This story is over 5 years old.


American Football In the Land of Futbol

Brazil is soccer's spiritual home. Which makes it all the more shocking that Brazilians aren't just watching American football in record numbers—they're playing it, too.

At one end of Serra Negra's central town square a band prepares to perform. The small village is surrounded by green hills dotted with row upon row of coffee plants, about three hours northwest of Sao Paulo. On the first Sunday of February, the mid-summer sun beats down; the town is crawling, and anyone with a mind to run would quickly change it. The heat quickly drains away any urgency. The band may be setting up for some time.


Café Boteco sits on the side of the square, a short distance from the musicians tuning their instruments on the stage. Wooden tables sit under a broad awning shading diners from the sun while they eat. The tables are heavy and fragrant with feijoada, a mix of black beans, rice, fried pork skin, and various other unidentifiable but delicious pork pieces. Alongside these heavy, meat-centric dishes the local chopp beer—a very cold, foamy light pilsner—sits in small glasses. Perspiration is pooling on the wooden planks of the table.

As would be expected in a sports-crazy country on a weekend afternoon, the TV's lining the walls are tuned to a game. The game isn't live, and the Portuguese closed captioning flashing across the bottom tells you it isn't local. In a country well-known for exporting some of the greatest futbol players in the world to the wealthiest teams in Europe, that isn't much of a surprise.

View of Serra Negra. Image via Daniel Cavallari, WikiMedia Commons

The surprising part is that the replay being broadcast isn't one of last week's La Liga or Premier League fixtures, but last year's Super Bowl. A country synonymous and uniquely simpatico with futbol has slowly become one of the world's biggest fans of that other, slower, more violent, and more American football as well. ESPN, which had the exclusive broadcast rights to the game in Brazil, boasted that the audience for this year's Super Bowl was 84 percent larger than last year's, and that Super Bowl XLIX was the most-watched game in the history of Brazilian pay cable.


Brazil is not the only country in which the NFL's popularity is growing, naturally. What is remarkable, though, is that Brazilians are taking the next logical step in embracing football. They're not just watching it. They're playing it.

2014 was not a great year for the Brazilian national futbol team. A 7-1 drubbing to Germany in the World Cup semifinals at home in Belo Horizonte shattered hearts across the country. As 2015 opened however, another Brazilian national football team was looking to make the new year a better one.

As the eyes of the world's football fans were settled on Arizona and the Super Bowl between Seattle and New England, Brazil's national American football team was in Panama. The winner of their game—also played on Super Bowl Sunday—against Panama would become one of eight teams to qualify for the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) World Championship, which will be held in July, in Canton, Ohio.

Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Image via Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The IFAF was formed in 1998 to be an umbrella organization for individual American football federations that sprouted up around the world with the growth of satellite TV and the internet. The next year, the organization held its first world championship game, which was won by noted football power, Japan. Held every four years since, it has now been won twice by the U.S., and by Japan a second time.

This summer will be the fifth championship, and the first held on U.S. soil. Given the distinct advantage the U.S. holds in interest and skill, tight restrictions are put on player eligibility; for example, the quarterback of the United States' 2011 world champion squad was former University of Colorado quarterback Cody Hawkins.


The Brazilian national side was formed in 2007, but didn't field a true team until 2009; the roster was pulled from try-outs among players of every possible stripe, including those that had only previously played beach football and flag football. In pursuit of more structure and professionalism, a national football league was formed in 2010 with teams spread across the country and in every major city. Today, it is estimated that there are 120 full-pad teams across Brazil of varying levels and skills, with an average of around 50 players per team.

The top leagues can draw three to four thousand spectators per game, but there remains plenty of room for growth. In informal discussion with a group of local football fans in Sao Paulo who had trekked to a bar late on a Sunday night to watch the Super Bowl, I found no one who had even heard of the local pro team, the Sao Paulo Storm; their home games were played just a few short miles from where we stood.

Enthusiasm and interest are clearly on the rise in Brazil. The next evolutionary step is for the games to show some real skill. MLS has only really grown popular in America as foreign players and improved American players have improved the quality of play to the point that it isn't insane to imagine MLS competing with some of the lower European leagues. Brazilian football leagues will need to do the same to leverage the love of the NFL and grow interest at the local level. To do that, Brazil is relying on a ready source of football knowledge to train and teach: former college and pro players from America.


To search for Johnnie Mitchell on the internet is to learn three things very quickly. First, no one but him spells his first name the way he now does; look at any of the football cards printed during his playing days, or at his page on Pro Football Reference, and you will see a 'y' where he now uses an 'ie'.

Second, since ending his five-year NFL career in 1996, Mitchell has traveled the globe spreading the word on the game he loves. Third, for a guy that has spent years working in the media, he keeps a very low profile. Having no Twitter or Facebook, a Google search becomes a game of Where in the World is Johnnie Mitchell. Carmen Sandiego wishes she could disappear as well.

Johnnie Mitchell grew up in Chicago and attended Nebraska, where in two short seasons he became a two-time All-Big Eight tight end, a third team All-American and the single game record holder for receptions and yards by a tight end. When he declared for the 1992 NFL draft, he became the first Husker ever to leave early for the NFL. He was drafted by the New York Jets in the first round, 15th overall. After a quiet rookie season, his second and third seasons as a Jet started to show signs of progress, peaking with 58 receptions in 1994. But then, the Jets being Jets, the team spent the ninth overall pick in the 1995 draft on Kyle Brady. Two seasons later, Mitchell was out of the NFL for good.

Where the influence of most NFL players ends when they walk off the field, Mitchell's was just beginning. First, he moved to France to coach American football. Then in 2008 he crossed the Channel to England where he coached and commentated on Sky Sports' NFL coverage. In 2013, he moved to Brazil to coach the Curitiba Crocodiles. Brazil offered a new home to him but not a new culture; his first wife was Brazilian. Mitchell may be the Brazilian football's most visible transplant, but he isn't alone. He is one of the 25 Americans playing or coaching in Brazil according to Julio Adeodato, President of the Recife Mariners.


When I finally reach Mitchell, he is recently returned to Brazil after covering the Super Bowl for ESPN Brazil, where he took advantage of his platform to ask Bill Belichick the not-very-hard questions. It's a Friday afternoon, and Mitchell is diagramming plays to a classical music soundtrack in preparation for the new season that will kick off in March. Instead of the usual retired jock's anonymity, Mitchell now finds himself in demand. "My whole life, I have been a football player and football has allowed me to be an Ambassador," he says.

While the rapid economic growth of Brazil has had the obvious impact of making American football more accessible, Mitchell notes another outcome—bigger Brazilians. With better nutrition throughout the country, Brazilians are getting bigger, physically, and as young Brazilians out-grow the quickness required to excel in futbol they are looking for other sports to play. Basketball and volleyball have long been popular, but American football is providing another alternative.

There is some evidence to support Mitchell's theory. While covering an earlier time period, a University of Sao Paulo study compared the average size of children at various ages in 1997-98 with their equivalents in 1978. In standard academic-ese, the results showed: "t-tests indicate that the average weights and heights of boys surveyed in 1998 are significantly above the values of 1978 for all cohorts from 5 to 18 years."


Mitchell sees these same results on his own team, "Guys are growing bigger, much bigger and faster. Like a child in the US. You see guys the size of American guys. I have two guys, 6'8", 6'7", 300 pounds."

Coaching in Brazil allows Mitchell to get in on the ground floor of a nation just learning a new game. "If they can't adapt, simplify your game plan and make it simple," he says. "My philosophy is [to] make it very simple. Very simple to consume."

He views his as an opportunity to eliminate many of the problems that have plagued the game in the U.S. as it has evolved over time. Where we are consumed every day with the negatives that infest football, little of that information carries a passport. Brazilian fans infatuated with the game can enjoy the on-field action with none of the guilt that comes with understanding the impacts of the game off the field. It is easier to make football Simple To Consume when the usual complicating factors are muted. In short, Roger Goodell could not have designed a better football-playing population in a lab.

The most obvious example of this is tackling and concussions, where Brazilian players do not have to un-learn the poisonous lessons of previous years' JACKED UP hits. In Brazil, the art of tackling is a blank sheet. Cribbing from rugby, a sport as violent but played with less protection and marked by fewer concussions, Mitchell teaches his players to keep their heads out of a tackle rather than lead with it—Heads-Up Football without the marketing, and with more sincerity than the NFL's branded youth football initiative can boast. "I don't allow my guys to put their heads in the game," he says. "There has been bad teaching in America from high school all the way to college." Mitchell goes out of his way to do the opposite, and to reinforce what he thinks coaches should have been teaching all along. "I punish my guys for putting their head in the tackle. I make them do push-ups."


Mitchell's Curitiba Crocodiles won the last two Brazil Bowls, the Brazilian American Football League's championship. He has now moved on to the Maringa Pyros, another team located in the same state. The league structure is such that all of the teams in a single state—in the case of Curitiba and Maringa, their Parana state league consists of eight teams—play each other. The top two teams then move on to the national league with the ultimate champion crowned at the Brazil Bowl. Mitchell's success isn't limited to winning title for Curitiba, either. He notes with pride that eleven of his former players are part of the Brazilian national team facing Panama.

"Torneiokickoff" by Tavarjr, Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Rather than dedicating himself to growing a single team though, Mitchell is acting like more of a consultant. "I take teams, build them up and turn them over. I build the system, teach them all the fundamentals—safe tackling, how to run one on one, how to read defenses—and then I move on," he says. He isn't looking to build a dynastic team. He is looking to build a league.

In Mitchell's mind, his role is equivalent to those who grew the NFL in the 1960's and 70's, back when baseball still held the pre-eminent place in American sport and football still had something of a shabby, sideshow aspect. Mitchell notes that sponsors are already coming to the league, sensing its growth potential. As is ESPN Brazil, who, according to Mitchell, had their web site crash due to overwhelming demand to watch streaming coverage of the 2013 Brazil Bowl. "The ultimate goal is to continue to attract fans," he says. "The audience has grown 25 percent every year. This is why ESPN has come in and invest."


In fact, repeatedly throughout our conversation, Mitchell mentions his wish that he had access to wealthy Americans looking for an investment to make somewhere. He doesn't want that money to build a team, he says, but rather to build out the domestic league structure, eventually making it capable of producing players that can compete in the NFL.

"There is a huge market," he insists. "If I had Jerry Jones money, I would buy up two leagues. I would buy both leagues and would make them like the [AFC] and the [NFC]."

Mitchell isn't looking to become Colonel Kurtz, building a personal empire in the jungle. He wants to be Johnny (or Johnnie) Appleseed, laying the foundation from which a generation of football, rather than futbol, players might grow.

The Jardins in Sao Paulo. Image via WikiMedia Commons

The quiet streets of the Jardins neighborhood in Sao Paulo reflect its position as one of the sprawling mega-city's more affluent areas. Large homes, trendy shops and upscale condos line each road.

On the corner of Rua Oscar Freire and Rue Peixoto Gomide, the All Black Irish pub strikes a rather incongruous note among palm trees and heaving sidewalks losing a battle of wills with disruptive tropical tree roots. "Irish" pubs have become common sights across the world, and this one, like many others, has become the home for all anglo sports. By the second quarter of this year's Super Bowl, as Tom Brady directs the Patriots offense on the big screen inside, the line of people waiting to get in stretches 15 deep along the sidewalk; the bar is at peak capacity, and new patrons can enter only when another leaves.

Inside, it is standing room only. Football jerseys dot the crowd— an Elway jersey here, Unidentified Cowboys there. Adrian Peterson sits in a back room watching a smaller screen, not far from Peyton Manning, who sits just in front of Tom Brady. Even a Florida State Seminole jersey is spotted, though it isn't clear if the owner understands the difference between the Noles and the teams on the screen.

Along the side of the bar, a 49er "fan" cheers hard for the Seahawks, seemingly unconcerned about the inherent contradiction. In front of him stand two Patriots "fans" who admit that they are cheering for the Patriots solely because the other teams they like—Niners and Broncos are mentioned—have lost already. All blame for this string of losses goes back to Germany's 7-1 domination of Brazil during the World Cup last summer.

As the Seahawks and Patriots trade scores through the middle quarters, each touchdown is greeted with an equally loud cheer. The few avowed partisans in the crowd may sadly shake their heads when their team gives up a score, but most everyone else celebrates every touchdown equally.

Despite the escalating drama in Arizona, the crowd thins out as the clock slides past midnight and closes in on 1am. When Malcolm Butler intercepts Russell Wilson in the end zone to clinch the game, a loud cheer erupts and the few Patriots fans high-five and hug. There is no lingering celebration though; everyone wants to pay their tab and head back on to the street.

Later, on the local ESPN's SportsCenter, the Super Bowl is the fifth story of the show. The first three are local Sao Paolo area futbol matches.

The fourth story is about the Brazilian national American football team's game earlier in the day. They defeated Panama to earn a berth at the World Championships this summer. They're bound for Canton, eventually.