To encourage the interest of young Serbians in American football, two U.S. football coaches, Larry Kentera and Eugene Felker, visited Serbia as volunteers under ACDI/VOCA’s USAID-funded $40 million, five-year Community Revitalization through Democratic Action (CRDA) program. CRDA encourages and facilitates citizen participation in decision making while strengthening community bonds and promoting reconciliation among various ethnic and religious groups. The two coaches spent three weeks in Serbia teaching players strategies and techniques in training and game play. American football began in Serbia with the establishment of a football league of 10 teams in 2005.
“Our wish was to help these young people enhance their knowledge and skills in American football. Therefore we came to Serbia. We believe that the practice and advice will be most useful to them,” ACDI/VOCA volunteer Kentera said. “They are full of energy, optimism and the desire for knowledge, which are the tickets for success.”
Kentera is a longtime professional coach and has worked in the U.S., Canada, Italy and Germany, where he has been involved in the creation of a league. Felker brought personal experience to the project as a former American football player. For three weeks, the ACDI/VOCA volunteers trained the Kragujevac Wild Boars team, as well as other Serbian teams. The Wild Boars won the first Serbian championship. Boar player Vladimir Lazic said, ''This was the first time we worked with professional American football coaches. Now we see that our playing has been amateur. We used to design our practices based on the data from the internet and watching games on television. I'm sure what we have learned during these weeks will be seen in our future play.”
Knowing the Serbian teams were not properly equipped, Kentera and Felker brought donated equipment from American universities. Because of their efforts, Serbian football players have received $150,000 worth of helmets, cleats, jerseys, shoulder pads, pants, dummies, copies of 73 different educational videotapes and other equipment. “Thanks to the equipment we received, our play will be much safer. We used to play without shoulder pads, without helmets. Injuries were pretty frequent. We were most frightened of head injuries. Many used to say to us to give it up, because American football is an aggressive game. But our desire for success and promotion of this sport was stronger than all fears,” Lazic said.
An American football tournament with five Serbian clubs was held in Kragujevac as a final event of the coaches’ stay. This was the first time the Serbian clubs played in full equipment. “We organized the tournament to popularize the sport and to attract financial support. American football in Serbia is just starting to develop, and these young enthusiasts need support. There are lots of other accessories needed for good training,” said Felker.
With the support of the U.S volunteers, the league has grown to almost 500 players from ages 17-27.
“The interest and enthusiasm the players had was remarkable for this first-time opportunity to play American football in full pads,” Felker said. “Larry and I feel confident that Serbian youth, with coaching at the high school level and game competition through college, could most certainly produce some NFL prospects. The kids are gifted athletically and are big, raw-boned talent. With the proper weight training and conditioning program specific to football, the teams would most certainly produce great college and professional talent in the not-too-distant future.”