Niclas Steklmacher: From Sweden to Ludlowe sidelines
More than baseball and basketball, many of whose best athletes do not hail from the United States, football is America's game. It's just not played at a high level in any other country but ours. The Czech National Team, or Team Thailand, is not about to challenge the NFL's All-Pros to a game any time soon, if ever.
Fairfield Ludlowe's defensive linemen, though, are being coached by a foreigner.
But if you speak to the offensive and defensive guards, tackles and ends, as well as the others on the Falcons' staff of 15 coaches, they'll tell you that Niclas Steklmacher, of Stockholm, knows what he's talking about. And that Ludlowe's linemen have improved because of his tutelage. Yes, that's Sweden, the land where ice hockey and soccer dominate the sports landscape, not the pursuit of the pigskin on the ole' gridiron.
Iconic coach Knute Rockne, at Notre Dame when the sports was still in its infancy a century ago, was born in Norway, so Steklmacher by no means is the first Scandinavian to leave his impact on American football players. Steklmacher is not so eager to work his way up the football coaching chain, yet not adverse to that possibility. He's happy coaching at Ludlowe. Yet, "If someone offered me a job to coach in the NFL, first I'd ask him if he was crazy, then I'd say yes," Steklmacher said while the Falcons were reviewing tape on Tuesday afternoon.
Ludlowe first-year coach Vince Camera says Steklmacher is a welcomed addition to his staff. "He complements the staff well," Camera said. "It's a learning experience for him but he brings a lot of experience coaching. He's knowledgeable and passionate -- that's what we ask of the staff. He's eager to teach the kids."
To Camera, Steklmacher's style is effective. "He's very hands on and very conceptual. The defensive line is where he spent a majority of his career playing. He puts his spin and his flavor on it. He teaches aggressive line play," Camera said.
With Steklmacher coaching, it's football with a Swedish accent, not a Southern accent or Texas twang. But his words pack the puch of the right techniques and form in shedding blockers and getting into the right gap ready to pounce on a quarterback or runner. The right way is the right way, no matter how it's imparted.
"He has a lot more experience playing than most of all my other coaches," said Falcons' defensive lineman Billy Stapleton, a sophomore in his third year with the sport. "He's a real funny guy. He's got some stories about Sweden; some of them are made up and some of them are not made up."
Stapleton said Steklmacher is respected by the players.
But how did Steklmacher, 44, land on the Falcons' sidelines? He was offered a spot on Camera's staff soon after Ludlowe announced Camera's appointment as head coach in April. John Prenderville was Camera's defensive coordinator at Platt Tech, and Prenderville assumed the same duties for Ludlowe. Pernderville and Steklmacher had quickly developed a rapport when Prenderville was recruited to coach in Sweden in 2008 where Steklmacher became a player-coach for the Stolna Chiefs, based just outside Stockholm.
Prenderville and Steklemacher continue to coach the Southwest Connecticut Grizzlies, a co-op of community college club teams that practices in Bridgeport a few nights a week.
He was 13 or 14 years old, close to 30 years ago, when he first saw the sport. And that was in a movie. "Football looked interesting to me; it looked like an interesting team sport," he said. He didn't see it again until he was 23, driving by a military facility. "I left my girlfriend and the car running, got out of the car asked if this was American football," he said. When told yes, they asked him whether he was interested in joining up. There was a game the next day but playing then was not an option because the coaches told him he'd have to practice first. Three practices later, he was playing outside linebacker. His mission? Tackle anyone from the other team who has the ball. No nickel or dime packages, shooting the gap, playing to the outside shoulder, establishing containment -- none of that fancy stuff at first for the the Westerbotten Huskies, a semipro outfit because players got gas money. Some of them used hockey helmets and shoulder pads.
In his first year, he practiced and played all positions except QB and free safety. The 6-foot nearly 300-pound player was lighter and fleet afoot in those days. But he soon became a lineman.
Steklmacher has been stateside nearly a dozen times since his first visit in 1991. He picked out Las Vegas as a place to celebrate returning from military sevice in Kosovo or Afghanistan in one piece. He returned there every time he got back to civilian life intact.
"I know I'm a good coach, but I'm not the best coach because I'm still new to the sport," said Steklmacher, who studies film and attends coaching clinics. "I can be stern when I have to. I see all the players as individuals. I might have to take an extra 30 seconds and show and explain to one player. Others just have to be told how to do it."
Steklmacher returns to Stockholm on Dec. 2 where he'll resume his taxi cab driving. He has already been offered the option to return to the 2014 Falcons. He said he would like to come back if he can.