Mike Kagafas has a television in his office, where he is watching former Marist linebacker Grant Dixon participate in his pro day.
“It makes you wanna get back into it,” he says, with a smile beaming from his face.
Kagafas is a former Marist linebacker and current coach for the Red Foxes who played professional American football for three seasons overseas in both Sweden and Poland.
The idea of playing American football in Europe is a bit far-fetched, largely because it is a sport that overwhelmingly exudes American pride from its athletes, coaches, and fans. Another obstacle is the fact that countries such as Sweden, for example, excel at sports such as ice hockey and regular football.
“There are some big Swedish boys all over Europe,” Kagafas said with a smile. “You find some great competition over there.”
Kagafas arrived in Orebro, Sweden to sign his first professional contract after playing four years of football at Marist. He was a member of the Pioneer Football League championship-winning team in 2013, compiling 56 tackles that season. In total, Kagafas had 146 tackles in his career with the Red Foxes.
Head coach Jim Parady and his staff were new to recruiting in Ohio when Kagafas was a senior. Growing up in Akron, one of the biggest things that drew him to Marist was the ability to go home to play against a PFL rival, the University of Dayton.
“It kind of gave us a footprint there that we could go in and get some guys convinced to take a chance and get out of Ohio and have the chance to come home and play a few games at home and across the country,” Parady said of the approach on the recruiting trip to Ohio.
Once Kagafas graduated in 2014, he didn’t feel as though his playing career was over just yet.
“I had a dream just like every young football player does and I started to get realistic, but I am undersized,” he said. “I had a decent career at Marist, and the coaches were realistic with me.”
A few coaches told Kagafas he could test his skills and seek a tryout with the Canadian Football League (CFL). He was invited to an all-star game in Miami, Florida with numerous other FCS players from all divisions. After what Kagafas calls an “okay” performance in Miami, he found a CFL certified agent and an NFL liaison named Ken Foster, and he lived with best friend and former Marist teammate Armani Martin while they prepared and trained for their upcoming pro days.
“Coach Parady got one for us [Kagafas and Martin] at Wagner College, and then you are allowed one within 130 miles of your hometown,” Kagafas said. “And so I have the University of Akron right in my backyard, so I did it there.”
The clock started ticking. With the dates on the calendar, Kagafas had a few weeks to prepare for his best showing on the football field. He trained in Miami with a realistic perspective about his future.
“I didn’t want to look back when I was 40 and be like ‘I could have played like one of those guys,’” He said. “I’m either good enough now, or I’m not.”
After his two pro days, Kafagas was greeted with silence until the Toronto Argonauts came calling. It came down to him and one other linebacker, and they chose the other. Kagafas knew that Jake Dembow, one of his coaches at Marist, had played professional football in Europe, so he started to ask him some questions about the process.
“He played in Scandinavia,” Kagafas said of Dembow’s overseas playing career. “Being realistic with me, he said, ‘You know, you are undersized for the NFL. CFL, it might be a stretch. Europe is probably where you could land.’”
Kagafas got connected with another agent, one that specializes in European football. It is difficult to find quality teams and programs in places where most want to go on vacation, but if you look hard enough, you will find it. Kagafas found the Black Knights in Orebro, Sweden which is about two hours outside of the capital city of Stockholm.
“Half the roster had full-time jobs,” Kagafas said of his teammates’ lifestyles, which stood in stark contrast to that of NFL players. “The other half were either national team players, and then the others were imports like me, or came from other countries in Europe.”
American football is still a developing sport in Europe. Kagafas noted that he was relied upon heavily to help coach the team, as he was viewed as someone who understood the game deeper than some of his teammates. The head coach took care of offense, but looked to Kagafas to help give the defense some pointers. Kagafas also helped to coach their junior team and while there was a financial benefit to that, it was about growing the game and seeing its popularity rise, little by little.
“We would play in their soccer stadium,” Kagafas said. “It had to seat about 50,000 people if I had to guess and we would only fill about 500 seats, but I mean that thing was developing and the money was coming. I mean, it’s still growing.”
Now, Kagafas coaches the linebackers at Marist. He returned home to Ohio in 2018 and coached at his former high school, before running into coach Parady at Martin’s wedding. After chatting a bit, Parady sent him an email to ask if he was still interested in coaching for the Red Foxes, ultimately agreeing to a coaching position in the offseason.
In his first season in 2019, one of the best players Kagafas coached was Dixon, who he now watches as he runs sprints on the television, chasing the same dreams and aspirations that he had of playing professional football.
Edited by Luke Sassa and Bridget Reilly
Photo Credit: Orebro Black Knights