James Wooldridge Photojournalism James Wooldridge Photojournalism

andrea's chance

He knew he was the last man. If he missed the tackle, the running back would score.

To the north, tan cornstalks blew in the wind. Parents watched from the stands built into the Tecumseh hillside. Twenty-two players were on the field, but in that moment, it was just the runner against Johnson County Central’s No. 87.

It was a moment Andrea Graziani, a 17-year-old from the wine-growing region of central Italy, never expected to be in.

He grew up in a volleyball home. His mom, Flamigni Cinzia, played for the Italian national team. His father, Pierluigi Graziani, played in a lower-level professional league.

He played outside hitter on the volleyball court.

All of his friends are die-hard fans of Italian football. Soccer.

A few years ago, he started watching "big hit" and "best touchdown" American football highlights on YouTube. Then he started recording NFL games, which aired at 3 a.m. He'd sit alone in his house squeezed into the pale, Roman architecture of Forlì, Italy, and watch the games.

It never occurred to him he'd ever have the chance to play.

The local coordinator for the Education First High School Exchange program, Heidi Piccini, saw a strong application from a thoughtful, young Italian.

Piccini, who had hosted four exchange students herself, decided to host a fifth, and enrolled Andrea Graziani at Lincoln Southwest.

After multiple letters, she realized that this kid really, really wanted to play football, and she knew Southwest was too competitive for him to get any playing time. So a week before he arrived, the exchange program started looking for a new host family.

They found Jim and Abby Klaasmeyer, and Andrea would live with them and attend Johnson County Central High School in Tecumseh, population 1,600. He’d live in the countryside, 25 minutes away from school, 2 miles from the nearest paved road. And he’d live with Dakota Cook, a 16-year-old foster child who also played football.

When Cook told the school's head coach, Gabe Meints, about Andrea, Meints was happy to have someone so athletic on the team.

“When you watch football on TV, it looks easy,” Andrea said. “But it’s actually very difficult.”

He was never nervous to hit the field. Andrea wasn't afraid to try new things, and he was a quick learner. He also planned to try basketball and track, but he was excited for football the most.

“He’s trying to experience different things in his life,” said Jim, who had hosted four other exchange students. “(He’s trying to) make himself better through sports.”

Everyone assumed he would make a good kicker because he was from Italy, but the truth was he hadn't played soccer more than many Americans kids.

He still wound up kicking footballs in Tecumseh. By midseason, he was playing on both sides of the ball on JV and varsity.

“Pistol, Pistol!,” they would call, and Andrea would run onto the field. “Insurrection of Italy!” the quarterback would call, more than once a game. It was his play; a bubble screen to him.

He played defense the most.

There he was, in the Monday night JV game.

To the south, a rusty pickup rolled by. On the field, it was just him and the running back.

The runner tried to stiff arm him, but Andrea grabbed him and took him down -- hard. He loves hitting people because it’s a way to blow off steam.

"If you have a problem, just go play football," he said. "All your problems are gone."

Specifically, he said it takes his mind off of schoolwork and girls. That’s not to say he has problems with either. He does fine in both areas.

Sitting in study hall every Monday, already done with all his work, he pulls out his iPad to watch highlights from his favorite teams: The Patriots and Packers, the Eagles and Vikings, in that order.

In passing, Andrea greets his friends with a, “'Sup buddy!”

“He just always says it,” said Nick Goracke, a junior fullback. “It’s sorta like ‘Go get ‘em!’”

When a teammate scored or made a good play, Andrea was always the first one to give him a pat on the back. Goracke said he could always hear Andrea's cheers from the sideline.

“If he had like two years on him, he’d be awesome,” Goracke said.

The whistle blew, and it was all over. The Johnson County Central Thunderbirds had lost their last game, 41-7.

They had played nine varsity and three JV games. They lost every one.

That didn’t sit well with Andrea.

“I’m not the guy who says, ‘I don’t care, we know that we'll lose all of our games,’” he said. “I was like, ‘Try! Try to win!’”

Still, he said, he found something in football that he never found in volleyball.

“In Italy, it was a fight with myself,” Andrea said. “If you play volleyball and you are only competitive with yourself, it’s not good. Here, it was more like a family. It was more like a team.”

He misses Italy. Most of all, he misses his family and the food.

But he likes it here too. He’s found new family with his hosts and with his teammates. And although he can’t wait for his first Thanksgiving turkey, he’s not sure it can match his go-to snack: Casey’s pizza.

He likes Italian pizza better, but he'll miss Casey’s when he goes back to Italy.

“It’s different,” he said.