In the end, the only person that Mark Pappas needed to convince was his mother.
After five years as a quarterback at Morehead State, including parts of three seasons as the starting quarterback, Pappas had planned out the next step in his football career.
Knowing the NFL was an unrealistic option, Pappas — who set the single-game passing yards record (481) at Morehead State in October and is the fourth-leading passer in program history with 7,346 career yards — connected through social media with friends who had played football overseas.
They told him to make a profile on the website europlayers.com, essentially a match-making service for prospective athletes in different sports to connect with teams overseas.
It was a self-starter opportunity to continue his football career, and also a chance for him to visit Europe for the first time.
Now come March, Pappas is set to travel to Sweden as the starting quarterback for the Stockholm Mean Machines, a team that is considered the gold-standard of American football in the Swedish capital.
While most coaches, family members and friends pushed Pappas toward heading to Sweden for the opportunity, his mother was a bit more skeptical.
“She’s kind of like, ‘I don’t know about it. You sure?’ Just because her motherly instinct is to make sure I’m taken care of and have my career in order. So she’s like, ‘Oh, you sure you want to? You don’t want to go get a job?’” Pappas recalled. “She was really the only one I had to rationalize with, but I think after a few days she kind of came around and was like, ‘It is an exciting opportunity.’ So she’s all on board for it.”
Pappas is now preparing for the more than 4,100-mile trip from his family home just outside of Cleveland to Stockholm, where English is commonly spoken.
“It’s really easy to recruit (American players),“ Stockholm Mean Machines head coach Fredrik Pilbäck told the Herald-Leader over video call from Sweden. “Stockholm is a beautiful city and Sweden is a beautiful country, and you’re able to see the world and you’re able to get paid and do what you love.”
From Morehead to Europe
When Pappas sought advice from Morehead State head coach and offensive coordinator Rob Tenyer about his offers to play in Europe, he was speaking with someone who had been in his position.
Tenyer was a quarterback during the 1990s at Olivet College in Michigan. He was preparing to go into teaching when he got a phone call one Sunday night offering him the chance to quarterback a second-division American football team in Germany.
Tenyer said no. Then he woke up the next morning and changed his mind. Six weeks later, he was on a flight to Munich.
By the time Tenyer left Germany, after about nine months, he could speak fluent German and navigate his way through a grocery store run and restaurant order.
The details of the experience still stick with Tenyer more than two decades later, from playing preseason games in Switzerland to traveling the continent for two months after the season and visiting the likes of Italy, Monaco and Prague, not to mention the fact Tenyer’s team won the second-division championship.
“I still talk to all the Americans that played together over there. We see each other at least once a year. Just a tremendous, tremendous experience and really glad that I did it,” Tenyer said. “I got to see almost 10 different countries while I was there.”
Former Morehead State quarterback Austin Gahafer also followed his college career by playing in Europe with a team in Germany.
“I think it’s great for recruiting and it’s a conversation piece,” Tenyer said about having another former Morehead State player go overseas. “Mark will be a guy that we talk about for a long, long time anyway.”
The current process of picking out an American “import” player to come overseas and play in Europe is far more tedious now than it used to be, Pilbäck said.
“Nowadays, we spend I don’t know how many hours in recruiting players from different places,” Pilbäck said. “I look at tons of game film, talk to different coaches and nowadays we’re actually assembling a team for every season. The difference is we’re really picking our players.”
Pilbäck is ingrained in Swedish football culture. He played from 1992 to 2007 and has seen quality players come to the Swedish league, founded in 1991 and known as the Superserien, from overseas.
The Mean Machines are one of the most decorated teams in the history of the country. The team is the oldest American football team in Sweden, having been founded in 1982, and has won 12 Superserien championships since 1991.
The team has appeared in the last four Superserien championship games, winning in 2018 and 2019 and losing in 2020 and 2021.
The last decade has seen a steady stream of American quarterbacks go to Sweden to lead the Mean Machines offense.
Since 2012, the team has had quarterbacks from Pitzer College (California), the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota), Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas), as well as other players who went to Liberty University and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Each year the Mean Machines have eight import players, two from the United States and six from around Europe.
“It costs us a fortune to bring someone over because by law you have to have a good salary. You have to have a bus card, gym card, lunch, everything is taken care of . . . you are as much a professional as you can be in Europe,” Pilbäck said. “It’s also much easier to get a hold of the next one for the next year if you are taking good care of them. They are grown-ups, but you are still borrowing them from their families and friends and parents from back in the U.S.”
One longstanding American import on the Mean Machines is Matthew Retzlaff, a former standout receiver at Southern Oregon who is now a coach and player with the team.
Retzlaff liked the experience in Stockholm so much that he’s moved his life to the Swedish capital, beyond just playing during the season.
Pilbäck said Retzlaff was the person who found Pappas online and conducted the first interview with him.
Pilbäck said he prefers his import players to come from smaller colleges because those players are used to taking care of themselves and working hard.
But the players still need to be good enough to help the Mean Machines on the field. Pilbäck said this year’s rigorous team selection process saw the Mean Machines pick two European offensive linemen from as many as 30 options.
The 6-foot-2, 213-pound Pappas was selected as the quarterback from a group of about 15 that were contacted.
“I’m not really afraid of interceptions. If you look at Pappas, that’s probably the reason why he hadn’t been contacted (was) because he had quite some interceptions,” Pilbäck said. “But if you dig deeper into the game films you can see that half of the picks are not his fault. There’s tipped footballs, there’s other reasons that it’s ruled as an interception in the stats, but it’s not really his fault.”
Pappas was contacted by several European teams in response to the online player profile he created.
There was a chance to play in Serbia, which Pappas said he never really considered. There was the opportunity to play in Italy for a team in Milan, but the season starts in February, a turnaround time Pappas felt was too quick.
What remained, and what Pappas ultimately decided to do, was head to Stockholm after verifying the details of the Mean Machines offer.
“There’s a lot of pros with Mark. He’s smart, he knows football and we had a long meeting discussing the playbook, how we should call stuff and he’s football smart,” Pilbäck said. “He is the guy that people are connected to. He’s going to get the o-line together. He’s going to get the offense together, the team together. He’s going to be a captain. . . . Pappas is a guy you want to be around and that’s a big part of why we picked him.”
What’s in store in Stockholm?
In addition to competing against seven other teams in the newly expanded Superserien in Sweden, the Mean Machines will also take part this season in a new international competition called the Scandinavian Cup featuring teams from Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
A typical week for Pappas in Stockholm will look like this, according to Pilbäck.
Saturday is game day. On Sundays, the import players are responsible for tagging game film and scouting future opponents.
Mondays include meetings and one of the most important roles that import players have, helping with the Mean Machines’ youth teams and youth programs on Monday nights.
“The kids and their parents are the ones who are going to be in the stands for home games. They have signs with the imports’ photos and names, the hand-written signs in the stands and cheering for their coaches. It’s a big deal,” Pilbäck explained.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday each feature a three-hour practice, with Fridays off before another game on Saturday.
Ahead of departing for Sweden in March, there are two things at the top of the to-do list for Pappas.
One is getting back into football shape and restoring his muscle mass after completing an 11-game season with Morehead State last fall.
The other is making some quick cash ahead of his European adventure. He’s been delivering food for DoorDash, and also has applications with FedEx and UPS for short-term work.
Tenyer, his college coach at Morehead State, believes Pappas’ unconventional route to a pro career, along with his preparation for it, will be well worth it.
“I’m happy for him. I think he’s going to enjoy his experience,” Tenyer said. “Hopefully he can go over there and have success and win. He gets to experience a lot of things that he didn’t think that he’d get to experience.”