Editor's note: Carl Ehrlich, who was the captain of the 2009 Harvard football team, is in Spain to play football for the Valencia Firebats. He's chronicling his experiences on and off the field for ESPNBoston.com. You can find all of his previous entries here.
Willie Fitzgerald, my best friend in the entire world, refuses to play pick-up basketball against me. He'll lie to my face about where and when he's playing, just to make sure I don't tag along.
I would like to say he hates playing against me because I'm such a dominating low-post presence. In reality, it's because he can't stand my celebrations. It's not the blocked shot he's opposed to, but the Dikembe Mutombo finger wave. Not the mid-range turnaround, but the hand I leave in the air for five seconds afterward. It's the grunt I make after outjumping him for a rebound.
For Willie, even a non-celebration is a celebration because he knows how badly I want to be taunting him.
In accusing me of chronic over-celebration, Willie isn't too far off base. I will admit, there's no informal sporting event I won't over-celebrate. It's just too much fun.
With Manny Ramirez-like patience, I'll stand in the "batter's box" and admire stickball home runs as they drift over a friend's house. I'll win swim races and splash around like I just medaled. While I'm terrible at golf, every putt I sink over four feet is followed by a Happy Gilmore "shooterrrr."
But for all of my theatric predispositions, I've always shied away from in-game celebrations. While I'm a playground performer, the fear of a 15-yard penalty has kept me from really "getting down" after a big play. A perfect example of this was our recent game against the Madrid Osos, when I scored my first touchdown.
Because I was forced to wait an entire decade before getting into the end zone, I had plenty of time to think up a celebration. I held serious deliberations. The Ickey Shuffle? The Dirty Bird? The Referee Kiss? For a while, I imagined myself recreating the Redskins' "Fun Bunch."
Either way, I told my friends, they could count on my first touchdown celebration being something legendary. It would be my masterpiece, second only to the Patriots' touchdown celebration on Family Guy (search for it on YouTube). My childhood of Ken Griffey home run trots, touchdown two-steps and Hulk Hogan impressions would all come together in the moment of my first score. It would be perfect.
And to make sure it would be perfect, I kept myself ready, having a celebration in mind each season. This year's celebration was something I worked out with Frank Roser, Valencia's starting wide receiver. Frank is an exchange student from Germany and because his class schedule is so light (or taken so lightly), we've had plenty of time to practice the celebration on the beach. Drilling it over and over, we knew the movements by heart. We swore we would do it the next time one of us scored.
And when my moment finally came, when I finally scored my first touchdown I choked. Frank was nowhere to be found and I panicked.
Getting into the end zone, Frankless, I had no idea what to do. I thought for a second about trying a Goalpost Dunk, but my hamstring was thinking otherwise. Instead, I resigned to celebration mediocrity, settling for a jumping hip-bump with a teammate (even this got a penalty).
Part of the reason my celebration was such a letdown was because I didn't see the touchdown coming. I had a chance to take the score in myself, immediately after a fumble (which I forced cough, cough), but bobbled the ball and it slipped it out of my hands. Flying just out of my reach, I watched as the ball landed in the hands of my roommate, Jason, who was off and running to the house for six.
But, in the ultimate act of touchdown selflessness, Jason gave me a lateral on the two-yard line. With nothing separating him and the end zone, I can't be quite sure what made him do this. He may have done it out of total philanthropy. He may have done it because I was running behind him, making threats on his life. The world will never know.
The world can, however, see the play thanks to the wonders of the Internet.
Regardless of his motivations, before I could say "OchoCinco," I was in the end zone and my big moment had already passed. Leave it to a lineman to blow his chance on the big stage.
(Note: I once promised my Harvard teammates that there would be rewards for anyone who handed me a touchdown. I would auction off rewards for that person, like naming my first-born child after them. I once told Eric Schultz, our middle linebacker, that I would get a tattoo of his face if he gave me one. And I would have too. I really wanted that touchdown.
And now I have that touchdown, all thanks to the selfless actions of Jason Brisbane (Ironman 2 inspired nickname: War Machine). We never made any such deals, but there is a common understanding that "I owe him one." I'm scared of when he'll call it in, because Jason Ehrlich doesn't quite flow.)
In reality, the Osos game wasn't that big of a stage anyway. The game was already out of hand by the time I scored, and there were probably more players on the field than people in the stands. Frank and I needed a much bigger audience to perform our carefully choreographed celebration.
And that's exactly what we found in Innsbruck, Austria. Last Saturday's game, an EFL quarterfinals matchup against the Swarco Raiders, was the perfect time for our routine. With four thousand fans on hand to cheer on the defending European champion Raiders, we finally found our venue. It was decided that we would incorporate the celebration with the Firebats' pregame entrance.
The only problem was that this wasn't your average Spanish pregame. This was Swarco Raiders country, and the Raiders are running a legitimate business out there.
Valencian pregames usually consist of painting the field and putting up the goal posts; Raider pregames have pyrotechnic shows and guest performances by semi-famous musicians. Another disconcerting pregame observation was that the Raiders organization had more cheerleaders in uniform than we had players in pads.
And if that wasn't enough, their coaches had matching polos. There's nothing more intimidating than matching polos.
In the face of all this "professionalism" -- the fans, the live TV broadcast, the season-ticket holders with VIP suites -- one might have shied away from childish celebrations, but to do so would have been utterly un-Firebatistic. Missing my own touchdown celebration was one thing, but you can never leave your team behind.
And so it was on.
With two minutes before our official introduction, an EFL official entered the locker room to give us a heads up. From there, it's a hundred cries of "Venga!" "Vamos!" "Fuerte!" and cleats against the marble floor as the team trickles out of the locker room.
Filing down the hall toward the tunnel, we could hear the noise of the crowd. While there were only about four thousand people at the game, they were packed together on the home team's side and created a massive sea of black. The fans had signs and noise sticks and, embracing the NFL Raiders lifestyle, face paint.
There was, in certain pockets of the crowd, a vague resemblance to Raider Nation. Apparently Innsbruck people love them some football.
With the team lined up in the tunnel (located directly under the fans), we waited for the pregame show to finish and the introductions to begin. Standing in front of the team, Frank and I double- and triple-checked the routine for possible errors. Once the pregame show was over and the announcer introduced your "Vaaaah-len-cia Fiiiiire-bats," Frank and I anxiously waited for our music to come on.
Hearing the first guitar riff of "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, it was finally time. And yes, our entrance music is "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys.
I'm not sure how many people have seen the Beastie Boys music video for "Sabotage," but it's a pretty hilarious compilation of largely unimpressive "police maneuvers." In the spirit of this "secret agent" feeling, Frank and I took the field at a full sprint, imaginary guns in hand, and turned our backs to the sideline as if waiting outside a door. At this point, the entire crowd has gone quiet and is staring at us. Frank and I forge on.
Turning from his position against the invisible wall, Frank gave three hard, imaginary knocks against the imaginary door. With no response, Frank gave me a go signal, after which I turned toward the imaginary door and demolished it with the biggest fake kick ever delivered.
The kick was carefully timed with the "Sabotage" introduction, and the imaginary door was knocked down at about the same time the song kicked in.
Then, as in any real combat sequence, came the combat rolls. Immediately after I "kicked in" the door, Frank executed a perfect combat roll into the "room" (a.k.a. the field), guns drawn on potential intruders. To cover him, I followed with a combat roll of my own and came up on one knee, imaginary weapon pointed.
Meanwhile, there are still a few people on the field from the pregame show and they are all very confused. They obviously weren't ready for the combat rolls. Or to have imaginary weapons pulled on them.
Having "secured" the room, Frank and I turned back toward the tunnel and waved the rest of the team in. Getting the signal, the Firebats burst out of the tunnel with an energy I'd never seen from them before. Whether Frank and my routine was silly or not, the one thing for sure was that the Firebats were ready to go.
Receiving the ball on the first drive, we took our pregame excitement right to the Raiders defense. Spreading the field and hitting them with a balanced attack, we marched the ball right down the field and were in the end zone before the Raiders knew what hit them. The Firebats were out to an early 7-0 lead.
And then the Raiders answered with a 55-point run (which are, in my experience at least, pretty hard to come back from). It turns out they're defending European champions for a reason. Final score: 55-13, Raiders.
Sitting in the locker room afterward, I was upset. Constantly cycling the game through my head, I was even angry enough to turn down a postgame beer. Seeing I was in a funk, Pollo, a back-up linebacker and special teams player, came up and gave me some much-needed perspective.
(Paraphrasing what he told me in Spanish) He told me he was sorry I was upset, but there was no way he could mope around after a game like that. He said that never in his life did he think he would play in front of four thousand people, or on live TV, and that the entire game was like a dream. Win or lose.
He told me that getting to travel all the way to Innsbruck was a trip that paid for itself, and he reminded me that it was the first time the Firebats ever made it this far in the EFL. Never in his life had he imagined playing on this kind of stage.
He told me that after the game, for the first time in his life, there were kids coming up to him and asking for an autograph. His autograph.
That, he told me, was enough to warrant celebration.