It isn't easy being Baltimore native Gino Culotta, a senior linebacker and running back at the International School of Brussels in search of a Division I football scholarship. Every time he approaches a college coach, the conversation goes something like this:
"Hi, I'd like to talk to you about a football scholarship," Culotta says.
"Where are you from?" the coach asks.
"Where do you go to school?"
"I've never heard of Brussels, Md."
"No. Brussels, Belgium."
The coach pauses.
"They play soccer in Belgium, don't they?" he says.
Culotta smiles. "That's a pretty good paraphrase," he said.
It's a mountain the 6-foot-2, 200 pound Culotta has set out to climb by the time he graduates next spring. He took his first steps up the slope while home this summer, visiting campuses and working out for coaches from the Carolinas to Delaware.
Brussels is not on the travel itinerary of any Division I football program. It is a country known for soccer, lace and tennis players Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin -- not American-style football.
But five years ago, when Culotta's dad, Dominic, was asked by UPS, for which he has worked since he was a student at Poly and later Loyola College, to take his engineering expertise to Brussels, the first thing he thought of was football.
"I have three boys," said the UPS vice president, whose three sons, Dominic, 18, Gino, 16, and Vinny, 15, all play the game. "I told UPS if there was a school there where my sons could play American-style football, I'd take the job."
American football in Brussels?
The International School of Brussels Raiders play in the Department of Defense Dependents Schools league (DoDDS), composed of about 30 teams, most of them affiliated with schools on U.S. military bases around Europe.
As it turns out, Brussels is home to one of just three international schools -- a designation distinct from the institutions that educate children of armed forces personnel -- that play the sport. The other two are in Asia.
At the dining room table at his home in Joppatowne, where the Culottas spend their summers and Christmas holidays, Gino Culotta acknowledged that Brussels is not everyone's first choice for playing American football. After attending a number of coaching combines, including the Offense-Defense Select Camp at Towson University in July, where coaches judged him to be a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision prospect, he has concluded he has just one major disadvantage.
Lack of exposure.
"I know a lot of coaches travel to see their prospects," said Culotta, a rangy kid who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds. "I don't think anyone [will] make the flight to Brussels."
That, even though his mom, Dona, is offering the family's guest room to any coach who will make the trip.
Several college coaches, including James Madison defensive coordinator Kyle Gillenwater, who talked to Culotta or saw him work out this summer, declined to speak specifically about him, citing potential NCAA recruiting violations. Gillenwater, however, talked in general terms about American high school athletes in Culotta's situation.
"I've been coaching 11 years, and this is the first time a situation like this has come up," Gillenwater said. "That tells you how rare it is. We have other sports here, like soccer, where the competition in foreign countries is known to be of the highest caliber. But football is an American game.
"If you send me a tape of Poly vs. Franklin, I'm going to know what I'm looking at. But even if I get a game tape from overseas, I have no idea what they're playing with or against. It makes the evaluation difficult. You have to question the level of competition even with game film.
"It's a challenge," Gillenwater added. "I'd think most in that situation would have to walk on as freshmen and hope to earn [a scholarship]."
According to a story in Stars and Stripes, a self-described independent U.S. military newspaper, a number of DoDDS athletes are finding their way to Division III schools for basketball, soccer and football. But Division III schools do not give athletic scholarships, and the fight for scholarship money in Division I is extremely competitive. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported last year that there were 1.1 million kids playing high school football.
For even one player on a U.S. high school team to receive a Division I scholarship is a rare achievement.
But Offense-Defense Elite Camp coach and director of football operations Artie Gigantino, a former major college and NFL coach and network NFL broadcaster, said he is impressed Culotta took the initiative to spend this summer in football camps to show off his talent and learn what he has to do to get noticed.
"He's a prototype outside linebacker," Gigantino said. "Big, strong, with long arms and he runs fast. If I was still the defensive coordinator at USC, I'd consider him."
And Culotta, whose Brussels team opens the season Sept. 19 on the road against the Barons of Bitburg (Germany) Air Base, said some coaches, such as those at the Delaware, Duquesne and Elon, have been encouraging, asking for game film and follow-up information.
"I plan to play college football somewhere, and though it is an uphill battle getting recognition where I am, I believe I can make that happen -- and make it happen with a scholarship program," Culotta said. "If I am forced to be a walk-on in a program to start, I'll deal with it. ... I think I will size up well against D-I athletes. Continuing to work out, I am getting stronger, bigger and faster."
A two-way starter for Brussels, Culotta's high school football experiences are not those of U.S. players.
When the Raiders go on a road trip, it isn't to a nearby county, it's to a foreign country -- usually Germany, Italy or one of the nations of Great Britain -- "and when we go, the school makes sure we tour all the important sights," Culotta said.
His school has 70 nationalities in its classrooms, but it's football team is one of the smallest in the DoDDS league in both numbers and size.
Last season, Culotta was one of just five players from the United States on his team -- and two of the others were his brothers.
Culotta starred at linebacker and running back, earning the team's Mr. Football award, while leading it in rushing, averaging 5 yards per carry for a total of 476 yards, and adding five tackles a game. He never took a play off. When practice started last month, he was elected team captain.
"It's been a really great experience," he said. "The education is great. My friends are great. I might wish for more competitive football, but I don't think I'd trade it. I've seen all of Europe, which is pretty cool, and I speak French -- not completely fluent, but better."
Culotta will play in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl on Jan. 2, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. The game, broadcast by Fox Sports Net and Fox College Sports, will give U.S. coaches a chance to see for themselves what kind of talent the Baltimore native has.
"I play in Europe, and coaches want to know, 'What is the level of play there?'|" Culotta said. "They know if they call my school they'll hear all the good things. So playing in the All-American Bowl, which will be my only high school game in America, can only help. They'll at least get to see me against other U.S. players."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun