By Brian Hitsky
In Cuenca, when you think of football, what comes to mind is Deportivo Cuenca, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and the World Cup.
John Bryan, from Chicago, who moved to Cuenca in September 2018, has a different slant about football. He’s a former high school championship coach and college player who is introducing the gridiron game to students at the University of Cuenca.
Some 48 players have been recruited through word of mouth and have practiced three days a week since March to learn basic fundamentals and strategy. This is the second year for the program, which goes by the name Cuenca Apaches.
It’s a rough go, but Bryan and his four assistants have a love for the game, and despite the language issues, the lack of equipment, the pressing need for more volunteers and other resources, they prevail.
“We need people to paint the field, we need volunteers, coaches and referees. If we don’t have enough people then the players have to do the stuff to get it done,” Bryan said.
“The kids –I mean young men, are wonderful– Bryan said. “I’ve seen growth and maturation. We have students studying to be doctors, lawyers and engineers. Some are married. They work very hard and are very respectful.”
Bryan, 63, stresses that that the program has many obstacles to overcome. His lack of Spanish is regrettable, but three members of the coaching staff are bilingual. The problem is that some of the coaches are not as football savvy as Bryan would like. “The coaches do a good job, and they want to learn, too,” he said.
The program was started in 2017 by two university students — David Tenorio and Christian Mendez — as a project. They found a coach in expat Harry Pearson and recruited 13 participants the first year. Pearson had previously coached at the club level, where Cuenca fields two football teams.
Pearson remembers, “We set up a practice time and got permission to start holding our practices on the university’s field, and that helped us attract a lot of university kids who wanted to learn the game.
“What most people, especially the expats in Cuenca don’t realize, is that this program is the desire of two kids at the university, built up by the desire of current roster of nearly 50 kids, to learn to play the game, and the desire of a few of us who are called coaches, to teach them to play the game safely.
“This is a game that these kids are going to play, going to try to learn, on their own if need be. We’re just here to see them learn the right way to play, the safest way to play, and the effort it takes to get themselves in shape to play so they don’t get hurt. Every expat has skills that are desperately needed, so don’t think we’re bringing this “vicious” sport down here, it’s already here. We’re just trying to ensure the safety that goes with playing and loving this sport.”
When Bryan, and his wife, Michelle, started to look at retirement options, their research led them to Ecuador. Michelle spotted an advertisement for North American football coaches, and Bryan began corresponding with Pearson.
As it happened, just about the time the Bryans arrived in Cuenca, Pearson left for the United States and the program was able to continue.
Tenorio, who is in pre-law, continues with the team. Not only does he play nose tackle on defense, but he has the added responsibility of serving as the administrator of the football team and interfaces with the university on its behalf. Bryan does not handle any of those chores.
In Bryan’s mind, he wants to see football expand in Ecuador to where it is likened to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States. It would have leagues and conferences, and compete under NCAA rules. There are already university squads formed in Guayaquil and Quito.
In May, two scrimmages have been planned, one in Portoviejo on the coast and the other in Quito. There is also supposed to be a four-team practice in August.
“The sport is growing all over the world,” Bryan boasted. “They are playing in Europe and Asia. There are teams in Africa. Mexico has a huge football league.”
The most pressing need of the program is procuring equipment, Bryan said. “We need helmets and more practice gear.” They originally received donated equipment from a school that closed in Massachusetts. However, it is not enough and the players share from offense to defense, especially helmets.
“We currently are looking for someone to sew pockets in the pants to hold pads,” Bryan said. “Kids are using duct tape to hold their protective pads in place. That has got to stop.”
Bryan coached for 35 years. He won an Illinois High School football championship in 2009 and played offensive tackle at Grand Valley State College in Michigan. He’s a football junkie, often waking up early in the mornings to study football techniques on the computer. He claims his whole life is devoted to football.
His Cuenca Apache team runs the Power I on offense, mostly pitching out to running backs and trying to punish the defense with quick openers. Because they were schooled in soccer, the one thing the squad excels at is kicking. “We don’t have a problem with kickoffs, punts or field goals,” Bryan said.
Ironically, over the last 10 years, Bryan has not seen a single college or pro game. “I watched so much film as a coach that my eyes hurt,” he recalled. “I was watching football every day. I didn’t need to see it on TV.”
Bryan worked for the Chicago Transit System for 10 years. He suffered a serious accident on the job while driving an emergency vehicle pulling a broken-down bus. A co-worker driving the disabled bus locked its brakes and Bryan was hurtled violently back and forth in his cab like a rag doll causing broken vertebrae in his spinal cord. He’s had five spinal surgeries to correct the injury.
He’s overcome that handicap and now even though he walks with a cane thrives in his new challenge of devoting more time to his passion.
“Are You Ready for Some Football?”
(The Cuenca team has started a fundraising campaign to help defray equipment costs. Click here to go to the team’s GoFundMe page.
For more information, Bryan can be reached at email@example.com