Barrie native playing football for Bern Grizzlies

Source: The Barrie Examiner

Mention Switzerland and many things come to mind.

Perhaps it’s Swiss watches like Rolex, TAG Heuer and Tissot.

Those with a sweet tooth will be quick to think of popular Swiss chocolate like Lindt Lindor or Toblerone bars.

Think sports and the ever-improving Swiss hockey team comes to mind.

Or, how about Swiss football, the sport we call soccer here.

Football in Switzerland was certainly on Wade Conrad’s mind when he graduated this year from Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S.

But the Barrie native’s focus on what was next for him wasn’t on kicking a round ball. No, the former Acadia Axemen star lineman is playing the kind of football we do here. The one with first downs, touchdowns, blocking and tackles.

Conrad is a lineman with the Bern Grizzlies of the Swiss American Football Association, National League 'A'.

He knew pro football in Switzerland was always an option if his dream of playing in the Canadian Football League didn’t work out.

“The Swiss league is arguably the best league in Europe, so I had my sights set on there if I had to choose a country,” said the 24-year-old, who attended a tryout camp with the Toronto Argonauts last year, as well as the CFL Regional Combine held in Quebec City.

Conrad isn’t the only Barrie native to have suited up this season for Bern. His former Acadia teammate and good friend, Brett Haenni, is also a member of the Grizzlies.

Unfortunately, Haenni’s season came to an end last week when the running back suffered a hip injury that required surgery.

The injury also ended a dream of the two friends of winning a football championship together on the field.

“We have been through so many ups and downs together on the football field,” Conrad said. “It’s nice as an offensive lineman to have Brett running behind me because I know his tendencies so well and I can block a certain way because I know he can read my blocks.”

Still, the opportunity to play pro football in Europe has proven to be quite the experience for both and one neither player will soon forget.

“It’s been a lot of fun so far,” Conrad said. “The team is doing well and I’m getting to experience a lot of the town.”

The opportunity to play in Switzerland for Conrad and Haenni arose from a lot of leg work through a website called where all European football teams have a page that allows interested players to inquire about import openings.

Former Acadia defensive co-ordinator Shad McLachlan had played for Bern in the past and provided the Barrie gridiron stars with “an in.”

Thanks to his Swiss citizenship, Haenni didn’t have to take up one of the rare import spots and he was pursued by several teams before deciding on Bern. Conrad got a contract deal done soon after.

“They pay for housing, flights, bus pass, phone and give you some spending money,” said Conrad, who plays left tackle and right guard on offence, as well as lining up at defensive end on the defensive side of the ball. “Bern is amazing. It has an town district that’s surrounded by the Ayr River. It’s about the same size population as Barrie, but everything is crammed close together, as most of Europe is.

“People are friendly and almost everybody can speak at least semi-fluent English (when not speaking German).

"For the most part, it’s very expensive to live here," he added. "Eating meals out is basically not an option, but if you have a play you can eat pretty cheaply.”

Conrad and the Grizzlies are off to an impressive start, winning their first four games to sit atop the standings in the six-team league that also includes the Basel Gladiators, Calanda Broncos, Zurich Renegades, Winterthur Warriors and LUCAF.

The Grizzlies biggest triumph of the season came on April 21 when they defeated Calanda, 19-17.

The Broncos had a 50-game win streak heading into that game.

“It was a close game. We conceded a touchdown on the third play of the game, but we fought back,” said Conrad, who is the lone import on his team. “With us up 19-17 and only two minutes remaining, they had a fourth down and goal at our one-yard line and we stopped them.

"Guys on the team reacted like we had won the championship already," he added. “Some were even crying, it meant that much to them to beat the mighty Calanda Broncos. I didn’t really understand the significance of the game until I saw their reactions.”

The Swiss League falls rules similar to those played in NCAA football, using four downs and a smaller field with no neutral zone.

The Grizzlies have a 10-game schedule with the regular season wrapping up in late June.

“The level of the football here is pretty good,” said Conrad, who starred with the Innisdale Invaders in high-school football and the Huronia Stallions. “There would be at least 10 Swiss players on our Bern team that would be on our Acadia team, maybe even more.

“Some of the weaker teams have some good players, too, but there are also players who have never played before," he added. "A lot of the guys love the NFL and stay up all night on Sundays so they can watch the games.”

Conrad sees a lot of potential for North American-style football to grow in Europe. The NFL has already played regular-season games in England and those were sellouts.

“People like watching contact sports and it’s basically the only one in Europe,” he said. “We have had decent crowds at our games so far, but hopefully word gets out that we are doing well and more people become interested.

“Soccer and hockey fight it out for the most popular sports here in Switzerland. The hockey arena in Bern seats almost 15,000.”

Conrad would recommend the experience he has had of playing pro football in Switzerland to any other Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) player. First and foremost, it’s a chance to continue playing the game they love.

In the Swiss league, two imports can be on the field at any time.

“You can work for the rest of your life, but you can only play football for so long,” he said. “Unfortunately, teams value Americans more than Canadians as import players, so it’s tough to get the respect you deserve from your college career. But it’s slowly becoming more apparent that Canadians have the talent to be successful overseas.”

While he has enjoyed the experience, Conrad says his first season playing in Switzerland will likely be his last.

“I think this will be my only year playing football overseas,” he said. “It just works out well now that school just finished and after this I can look for a full-time career back home. If I was unemployed at this time next year, I would definitely consider coming back and playing for Bern.”

The six-foot-five lineman hasn’t given up his dream of playing in the CFL some day.

Barrie native Kyle Graves, who is Conrad’s former Acadia quarterback, suited up with the Montreal Alouettes last season.

Conrad hopes his play in Europe will give him another opportunity to earn a spot on a CFL roster.

“I’m trying hard to put together good film clips from games and my agent will distribute it to teams after the season is done,” he said. “For now, my focus is on Bern and winning a championship here.”