La dolce vita: Former NFL WR enjoys pizza, pigskin in Italy

Kris Durham had been through hundreds of game days. His plan, naturally, was to arrive early, get dressed, take the field and warm up.

Nope, he was told. Taking the field would have to wait.

An under-15 youth soccer game had to finish first.

The former Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans receiver laughed. This was a place so far from where he had been and, yet, so much of where he wanted to be.

“That,” Durham said. “Was one of those ones where I was like, 'Welcome to Italy.'"

In Italy, soccer -- called calcio -- is the sport of choice first, second and third. In Parma, rugby comes next. American football is an afterthought.

Yet here he was on March 5, 2017, on a field shorter than the regulation 100 yards, in a rented-out rugby stadium, playing for the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League. His last NFL game, a 2015 preseason game playing for Oakland facing the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field, had 68,032 fans in attendance.

This game had about 200.

That Durham was here at all was a result of a combination of events so unlikely it felt like it should be a book. In some ways, it was.

John Grisham’s novel “Playing for Pizza” was published in 2007. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, one of Durham’s closest friends, gave him a copy after he arrived in Detroit in 2012. It’s about a former NFL quarterback who was cut and ended up playing in Parma for the Panthers. It was the first time Durham realized football existed outside the United States and Canada.

Durham was released by Oakland during final cuts in 2015. He gave himself until the end of the season to find another job. No calls came. He decided to travel as much as possible as a bridge to his next career -- possibly teaching or going into real estate.

A Facebook message brought him back to football.

In early 2016, Parma owner Ugo Bonvicini scanned a list of potentially available players. He sent messages to a few of them. One responded immediately: Durham, who was traveling in Europe.

Bonvicini thought he was reaching out to a player with little to no NFL experience. Typically, about 10 percent of inquiries from Bonvicini and head coach Andrew Papoccia -- a Chicago-area native who played football at Illinois State -- are answered. Most say thanks but no thanks.

Before Durham, only six players with non-strike, regular-season NFL experience had played in the Italian league. Of those, only three played more than 10 NFL games. Only Louie Giammona, a running back for the Jets and Eagles from 1976 to 1982, had a career equivalent to Durham.

“I can assure you that if I knew he was the real Kris Durham I never write to him,” Bonvicini said. “Of course, who is so stupid to call an NFL player after four years contract to come here? It was impossible. No. So I didn’t know who he was.”

The talent level in the Italian league is similar to Division III. Only Americans are paid -- usually a stipend around 1,000 Euros per month along with covering transportation, apartment, airfare, cell phone and a gym membership since the team has no facilities of their own. Most of Durham’s teammates had full-time jobs. His quarterback, 27-year-old Tommaso Monardi, was a business controller who drove an hour from Modena for the Tuesday, Thursday and Friday practices from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m.

It’s one of the first things Papoccia explained to Durham. He wanted to make sure he understood what he was in for.

“He definitely showed the desire to try something different, to go to a new country, new culture, get the opportunity to travel. He was definitely about that,” Papoccia said. “That’s the part I always sell to the guys.

“That’s one of the best experiences you get from coming over and playing over here is that. What you get to take home with you is different than anywhere else you would play.”

Durham initially said no but told them to stay in touch. Football, at the time, was something he didn’t want to think about anymore since his NFL career ended the way many do -- unceremoniously during cut-down day.

After Parma’s 2016 season -- they play in the spring and summer -- Bonvicini and Durham spoke again. The experience intrigued him. Durham said yes. He landed at Parma International Airport knowing how to say “Ciao.” Monardi and another teammate picked him up and peppered him with questions, in English, about playing in the NFL and what his old teammates were like.

Parma signing Durham, who had 55 career catches for 699 yards and three touchdowns in the NFL, was the equivalent of an American team nabbing Durham’s old teammate, Calvin Johnson. Durham’s new teammates knew him immediately because they used him, Johnson and Stafford in Madden.

The way Parma described Durham, who had 35 catches for 816 yards and 11 touchdowns in nine games last season, is how the Lions used to describe Johnson.

“It’s just like playing with a safety valve,” Monardi said. “It’s not running it or a checkdown for 5 yards, it’s a receiver going 40 yards fade. So when I was in trouble, always throwing to him and he was even able to break easy double coverage.

“It was exciting.”

The football mattered to Durham, but this was the chance for adventure and the ability to start the next portion of his life while still holding some connections to his old one. He missed family and friends. It took half a season to get comfortable. Then, for the first time in a long time, he started having fun.

He decided to stay for a second season.

“In the NFL, it’s a business,” Durham said. “You can be on one team one week and another team another week. Here, you’re here. You’re part of the team. You’re part of the brotherhood. It definitely brought me back to the sense and the love of the game.”

He went out with his teammates every Friday to Pizzeria da Luca in Parma for pizza and beer -- an Italian football tradition. They were close like a high school team. It reminded him of football when he was growing up.

He played flag football with his teammates during downtime. Celebrated when Parma’s soccer team earned promotion to Serie A in May -- a party he equated to a Super Bowl celebration. Traveled to Rome with his teammates for Easter and on the way home, stopped for a visit at a teammate’s home in the Tuscan countryside. Ate Tortelli on Saint John’s night at the festival of San Giovanni. Met his girlfriend through a teammate. She helped him with cultural differences.

Durham’s teammates invited him everywhere. Unlike some other Americans who have played, Durham happily accepted. He’s on the team group text -- even if he understands little of it because it’s mostly in Italian and he can only engage in small conversations. This was something he had longed for, even though he never knew it.

“We didn’t even expect like that because it’s not common for an American guy, even with that level of guy because he played in the NFL, we’re expecting some struggle with that,” Monardi said. “But he really [is] part of the group and that’s what make us, that’s the pleasure for us.

“That you’re really embracing the team fully.”

It’s why June 25, 2018, brought mixed emotions. For the second straight season, Parma lost in the semifinals. Durham rushed twice for 20 yards and had 11 catches for 128 yards. When he stepped off the field inside Parma’s soccer stadium -- the only time all year they played there -- he paused.

He was so far from home and also right there again, in the place that embraced him and made him one of their own. He knew before the season this was his last year. Football brought him to Italy and gave him a second chance at ending his career on his own terms, with teammates who despite a language barrier and talent differential turned into a close group of friends. He respected his Italian teammates as much, “if not more,” than any of the others he has had.

Durham played in front of his home state at Georgia. He made money and reached the NFL. Then he played the game in a country where the sport doesn’t matter at all, in front of small numbers of fans with players who were doing this as a hobby and a second career.

It made him fall in love with football all over again.

“You experience life and experience culture and see things and visit places and get to be a part of things that are so different,” Durham said. “So much different than the U.S. and American football in my head, it’s a different experience.

“It definitely changes you, your perspective, your mentality. It’s just like traveling and seeing the world in any capacity, it’s going to open your mind to new things.”