All across America, from youth fields to the NFL, football is massively popular. People young and old get together to stuff bleachers every fall Friday, Saturday and Sunday, donning their jerseys and face paint to cheer on their favorite players and teams.
In Europe, though, football isn’t nearly as popular. Nonetheless, it’s a game that is slowly growing in popularity, and Badger High School graduate Zach Harrod is on the front lines of football’s European popularity explosion.
Harrod serves as the head coach of the Prague Lions in Prague, Czech Republic, as a part of the upstart semi-pro Czech League of American Football. Not only are the Prague Lions consistently one of the top teams over the past few seasons, this year they were the best in the CLAF, winning the league title in Czech Bowl 25 on July 20.
It has been a long road for Harrod to get here, though.
“I never thought I’d be here close to 15 years now, and have a Czech wife, and my sons both have dual citizenship, and I’m working on my Czech citizenship. If somebody would have told me that when I graduated from Badger in 1999, I wouldn’t have believed that,” Harrod said.
It all started in 2003 when Harrod graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. He had been a defensive back on the Titans football team all four years. When he graduated, he took a church-related assignment to do missionary work in the Czech Republic.
Harrod still had the itch to play football after his college career was over, and oddly enough, his missionary work fit in perfectly with playing football as an amateur on the side.
“So I had the opportunity to continue to play football, the opportunity to grow the game, and also as far as the mission side of things, being able to speak the language of football to affect life change in people,” Harrod said.
The rules of the Czech league are not too different from NCAA football rules in America. The two big differences are that they play 12-minute quarters instead of 15, and the field has been shrunk to fit onto a soccer field to allow teams to share facilities with local soccer clubs.
In his first two seasons of Czech league football in 2004 and 2005, the Lions won Czech Bowl titles. In the 2006 season, Harrod’s missionary organization moved him back to the United States, but the team also won the Czech Bowl title that year. Harrod moved back to the Czech Republic in 2007 and has been there since.
After winning three titles in a row, though, the team would go through 13 years of ups and downs before reaching the pinnacle again this year. From winless seasons to close losses in the championship game, Harrod saw it all.
He also saw a change in his role with the organization. In 2009, when the Lions’ coach left to coach the rival Prague Black Panthers, Harrod stepped up from just playing on the team and coaching the program’s youth team to coaching the adult semi-pro squad.
Rather than serving as both a player and a coach, which is not uncommon in semi-pro football, Harrod decided to focus wholeheartedly on coaching rather than have half of his attention on both coaching and playing.
With his dad, Doug Harrod, serving as the head coach of Badger High for 20 seasons, Zach could feel the call to coach inside himself.
“With my dad being the head coach at Badger for 20 years and coaching for 20 years outside of Badger as well, it was definitely in my blood to be coaching football,” Harrod said.
When the Prague Black Panthers left the Czech league to join the more prestigious Austrian Football League before the 2019 season, it put the Lions in prime position to win this year’s championship.
While Harrod had faith in his roster’s talent, he has been around football long enough to know that even if you are a preseason favorite, anything can happen.
“People said we were favorites to win this season with our rivals leaving to go play in a different league. I knew we had the ability and the talent, but I didn’t know if we’d be able to. I believed in our guys, but at the same time, an injury could happen,” Harrod said.
The team rattled off a 9-1 regular season and won their semi-final game 42-20 over the Vysocina Gladiators to earn their spot in this year’s Czech Bowl.
As if Harrod did not have enough on his plate preparing for the title, his second son was born July 14 — six days before the title game. After starting the week with one big experience, Harrod closed it out on July 20 by winning the Czech Bowl to bring the Prague Lions their first title since 2006.
Despite his team’s gridiron successes, and the growing popularity of football, the fact that football is less popular than hockey and soccer in the Czech Republic gives Harrod a level of anonymity that NFL coaches do not have.
“It’s a marginalized sport here, so I can walk down the street and nobody really recognizes me. If I’m at a place that has sports on regularly, I’ll be recognized here and there,” Harrod said.