It’s John Grisham’s newest book, “Playing for Pizza,” and it’s not a bad reference point for Stocco, the former Wisconsin quarterback who agreed this month to play in the very real football league that Grisham fictionalized.
Stocco will join the Milan Rhinos in NFL Italy, known as the Lega Nazionale Football Americano Italiano in Italian, and will immediately be one of the league’s top players when the season starts in March.
Yes, he’ll be tossing a pigskin in a country known more for a very different brand of football.
“I can’t wait to get out there,” said Stocco, who went to Italy two years ago with his older brother, Tony. “It was awesome, one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life, and I told myself if I ever had the opportunity to go back that I’d do it.”
The 24-year-old Stocco, who once threw passes to Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald in high school, isn’t sure about all the specifics right now. He doesn’t even know how his name came up in the Rhinos’ organization, which called his father, Lou, back home in Minnesota.
Stocco does have some ties to Italy—his grandfather grew up not far from where he will play in Milan. Still, Stocco figured he was done with football and needed to find a real job after tryouts with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants earlier this year failed to net him a contract.
But Milan’s offer came just in time for the quarterback who said he needs a change of scenery from Madison, where he is often identified by college fans and watches, but doesn’t attend, Badgers games ( “Too weird,” he said).
Stocco will leave for his new gig in January. He’s still working out his contract, which includes an apartment and possibly coaching the junior team.
Grisham’s book follows the league through the eyes of a washed-up NFL quarterback. More well-known for his best-selling legal thrillers, Grisham was researching another novel in Italy when he stumbled across the league, where a few Americans get small salaries and part-time Italian players play for free pizza and pride.
The Italian football league is organized much like its soccer counterpart, with teams moving up and down in classification. This past season, eight teams played in the top division, Series A1, while 41 teams played in the next two divisions, Series A2 and Series B. There is also a youth league with 13 teams that use many of the Americans as coaches.
Wide receiver Craig McIntyre, one of Grisham’s main sources, has played the past two seasons for the Parma Panthers, who paid him about $1,300 a month his first season and about $1,900 a month the next.
McIntyre, who played in college at Eastern Washington, said that the experience each season has been amazing and Stocco’s commitment represents a new influx of talent.
“That’s huge,” McIntyre said. “Coming from a Big Ten school like the University of Wisconsin, he should dominate, no problem. The talent level doesn’t even compare.”
McIntyre said there are a handful of Division I players that sweep through the league each season. “But then you can play against Americans who are from a junior college or an NAIA-type level,” McIntyre said. “It kind of all depends on the management.”
That’s where the differences come into play. McIntyre said the Bergamo Lions have long been the most dominant team in the league because they have the most money to spend. The Lions boast on their Web site having won the Italian title every year since 1998.
“The first time I ever played them, we had already lost by 40 before we even stepped on the field,” McIntyre said. “Once we played them, I was thinking they were good, but they’re nothing to be scared about. I can tell you, they beat 90 percent of the teams over there just by showing up.”
McIntyre said Stocco will be in a much different situation. The Rhinos were one of the league’s worst teams last season in part because they decided to use an Italian quarterback, calling him the QB of the future.
“He was absolutely horrible,” McIntyre said, laughing. “Over there, there is no Italian quarterback of the future.”
The Rhinos released a statement about how excited they were to have Stocco, lauding his credentials that include a 29-7 record as a three-year starter for the Badgers and back-to-back Capital One Bowl victories, including MVP honors in his final game nearly 12 months ago. The Rhinos called Stocco the 19th best quarterback in this year’s NFL draft class.
“If we consider that only the first 15 were drafted in the NFL and that every year an unlimited number of quarterbacks come out of college, we’re talking about a player of the highest level,” the Rhinos said on their Web site.
The team also picked up Holy Cross running back Steve Silva, who finished his college career in 2004 and has recently played in the Austrian Football League.
It’s a different level of play in most of the American football leagues in Europe.
“The average level would be like the best high schools in the U.S. or Division III colleges,” said Alessandro Fusco, a former player and coach in Italy who is now a journalist for the Rome newspaper Il Tempo. “Back when I played in the ‘80s and ‘90s we would often get 2,000 to 3,000 fans at games, but the league has struggled since then.”
Games draw a few hundred fans up to 3,000 for the championship game in Italy this past season.
According to league spokesman Matteo Incerti, American football’s popularity dates to the mid-1980s when private TV started showing NFL games. The game blossomed with a few hard core fans and for some American players like McIntyre, who says he tries to recruit for Parma in the offseason.
“Every kid you talk to thinks they’re going to the NFL, whether it’s an NAIA school or a small-time DII school. I never had that mentality at all. I was trying to use it for what the experience was,” McIntyre said of playing in Italy. “I would tell everybody to do it if I could, but then I wouldn’t have a job.”