EUGENE, Ore. -- If Mark Helfrich's father hadn't tracked him down in Europe in July 1997 he might have ended up being Oregon's team doctor, instead of its head coach.
After Helfrich finished his playing career at Southern Oregon, an NAIA school in Ashland, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology in 1996. Helfrich worked as running backs coach at his alma mater during the 1996 season, while starting graduate school with his sights set on becoming an orthopedic surgeon. But then a trip to Europe changed everything.
In early 1997, Helfrich joined the Vienna Vikings of the Austrian Football League as a player-coach. One of Helfrich's father's close friends had been coaching in Austria for several years and hired Helfrich to help local players learn the game. Helfrich spent the 1997 season playing in Austria, as well as Italy, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
"It was just like John Grisham's book, 'Playing for Pizza,'" Helfrich said. "I wanted to do it for as long as I could."
Helfrich was paid about $800 per month in salary, plus the team covered his housing and transportation costs. The Austrian Football League season lasted from January through July, when the Austrian Bowl decided the league championship.
"The American players are not going over there to make a lot of money," said Tom Smythe, head coach at Lakeridge High School in Portland, who recommended Helfrich to the Vienna Vikings. "They're going over there to play football for another year or two and learn about foreign countries."
After the 1997 season in Austria ended, Helfrich was preparing to travel Europe with a couple of teammates. They planned on spending the rest of the summer in places like Italy, Portugal and Spain, before Helfrich returned to school in Oregon.
But then Helfrich's dad, Mike, called him from home. Helfrich's father told him that then-Oregon coach Mike Bellotti was trying to find him. Bellotti wanted Helfrich to join his staff as a graduate assistant.
"It was just dumb luck," Helfrich said. "The timing was very bizarre."
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