Former Marshall football assistant coaches Sweden’s team
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Two things make Kanawha County native Aaron Fiddler nostalgic for home every time: hearing somebody play “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and thinking about Tudor’s Biscuit World.
He doesn’t get a lot of those two things in Orebro, Sweden.
Sitting at a table in Taylor Books, the 30-year-old football coach laughed.
“The food in Sweden is good, but just not the same as home,” he said. “I miss Tudor’s. I really do. I tell people about how good the biscuits are.”
Their mouths water, Fiddler promised.
Of course, Fiddler’s job isn’t to spread the word about West Virginia’s favorite biscuit chain. It’s to help develop Sweden’s American football program.
In the early 1980s, the Swedes started a national American football team that competes worldwide.
The Swedish teams are made up of mostly Swedish nationals, but they’re allowed a couple of other European players and up to two Americans.
“The Germans get six,” he said.
Fiddler coaches the Swedish national team, the junior national team and oversees the club team, the Orebro Black Knights.
“They wanted me to coach the women’s team, too,” he said. “Honestly, it’s enough, and they have good coaches. I’d only get in the way.”
And he might never sleep.
Growing up and playing sports in South Charleston and Cross Lanes, Fiddler said he never imagined himself coaching football in a foreign country. He was always a player first, but he said coaching was just hardwired in his brain.
“I was coaching my grandmother about football when I was a little kid,” he said.
The young coach’s father is Alan Fiddler, who coached at Glenville State College for seven seasons.
“So I have that background,” he said.
Fiddler played sports throughout his school years — basketball, baseball and football.
“I would say I wasn’t always the most-skilled player, but I was always one of the most knowledgeable,” he said.
In 2004, Fiddler’s career as a player came to an end just before the start of the fall football season. During preseason, he caught a weird tackle in practice.
“It broke my leg in half,” he said.
He called it “a lucky break.”
Because of his injury, he focused more on coaching.
After high school, he went to Marshall University for a year before transferring to Glenville State. He became a student assistant and worked with the Glenville State football team for three seasons.
He graduated in 2009 with a behavioral science degree and then went to Appalachian Law School on a scholarship.
“I loved the people,” Fiddler said. “I loved going to class, but I didn’t love spending my nights studying cases — and it was football season.”
A couple of months into his first semester, he left law school and went back to Glenville as a volunteer assistant.
“It might have been different if I’d had to pay,” he said.
At the end of the season, Fiddler saw a posting for a job in Germany as an offensive coordinator for one of the German league teams.
“It didn’t pay a lot, but I got walking around money, two meals a day, an apartment and a car,” he said. “I had a transportation pass for the entire Frankfurt area.”
German football, Fiddler explained, was serious stuff.
“They’re very competitive,” he said. “The German league is maybe the best league in Europe.”
After two seasons, he came home, married his high school sweetheart, Beth-Ann, and took a job at Marshall as an assistant. He helped with sports recruiting, but he said he felt awkward and didn’t stay.
When Germany called again, he went back, this time to Berlin and the No. 2 team in Europe.
He stayed for a season and then came back to the states, where he coached at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, Virginia, and then at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County, where he stayed two years, but didn’t win many games.
“I didn’t have a lot of success there,” he said. “But I think I learned more about coaching and how to be a good coach during my time there. In a lot of ways, those were my best years in coaching.”
In 2015, he was offered the job in Sweden. He was interested but wanted more than a one-year contract. He had a wife and a family and didn’t want to keep moving every couple of months.
“They offered five,” he said and laughed. “So, yeah, I took that.”
Sweden has been good for them, Fiddler said, though the culture is very different. There is poverty and crime, but they’re blunted by the country’s wide range of social programs.
He said the so-called “no go zones” in Sweden are about as dangerous as Capitol Street in Charleston. Even the “rough” parts of Sweden are like any other city.
“Our taxes are very high,” he said. “But if you go to the doctor, it doesn’t cost you anything. If your kids go to the doctor, it doesn’t cost you anything.”
A lot of the time, you can get treatment without a doctor’s visit, Fiddler said. People can just call the doctor’s office, speak to a nurse and then are told to pick up the medicine they need at the local pharmacy.
“There are efficiencies,” he said.
But there are also occasional inconveniences. At a dentist once, he had to wait for hours to be seen because the reason for his visit was less of an emergency than the other patients.
“But you expect that,” he said.
It took some time to get used to the sunlight in Sweden. In the summer, the days get very long, and, for a day or so, it doesn’t really get dark.
“It can be a lot of fun,” he said. “They have festivals and celebrate, but it can be tough if you’ve got a 2-year-old who doesn’t want to go to sleep because it’s still light outside.”
Winters are cold and dark. The morning light will appear after 8 a.m. some days and be gone in the early afternoon. The extra hours of night can sharply affect moods.
“So you learn to take vitamin D drops,” he said. “We take them all the time.”
The Swedish people are friendly. He said they’ve been quick to welcome Fiddler and his family. They know their neighborhood pretty well, the people in it and the shops. Gradually, they’re learning about the country.
“Beth-Ann just finished the six-month immigrant Swedish language class,” he said.
Which is good, because Fiddler’s Swedish isn’t great.
“I can get around, but I have a hard time making my mouth say the words,” he said. “My wife does a lot of the talking for us.”
The people in Sweden are also very fit.
“Something like 87 percent of the population is part of some sports club,” Fiddler said. “They’re physically big, strong and athletic. You don’t have to ask a kid in Sweden to go workout.”
He said it’s very different from what he’s seen in the U.S., where coaches sometimes have to beg their players to go to the gym. The professional teams in Sweden make more of production with their games.
“The Swedish are really big on sports presentation,” he said.
The entrances of the teams are full of spectacle and pageantry. For soccer, there is often music or videos after someone scores. When someone scores a goal during professional hockey, they set off fireworks.
“It’s amazing,” Fiddler said.
They do the same during football games, which has led to a couple of odd moments.
Playing Finland with the national team, between plays, the speakers blasted John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Fiddler wasn’t sure if that had something to do with him coaching the Swedish team, but they played the song.
“And then we scored,” he laughed.
A couple of months later, the junior national team was at a tournament in Finland, and the song was played again.
“And we scored again,” Fiddler said. “The Finland people should maybe lock in on that.”
Or Finland could keep playing the song whenever they had a game with Sweden. That was fine with Fiddler, too.
While American football is nowhere near as popular as soccer or hockey in Sweden, interest in the sport is climbing. Crowds come to games. Gangs of kids will sometimes gather by the fence to watch teams practice. They’ll even come on the field to throw the football every now and then.
“My job is to prepare my players as best I can to play football professionally,” he said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a job starting in the NFL, but it could mean playing in one of the professional European leagues that pay (Sweden doesn’t pay native players) or getting a scholarship to an American college.
“We’re competitive,” he said. “I’d say we’re Division III or maybe Division II college level.”
The Swedish players, he said, have a passion for American football that’s hard to match in the U.S.
“I think the game has become so accessible in America that we kind of take it for granted,” he said.
Fiddler wants to honor their passion, teach them what he knows and help them become the best they can be at something that has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
“My job is to help people chase their dreams,” he said.
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://wvgazettemail.com.