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An American Football Coach, an Italian League, and Coronavirus

How Joe Bommarito, a former New York Jets scout now coaching a pro team in Italy, is navigating his team as the coronavirus spreads through the country.

In late January, Joe Bommarito headed to Padua, Italy with his wife, Cyndi, for another season coaching American football abroad. The former Jets scout has done this several times before: In 2015, The MMQB visited with him while he was leading the Milano Rhinos. Two years ago, he joined the Torino Jaguars. Now, Bommarito would be coaching the Saints in Padua, a city in northern Italy, west of Venice.

“We were proceeding as usual,” Bommarito said from Padua on Friday, “until the virus started to spread.”

Bommarito (left) coaching the Milano Rhinos in 2015.

Bommarito (left) coaching the Milano Rhinos in 2015.

About three weeks after they arrived, the coronavirus was detected in Italy. The first case in Italy was reported on Feb. 21, in a town near Milan; since then, there have been more than 4,000 identified cases in Italy, and 197 deaths as a result of the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19, per the country’s Civil Protection Agency. Like many around the globe, and particularly in the hardest hit country in Europe, Bommarito is trying to balance his job responsibilities and day-to-day life with the threat of the spreading virus.

The Saints, who compete in the second division of Italy’s American football league, were scheduled to start their season on March 1. The season opener was at first postponed until March 8 because of the coronavirus, and was to be played behind closed doors, meaning no fans would be allowed to attend. “I thought about what that would be like: a scrimmage on a Saturday afternoon with nobody around,” Bommarito says. Then, on Thursday, as the number of cases in the country continued to grow, the Italian Federation of American Football canceled all games through March 15.

“I feel like I am at the combine: Hurry up and wait,” says Bommarito, who spent 13 years as a west-coast scout for the Jets. “Right now, the virus has control of what we can do and what we can’t do.”

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While games are canceled teams are permitted to practice, within certain guidelines set by the federation. A doctor must be present at practice to monitor players and staff. The medical resident who works with the Padua Saints has been at their practices this week toting a digital forehead thermometer to check anyone who thinks they might have a fever or other symptoms (no one has had any issues so far). Players cannot shower at the practice facilities. They’ve also been instructed to stay one meter apart from each other while in the locker room—in line with the national recommendation that Italians keep a meter’s distance from each other in public spaces, like restaurants and museums, to limit the virus’ spread.

Out on the practice field, the Saints have been huddling for plays and getting in their lines for drills as usual. At the end of Thursday night’s practice, though, when Bommarito gathered the team at midfield to speak to them, he had the players spread out and stand in a much wider circle than normal. Some teams, Bommarito added, have decided not to practice. His roster of 40 Italian-born players, including his 35-year old QB, were eager to keep going, unless they are told by the government it is not safe to do so.

“They are very passionate and want to play,” Bommarito says. “They keep coming and have their hopes up that this will run its course.”

In the meantime they’ll proceed, with caution. Padua is a university town, and with schools and universities across Italy currently closed, the streets have been quieter than normal. The Bommaritos stocked their apartment with some extra water, in case one of them got sick and they had to be quarantined. They say their local grocery stores have been well-stocked—there is not a run on toilet paper in Padua, as there is in many American cities—but you can’t find a face mask on a store shelf anywhere. “My wife and I remain calm,” Bommarito says, noting that they still take their daily walks, but try to avoid crowded public places.

Their prevailing feeling? “Uncertainty,” Bommarito says, as officials around the world try to get a handle on the virus’ spread. His football team’s season might be shortened, or even cancelled, something they did not expect when they traveled to Italy earlier this year. For now, they are staying put and sticking to their routine, which includes an 8 p.m. practice Friday night at Plebiscito Stadium, where Bommarito will teach the Padua Saints Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense. “As of now,” he says, “we practice and we wait. That’s all we can do.”

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