Great Salt Lake. They didn’t care if he got penalized. Would he play in Milan?

Would he play for pizza?

Orms took one look at his old suit. Suddenly, his knee felt brand new. He got up, looked for his passport and quickly learned how to say “Grazie.”

***

His head coach knows what Orms is going through culturally. At 16, Alex Trabattoni’s family moved from Milan to California. He played football at Rancho Santiago JC in Santa Ana and wide receiver and kick returner on Long Beach State’s last two teams in 1990-91. His senior year, Long Beach had a freshman running back named Terrell Davis.

Not that practices are laid back, but Trabattoni is meeting beforehand with Orms and Pryor for a coffee in an airy cafe across the street from the stadium.

“I watched this tape from Colorado and I was really impressed with the intensity he had on the football field,” says Trabattoni, a chiropractor in real life. “I was a little worried about the fact that the intensity he brought over here was a little bit too much and the refs tend to control the game a little bit more and penalize athletes who play with that kind of intensity. The first thing I told him was to be careful because … word is spreading around that Parker is going to be a heavy hitter.

“The referees are going to key on him.”

They finish their coffee and walk across the street to the stadium that looks older than the Colosseum down the road in Rome. Velodrome Vigorelli (capacity 9,000) was built in 1935 as a track cycling venue during Benito Mussolini’s fascist reign, but the Royal Air Force bombed it into burnt rubble during World War II. Rebuilt in 1950, it hosted the Beatles in 1965 and, now, the Milano Rhinos and their bitter and richer crosstown rivals, the Milano Seamen. It’s crumbling, covered in graffiti and seemingly perfect for the ragtag group of players filing in for practice.

The Italian Football League represents the census of Italian society. The Rhinos’ roster includes Andrea the woodworker, Francesco the web designer, Gabrielle the hairdresser, Alessandro the engineer, Giulio the car salesman and Antonio the model. (Yes, model. Antonio Catalani, a defensive back, missed the weekend because he was in Rome filming the next James Bond movie. He’s not nearly as valued for his backpedal as his ability to grease himself and his American teammates into the top clubs in Milan.)

Collectively, standing outside the stadium smoking cigarettes, they look like extras in a Fellini film. Raffaele Tortora, is a balding, 35-year-old defensive tackle who stands 5-foot-7, weighs 282 pounds and is a dead ringer for a Sicilian fisherman. He starts. Tight end Andrea Traverso, 21, has the innate ability to not let one hair get out of place under his helmet. He looks like he hopped off an ad for Dolce & Gabbana.

Many started playing American football after hearing about the IFL from friends. Others just love American culture. There’s a collection of Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots hoodies along with a Redskins ballcap – worn backwards, of course.

Linebacker Giulio Quadri, 38, has played in the league 15 years. He calls friends, “Bra.’”

“These are very close friends,” Quadri says. “I love playing with these guys. I’m very, very motivated.”

The level of play in the IFL, which dates back to 1981, is akin to lower-level junior college. That’s not a cynical scribe’s view. That’s from the Rhinos’ head coach. A loose, relaxed pre-game practice reveals interior lines that are small and slow and running backs who can’t break a pane of glass. Some receivers show good hands. Others try to catch low passes with, appropriately, their feet. Special teams play is a parade of colossal screwups. Italian boys don’t grow up dreaming of long snapping. In one game against Parma, bad snaps on kicks cost the Rhinos two touchdowns and two safeties in a one-point loss. One time the kicker booted a field goal attempt into the back of his snapper’s head.

Practice ends and nearly the entire team gathers at Napole, a nearby restaurant for some, um, carbo-loading. Big steins of beer are passed around the table. Orms, wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, orders a calzone the size of a catcher’s mitt. Francesco “Rocco” Roccotiello is the Rhinos’ rat-tailed cornerback. In the league 10 years, Rocco said these are the kinds of meetings that are famous in the IFL.

“Our first night out, we played who can blow the DUI machine the most,” he says. “I killed the record.”

Soon Pryor and Orms get up to leave but their teammates urge them to stay. Pryor tells his offensive lineman, without a bit of irony, “I have to run a lot tomorrow” and slaps him on the back.

***

The Bolzano Giants are 5-1 and beat the Rhinos in their meeting in Bolzano, up near the Austrian border. Mayock had a great game and dominates so much he plays safety and occasional wildcat quarterback.

“You can tell Americans are better,” Orms says. “You can see that level but every team has a couple Italians that are just as good who can compete. So you have to look out for them, too. If you have a good line to protect the quarterback … T.J. sometimes seems like he’s running for his life.”

Orms’ defensive unit is sticking it to the Giants. The front seven, led by the fanatically active Quadri, is making life miserable for quarterback Steven Adams, late of Division II Shippensburg in Pennsylvania. Orms has little action and even less pressure. The Giants’ receivers can’t catch a cold. Pryor, a heady, quick, dual-threat with an accurate arm, throws a pretty 5-yard pass to the corner of the end zone to Giacomo Bonanno for a 7-0 lead. The Rhinos’ celebrate Giuseppe Della Vecchia’s 28-yard field goal as if it came from 58 and Pryor scores from 4 yards out to make it 17-0 at halftime.

Meanwhile, the scoreboard clock doesn’t work and the public address announcer is all in Italian: “INCOMPLETO!” “PRIMO E DIECI!” (FIRST AND 10!) Players yell out “VAFFANCULO!” (GO F— YOURSELF) and the occasional “MAMA MIA!”

One time, Quadry is helped off the field after injuring his leg. Giulio Quadry is crying.

“I was crying because I LOVE this sport,” he says afterward. “I thought it was broken.”

The Rhinos cruise to a 31-8 win, upping their record to 5-3 and locking a spot in the eight-team playoff. It’s plenty to celebrate and the Rhinos gather at their favorite post-game watering hole, Cubo Lungo. It’s a glittery cocktail lounge, laced with gold lighting, chandeliers, overstuffed red couches and patio seating. The Rhinos stand out not only in their black and orange team T-shirts but, despite their relatively small size, they’re still bigger than nearly every Italian in town. Orms is drinking a savage vodka concoction called a Moscow Mule while The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” and The Doors’ “Love Me Two Times” play on the blaring loudspeakers. Women in tight jeans and heels that could puncture a Rawlings football flit among the players. Orms talks to a woman in an American flag tank top, one of the locals who speaks English.

Mayock and Adams are among some of the Giants who join the party in a rugby-like post-game scrum laced with alcohol and smiles between foes. Orms organizes a posse to hit a nearby nightclub. But there’s time. It doesn’t start rocking until midnight.

Has midnight struck on Orms’ career? Not yet. The Rhinos, who finished fourth in the North Division at 5-5, opened the playoffs as big underdogs against the Lazio Marines (9-1), the South champion – in name only. They play in Rome on a rock-hard converted soccer field with four rows of bleachers that is next to a gypsy camp. Their sponsor until two years ago was an online sex shop but they couldn’t afford to change uniforms when the sponsorship dropped. Thus, the Marines’ uniforms read “MISTERSEX.IT.”

Orms has the game of his adult life. He forces a fumble and saves two touchdowns with an end zone interception and a fourth-and-goal sack. Pryor throws for one TD and runs for four more as the Rhinos stun the Marines, 40-20. Not that Orms didn’t have enough incentive, but the IFL stops playing players after their last game and he has a July 1 appointment with the Brazilian consulate to get a visa. He may play next for the Recife Pirates.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played harder to win a game in my life,” Orms says. “I really wanted to win this game so we could play another week and, you know, keep playing for pizza.”

As the sun sets on Rome, nearly every Rhino walks over and gives Orms a hug. This was his best game since high school in more ways than one.

“These guys are really tight,” he says, smiling. “We had that kind of camaraderie at CU. Everyone really liked each other but something here … I don’t know if it’s Italy but you really feel the love from everybody.”

The following week, the Rhinos lost to the Milano Seaman, 25-20. Season over.

Whatever happens in his future, playing 2015 in Italy was anything but anonymous. Playing for pizza?

Parker Orms played for his life, a life in Italy really worth living.

This story appeared in the July issue of Mile High Sports Magazine. 

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