Put me in, coach
Before there was Ann Arbor and the Big House, there was Jerusalem and the Kraft Family Stadium. There were no fancy facilities or jam-packed crowds — only a small, rabid fan base whose collective idea of football had long centered on a round, black-and-white ball.
This wasn’t a normal launching pad to NCAA Division-1 college football in the U.S., but this is where Alex Swieca, BS ’15, former backup quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines, started his football career. He’d graduated from a New Jersey high school that didn’t offer tackle football, and when he chose to defer his enrollment at Michigan to study for a year in Israel, he jumped at the chance to play for the Kraft Family Israel Football League (IFL) and its scrappy amateur outfit the Judean Rebels.
The IFL was hardly a glitzy, high-powered operation in 2010. It had only been three years since the organization was established as an American tackle-style football league. And though it didn’t boast any fancy playbooks or five-star recruits, it gave Swieca the chance to do what he loved for a year: play football. In his lone season as quarterback during the IFL’s 2010-11 campaign, Swieca helped the Rebels win the championship. He also was named the league’s MVP.
“My home is wherever I can play football…”
Nearly five years later, Swieca is back in Israel after a four-year stint as Michigan’s reserve quarterback, where he absorbed valuable knowledge from veteran college coaches and former NFL coaches. At nine teams, the IFL has grown in popularity, and in talent since Swieca last played in Israel. But the athlete is here with a higher purpose this time: to help jumpstart the Israel national American football team. Organized in the winter of 2013, Team Israel plays by NCAA rules and is part of the International Federation of American Football.
“It’s nice to be back in the place where my career started,” Swieca says, ready to share the storehouse of experience he gained by working with Brady Hoke, Al Borges, and even Jim Harbaugh. (He charts his unique course in the humorous self-produced video above.)
For the love of the game
Israel isn’t a typical destination for a Division-I football player, even for a reserve. But Swieca loves football. And the opportunity to grow the game in Israel and the Middle East piqued his interest enough to keep his cleats on just a little longer. His decision to play overseas post-college, especially for an unknown national team, inspired his former teammates.
“I didn’t even know they played football in Israel, so I think it’s pretty cool and amazing,” says Michigan cornerback Terry Richardson. “Alex is a guy who can bridge two different sets of organizations and bring everyone together.”
In late August, Team Israel played in its first-ever international competition in Madrid, beating Spain 28-20. The national team included the IFL’s best players, with Swieca at quarterback. The win was a milestone for the national team in more ways than one, allowing the squad to qualify for the International Federation of American Football’s Group B International Tournament in 2016. This was great news for two of the team’s American sponsors, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Minnesota Vikings owner Mark Wilf.
Though Swieca didn’t play much in the tournament game — he graduated from Michigan in May and joined the national team in mid-July — he understands the implications of the win and what the victory means for the future of American football in Israel. The national team is now set up to play a combination of six home and away games next summer in hopes of advancing to the international tournament’s Group A, which comprises the strongest teams in Europe.
These days Swieca is living in Tel Aviv and pursuing a career in venture capital while working to grow the national team’s profile. Meanwhile, he’s practicing with a local squad and will be on the field in November for 10 games with the Tel Aviv Pioneers. He’s just excited to be seeing competitive action again.
“I was a backup at Michigan for four years and I didn’t really play at all,” he says. “So it’s nice to have the opportunity to be starting and competing again. Its definitely something I’ve missed.”
This time around Swieca also wants to reach young athletes overseas and motivate them to play his kind of American-style tackle football. He’s always thinking about ways to help develop the national team and broaden the game’s appeal among sports fans.
To his good friend and former teammate Richardson, this comes as no surprise.
“The one thing about Alex is that he’s very creative and he always has goals,” Richardson says. “He’s got all kinds of ideas he’s been working on to spread the game, and I really respect him because of that. Whether he’s playing football for Michigan or Israel, he’s a great ambassador for the game.”