After the matches are over, Max Gray pauses for a moment on the football pitch at Ringstrasse stadium in Chur, Switzerland, enjoying the view of the Swiss Alps in the background.
During the summers the mountains are covered in green, and if you look closely enough you can be sure that the black dots dotting the green slopes are sheep grazing in the fields. As Gray watches the scenery, fans who have drummed and chanted enthusiastically throughout the game pour out onto the pitch to greet the players.
“I love it there,” Gray said after returning from Switzerland in October. “I fell in love with Europe.
It’s the story of how a player from a small college and a kid from a small town used football as a way to explore the world.
A change of country and position
It is October 2 and the Swiss Bowl XXXV between the Broncos and the Bern Grizzlies is being played in the city of Basel. The Grizzlies received the opening kickoff and made it all the way to Calanda’s goal line when Gray, playing linebacker, recovered a fumble. The Broncos scored in the possession that followed and won the game 21-12 to win the Swiss Soccer Championship for the 11th time in club history.
“Oh man, every championship is fantastic,” said Gray, whose 2021 Swiss Bowl title with Calanda joins the one he won with the Broncos in 2019. “When you’re around the world playing an American sport, there is no such thing. “
Gray, 25, graduated from Arlington in 2014, where he was an All-Wesco wide receiver on the Eagles football team. He continued to play at small colleges, finishing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT, where as a senior in 2018 he was named the NAIA All-American after catching 72 passes for 1,115 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Gray always intended to try his hand at professional football. He participated in Montana State Pro Day in Spring 2019 and created a profile on the Europlayers website. It was the online profile that caught the attention of Calanda coach Geoff Buffum, who contacted Gray a week before Gray’s graduation ceremony.
“We had to replace an American player in the middle of the 2019 season,” Buffum said via email from Switzerland. “I recruited Max through a website where teams and players can meet. His versatility and athletic ability were the two main factors that drove us to hire him.
“I got a random call from a weird number and thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll answer it hoping it’s not a scam,'” Gray recalls of being contacted by Buffum. “It was Coach Buffum and he was looking for a playmaker to play on offense and defense, but he had to know that soon because he needed to get someone out now. I skipped class and called my mom and she asked, “Are they paying for your plane ticket?” They were, and she said, ‘You have to go, who knows if you will have this opportunity again.’ ”
There was a hitch. Nationalliga A only allows one American on the field at a time, and the Broncos have an American quarterback in former Georgia State appellant Conner Manning. Therefore, it required a change of position for Gray. Gray, who hadn’t played defense since taking a few corner snaps in high school, has turned into a defensive player who plays it safe against teams with a passing quarterback and linebacker against teams with a running quarterback, while also serving as a returns specialist. .
“For me it’s the same mindset,” Gray said of adapting to defensive play. “You want to be physical, you want to play games, but that’s a different kind of aggression. I want to hit people now, and learning to approach and do things the right way made it so much fun. I like to play on the defensive end of the ball.
The conversion worked, as Gray helped Calanda win the 2019 Swiss Bowl title. Gray initially returned to Switzerland for the 2020 season to return home 10 days after arriving when the coronavirus pandemic erupted. But Nationalliga A resumed in 2021 playing for nearly a full season, and Gray’s defensive play once again helped the Broncos claim the championship trophy.
“Max has been a great player for us in various roles over the past two seasons and that’s a big part of why we’ve won the championship each of those years,” said Buffum. “He is greatly appreciated and respected by his teammates and has gone to great lengths to integrate into the team and immerse himself in the culture.”
“It’s probably the most fun I have had to play football in my life.”
Chur is a city of 35,000 inhabitants nestled in the German-speaking region of the Alps, in eastern Switzerland. Although German is the official language, residents speak their own version of the language.
“I took German in high school, but they speak Swiss German,” Gray explained. “The Germans come to Switzerland and do not understand Swiss German.
If that’s a culture shock to those traveling 120 kilometers to Chur from the German border, imagine what it is for someone 5,000 kilometers away.
“My first reaction when I got off the plane and got to town was, ‘Wow, I can’t read anything and I’m very intimidated,’” Gray said. “It was the first time that I was uncomfortable in an environment where I was walking. The way you cross the street is different, you have to go everywhere by train or bus and I had never done that. For the most part everyone spoke English, but they didn’t want to speak English. But once on the pitch, it seemed natural to me. Once I practiced I felt like I was meant to be there and my worries were gone.
Luckily for Gray, the language the Broncos use is English. He is also treated well by the team. In addition to being paid to play and to help the Calanda youth teams, the team also provides accommodation and meals.
“I’m not getting rich there, but I’m doing great,” Gray said. “I am able to travel and bring home a few dollars. ”
Gray needed about 10 days to find his place in Chur. Since then, he has plunged headfirst into Swiss culture and football.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ve had to play football in my life,” Gray said. “Football is played the right way. The majority of the players are local, so they work regularly, train in the evenings and play games on the weekends. So people play for the right reasons, they do it because they really love the game.
Calanda players are between the ages of 18 and 46, and their level of experience ranges from being NFL Europe veterans to simply learning the game. Most Americans in Switzerland are former players. of Division I of the NCAA. Gray guessed that the Broncos would be able to compete with his Rocky Mountain College team if the players didn’t have full-time jobs and could focus on football.
Gray’s first season in 2019 went by in a flash. He was in a game a few days after getting off the plane and his season ended in two months. This year was different, since he arrived in early May and stayed until mid-October.
“This has been a really long year, I was there for six months and when I first got there they hadn’t even planned the season yet because of COVID,” Gray said. “There was a lot of stress. Would I be sent home again? Would we play a full season?
“But the best thing about being a long season is that it gave me the opportunity to travel all over Europe,” Gray continued. “In Switzerland there is a summer break where a lot of people go on vacation three or four weeks at the same time, and there is a break in the middle of the season. I have been to 16 countries and about 24 major cities. This year, it was a little less football because I had a lot of time. It gave me time to focus on things other than football.
“People always ask me how it is there and they always ask me about football. But what I like best is the travel. I could have tried for teams in North America, but then I would be in North America. I had the opportunity to get paid to be in Europe, play football and see things that few people get to see. When people go, they go for 10 days, while I’m there for months at a time. I meet people and I really discover the places.
Hope to inspire
When Gray opened up about his experiences in Switzerland, he said he hoped it turned out to be more than just a simple his story. He hopes his example may serve as an inspiration to other Arlington youngsters, that you don’t have to be at the top of your field – athletic or otherwise – to have the opportunity to explore and pursue his dreams.
And Gray hopes his story isn’t over yet. He hopes he can return to the Broncos next year.
“I love it over there,” Gray said. “I spoke to the coach and there is a good chance of coming back. It’s not sure yet, there are things that could happen. but I really want to go back.
Buffum’s response when asked if he plans to bring Gray back for 2022? “Absoutely.”
Another season of professional football? Another section living in Switzerland? Another chance to fully immerse yourself in other cultures? What more could an Arlington kid ask for?