After games end, Max Gray finds himself pausing for a moment on the football field at the Ringstrasse Stadium in Chur, Switzerland, taking in the view of the Swiss Alps in the background.
During the summers the mountains are covered in green, and if one looks closely enough one can ascertain that the black specks dotting the verdant slopes are sheep grazing in the fields. While Gray is gazing at the landscape, the fans who had been enthusiastically drumming and chanting throughout the game spill onto the field to greet the players.
”I absolutely love it over there,” Gray said after returning home from Switzerland in October. “I fell in love with Europe.”
This is a tale of how a small-college player and small-town kid used football as a conduit for exploring the world.
A change in country and position
It’s Oct. 2, and Swiss Bowl XXXV between the Broncos and the Bern Grizzlies is being contested in the city of Basel. The Grizzlies received the opening kickoff and drove all the way down to the Calanda goal line when Gray, playing linebacker, recovered a fumble. The Broncos scored on the ensuing possession and went on to prevail 21-12 to claim the Swiss football championship for the 11th time in club history.
”Oh man, every championship feels fantastic,” said Gray, whose 2021 Swiss Bowl title with Calanda joins the one he won with the Broncos in 2019. “When you’re across the world playing an American sport, there’s nothing like it.”
Gray, 25, is a 2014 graduate of Arlington, where he was an All-Wesco wide receiver on the Eagles’ football team. He went on to play at small colleges, finishing up at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, where as a senior in 2018 he was named an NAIA All-American after catching 72 passes for 1,115 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Gray always intended to try his hand at professional football. He participated in Montana State’s pro day in the spring of 2019 and created a profile on the Europlayers website. It was the online profile that caught the attention of Calanda coach Geoff Buffum, who contacted Gray a week before Gray’s graduation.
“We had to replace an American player in the middle of the 2019 season,” Buffum said via email from Switzerland. “I recruited Max through a website where teams and players can find each other. His versatility and athletic abilities were the two main factors that led us to hiring him.”
“I received a random call from a weird number and thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll answer it hoping it’s not a scam,’” Gray recalled about being contacted by Buffum. “It was coach Buffum and he was looking for a playmaker to play offense and defense, but he needed to know soon because he needed to bring someone out now. I skipped class and called my mom and she asked, ‘Are they paying for your plane ticket?’ They were, and she said, ‘You have to go, who knows if you’ll have this opportunity again.’”
There was one hitch. The Nationalliga A only allows one American on the field at a time, and the Broncos have an American quarterback in former Georgia State signal caller Conner Manning. Therefore, that necessitated a change of position for Gray. Gray, who hadn’t played defense since taking a few snaps at cornerback in high school, converted into a defensive player who plays safety against teams with a passing quarterback and and linebacker against teams with a running quarterback, while also serving as a return specialist.
“To me it’s all the same mindset,” Gray said about adjusting to playing defense. “You want to be physical, you want to make plays, but it’s a different type of aggressiveness. I want to hit people now, and learning to tackle and do things the right way has made it so much fun. I love playing on the defensive side of the ball.”
The conversion worked, as Gray helped Calanda march to the 2019 Swiss Bowl title. Gray initially returned to Switzerland for the 2020 season only to return home 10 days after arriving as the coronavirus pandemic broke out. But the Nationalliga A resumed in 2021 playing close to a full season, and Gray’s defensive play once again helped the Broncos lift the championship trophy.
“Max has been a great player for us in a variety of positions over the last two seasons and is a big part of the reason we have won the championship each of those years,” Buffum said. “He is very well liked and respected by his teammates and has made a great effort to integrate himself in the team and immerse himself in the culture.”
‘It’s probably the most fun I’ve had playing football in my life.’
Chur is a town of 35,000 nestled in the German-speaking region of the Alps in east Switzerland. Though German is the official language, the residents speak their own version of the language.
“I took German in high school, but they speak Swiss German,” Gray explained. “Germans come to Switzerland and don’t understand Swiss German.”
If it’s a culture shock for those who travel 75 miles to Chur from the German border, imagine what it’s like for someone who’s from 5,000 miles away.
“My initial reaction when I got off the plane and to the city was, ‘Wow, I can’t read anything and I’m very intimidated,’” Gray said. “It was the first time I was uncomfortable in a setting just walking around. The way you cross the street is different, you have to go everywhere on trains or busses and I’d never done that. For the most part everyone spoke English, but they didn’t want to speak English. But once I was on the field it felt natural. Once I was practicing it felt like I was meant to be there and my worries went away.”
Fortunately for Gray, the language used by the Broncos is English. He’s also treated well by the team. In addition to being paid for playing and for helping coach Calanda’s youth teams, the team also provides housing and meals.
“I’m not getting rich over there, but I’m doing just fine,” Gray said. “I’m able to travel and bring home a few bucks.”
Gray needed about 10 days to find his footing in Chur. Since then he’s dived head-first into Swiss culture and football.
“It’s probably the most fun I’ve had playing football in my life,” Gray said. “Football is played the right way. The majority of players are local, so they work regular job, practice that night and play games on the weekends. So people are playing for the right reasons, they’re doing it because they actually enjoy the game.”
Calanda’s players range in age from 18 to 46, and their level of experience varies between being veterans of NFL Europe to just learning the game. Most of the Americans playing in Switzerland are former NCAA Division I players. Gray guessed that the Broncos would be able to compete with his team at Rocky Mountain College if the players didn’t have full-time jobs and could focus on football.
Gray’s first season in 2019 went by in a flash. He was in a game within days of stepping off the plane, and his season concluded in two months. This year was different, as he arrived at the beginning of May and stayed through Mid-October.
“This year was very long, I was over there for six months and when I first got there they didn’t even have the season planned yet because of COVID,” Gray said. “There was a lot of stress. Would I be sent home again? Would we play a full season?
“But the best thing about the season being long is that it gave me the opportunity to travel through all of Europe,” Gray continued. “In Switzerland they have a summer break where a lot of people go on a three- or four-week vacation at the same time, and there’s a break in the middle of the season. I went to 16 countries and about 24 major cities. This year was a little less about football because I had a lot of time. It gave me time to focus on things other than football.
“People always ask me what it’s like over there and they always ask me about football. But my favorite thing is the travel. I could have tried out for teams in North America, but then I’d be in North America. I had the opportunity to get paid to be in Europe and play football and see things not many people get to witness. When people do go there they go for 10 days, while I’m there for months at a time. I get to meet people and really experience the places.”
A hope to inspire
When Gray spoke about his experiences in Switzerland, he said he hopes it turns out to be more than just his story. He hopes his example can serve as inspiration to other young people in Arlington, about how one needn’t be at the tip-top of one’s field — sports or otherwise — to have the opportunity to explore and chase one’s dreams.
And Gray hope his story isn’t done yet. He’s hoping he’ll be able to return to the Broncos again next year.
“I absolutely love it over there,” Gray said. “I talked to the coach and there’s a good chance of going back. It’s not for sure yet, there are some things that could happen. but I’m definitely wanting to go back.”
Buffum’s answer when asked if he’s planning on bringing Gray back for 2022? “Definitely.”
Another season of professional football? Another stretch living in Switzerland? Another chance to fully absorb other cultures? What more could a kid from Arlington ask for?