When former Atholton quarterback Luke Casey and Gilman tight end Henry Poggi went to play in the Italian Football League this season, they didn’t expect a pandemic to end their football careers prematurely.
Coronavirus ravaged Italy, killing over 22,000 people and infecting nearly 170,000. While Casey and Poggi made it out of the country safely, it took a great deal of effort to make it home to the United States.
Poggi, who starred at fullback at Michigan, played for the Ancona Dolphins on Italy’s Adriatic Coast. The closest major city to Ancona is Florence — about three hours away. As the virus began to bear down on the country, Poggi prepared to leave the country and fly back to America on March 27, but it wasn’t easy.
“It was definitely an interesting experience getting back,” Poggi said. “Everything was shut down. We weren’t allowed to take our teammates or coaches or guys that run the team to drive us from Ancona to Rome. There were flights still leaving from Rome to the States during that time.”
Usually in Italy, trains run all day, but Poggi and his other American teammates had to catch the one train leaving Ancona each day. He began his venture on Thursday from Ancona with his flight home to take place at 10 a.m. on Friday from Rome.
Then came more red tape.
“Our football club had to contact the police and they got us written permission to say ‘Here’s why we’re traveling’,” Poggi said. “The whole country was on a legitimately real shutdown where if you weren’t going to get groceries or you didn’t have a paper saying that you were an essential worker, you’d get fined. People really adhered to that and the only way there was for us to travel was if we had a document saying ‘We’re traveling. We’re Americans and we’re on our way to Rome to go home."
Poggi, with a few of his teammates, got to the police station and had their documents checked. Then, came a 5-hour train ride to Rome, which included a stop in Fabriano, not too far outside of Ancona and another one in a smaller town. Arriving at 6 p.m., the last train into Rome was canceled. With his Italian not being up to snuff, one of the Italians traveling with Poggi stepped up and spoke to the police.
“He talked to the police and they told us that it was going to come later,” Poggi said. "The train came about three hours later, but that train still wasn’t going all of the way into Rome, it was stopping about a 2-hour drive outside. The Italian government had closed all trains going in or out of Rome and really tried to isolate the city.
“We had to get a 2-hour bus into Rome and after how difficult it was to get to Rome — getting to the airport and flying out was really easy. There was hardly anyone at the Rome airport at that time, it was only one flight coming in and 12 flights leaving all day.”
After flying into John F. Kennedy Airport International Airport in Queens, New York, Poggi rented a car to drive to his brother’s house. He ended up staying there for a day in isolation and eventually drove to his family’s beach house in South Carolina.
Casey was set to resume his career playing football in another European league, after playing last season for St. Ouen l’Aumône Cougars in France. Unfortunately for the former West Virginia Wesleyan quarterback, he never got a chance to suit for his newest team, the Lazio Ducks.
“Everything felt really normal — I would assume just like in America — we had heard about it in China and it was heavy in the news,” Casey said. "So, we talked about it. Then, it kind of went away for awhile. It was a week or two I didn’t hear anything about the coronavirus. Next thing you know, the news starts talking about a spike in cases in Italy and it was in Northern Italy. Either way, the process was crazy.
“One day, they started canceling schools. We worked at one of the schools in the area — a private school. We taught football to a class. Then we got a call one day that school was closed for two weeks. That was the start, we got school canceled and between all of the Americans we said ‘Wow, this is somewhat serious’. Then, the next day, our team president and the staff started telling us that we weren’t going to have practice."
Things began to get hectic for Casey as every public field was closed and then many of the non-essential stores were closed. Within a span of five days, Italy became the grounds of a public health crisis. No one could leave their houses except to leave for the pharmacies or grocery stores.
Casey ventured to the grocery store one night and there were a number of residents of the area gathered around the store. They donned masks and gloves and stood at least 10 feet away from one another. It took him about two hours to get groceries that day. However, it was all for naught, as his stay came to an untimely end.
“Unfortunately, I actually left the next day,” Casey said. "I went out and got a whole bunch of food thinking I was going to hunker down and get ready for quarantine over there. In the morning, our general manager calls us and says that ‘If you want to stay, it’s up to you, but we got you guys a flight to get out of here in four hours. So, if you want to leave, you can leave in four hours. If you want to stay, that’s totally fine with us.’
“Between the six Americans [on the team], five of us left in that four hours of that phone call. We scrambled to get ready, which was pretty crazy, and we packed everything up and left. It was pretty sad, but it seemed necessary and felt like a good time to get home and be with your family. At the same time, we weren’t sure if we were going to have games or a season and didn’t want to let anyone down, but wanted to get home and be as safe as possible.”
As he returned to the United States, Casey didn’t get tested or checked by anyone at the airport making for a “mind-boggling” experience. The night that he landed was his birthday — March 13. Once he got home, his parents made sure that he self-quarantined and he drove to a different house and stayed away from his family for 14 days. Luckily for Casey, he nor his team, ever developed any symptoms.
This will be the end of Poggi’s playing career. He plans to coach, following in his father’s [St. Frances co-head coach Biff Poggi] footsteps.
“I don’t think I’m going to head back, just because I was looking at it as a one-time experience,” he said. “My dad is a high school football coach. So, I definitely, 100%, eventually will be coaching high school football at some capacity at some point. Maybe not in the immediate future, but football is in my blood. At some it’ll happen sooner rather than later.”
As for Casey, he won’t rule out the possibility of returning to play football in Europe.
“My plans are to keep coaching — I’m going to coach at Archbishop Spalding,” Casey said. "Then, I’m working at the Quarterback Factory. I’ll probably just get a real job. I might be done playing in Europe, I don’t know. If they ask me to come back for another season, I’d love to, but if this thing is going to take up a few more months, I’m just going to coach and work locally here.
“I may hang up the cleats, but if this thing gets sorted out, I’d love to play again. I’m just staying around football with coaching and hoping that it gets resolved so that I can get back to Italy as soon as possible.”
Casey would like to see people take extra precautions in Maryland.
“I think that we’re a little bit behind in the sense that we haven’t totally shut things down,” Casey said. "I hope that this thing doesn’t get as bad as it’s being predicted, but they’re talking about a bad spike coming up in America now. I think that Maryland should get to that point and I think [Gov.] Larry Hogan has done a great job, but I think that we’ll get locked down to the point that they are. If things keep spreading because people keep gathering and are in large groups, then I think that we’ll definitely get to the point where we are all locked down.
"I just hope that it’s not for the whole summer. I hope that football happens — I hope that the NFL and college season won’t get interfered with. If we all stay in now and do our part and stay indoors, get outside get a little active, but stay away from other people and try not to spread this thing around, hopefully we can get past this and hopefully football can happen in the fall. Who knows.”