Ivy Leaf - Winter 2013
When in Rome ...
Growing up, many American soccer players try to emulate the style of the European game. From afar, they follow athletes and teams who play a sport that has existed nearly as long as the United States has been a country. But Penn State Altoona freshman Ben Gerard had the unique opportunity of honing his skills in Italy, a country where soccer is a national pastime.
Gerard is a native of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but for three years during high school, he spent the majority of his time in Italy. When Gerard’s father took a job in Rome, Gerard accompanied him, attending the American Overseas School of Rome beginning in his sophomore year.
When in Rome, Gerard did as the locals do and immersed himself in soccer. He joined a club team and soon found that the game he played in America was a different flavor of the Italian version.
“They play a different style in Italy,” Gerard explains. “It’s a lot about conserving energy so you can last the entire game and making smart decisions, not just running around and trying to make plays.”
Gerard was the only American and only English-speaking player on his club team. Initially, the only commonality between he and his club teammates was playing the game of soccer.
“It was a big challenge in the beginning, being the only person on the entire club team that spoke English,” says Gerard. “For the first nine months, I couldn’t really communicate with anyone, just a little bit here and there.”
But eventually, Gerard got to know his peers and came to treasure the friendships he established. He enjoyed meeting people who came from different backgrounds than himself. “I became closest to people who grew up in a completely different environment than me,” he says. “The people there aren’t afraid to ask you something or tell you something that they want you to know. It’s a completely different kind of relationship between people than here.”
Gerard also witnessed the intense passion that Italians display in support of their soccer teams. While soccer is still a growing sport in the United States, it is the most popular sport in Italy. The local Roman professional team, A.S. Roma, draws fanatical devotion from its followers. “In Rome, they’re diehard for that team,” Gerard explains. “Whole families watch their games together, and it’s an explosive environment in the stadium. Everyone in the crowd yells the players’ names during introductions. If Roma loses, the fans are ready to fight the other team’s supporters.”
On the pitch, Gerard picked up nuances in the Italian style of soccer that benefit him to this day. As a defender for the Penn State Altoona men’s soccer team, he feels grateful to have been exposed to a different style of play than he sees in the United States. “It’s a completely different setup and style over there,” Gerard says. “Now that I play collegiately, my experience has given me confidence based on where I’ve been and what I know I can do with my game.”
Gerard also appreciates everything he learned through living in a foreign culture. He recognizes the positive effects of the time he spent in Italy on the person he is today. “When you can’t speak to anyone and you’re in a completely different location than you’re used to, you figure out who you are yourself,” explains Gerard. “You find out what’s important to you.”
Living overseas for an extended period of time was a priceless experience for Gerard. Everything from the cuisine to the customs broadened his world view.
“I enjoyed living in a different culture, and the food is delicious,” says Gerard. “But getting to know completely different types of people with different views on life really opened my eyes to what else there is out there in the world. There’s a whole other world beyond little Carlisle, PA.”