Granby grad is an ambassador through Russian football
Granby grad is an ambassador through Russian football

If Bobby Rome's football team wins the championship and gets invited to meet the president, he'll have an easy trip to the big event.

After all, the Kremlin is just a short walk from the former Granby QB's apartment in Moscow.

Surprised they play American football in Russia? You're with Rome, who didn't know it until less than a year ago. But look at him now:

-- Star quarterback for the Moscow Patriots, whose roster is 50 Russian amateurs and Rome, the team's lone American and only paid player.

-- Well-traveled "football ambassador" who, with his American coach John Trana - an ex-junior college coach in New York - is often on a train bound for a camp, clinic or interview.

-- Popular media curiosity, a beefy black man touting an odd game that turned up 25 years ago and that as a fan attraction typically still plays to crowds of a few hundred.

Nonetheless, as Rome noted on his Facebook page, "They love me in Mother Russia."

"It's funny, I'm kind of a celebrity over here," Rome said. "I'm pretty much carrying the flag for American football."

Turns out, it's a good life.

Rome, his fiancee Gabriell Taylor and their 2-year-old daughter, Gia Bella, live in a two-bedroom apartment and have an on-call translator - both supplied by the Patriots.

There is practice a few nights a week and a game every couple weeks. Rome spends much of his other time training players and spreading the word of tackle football.

"The football is pretty good," Rome said, comparing play in his league to what you'd see at the Division II college level. "It was quite shocking to me. They take it very, very serious. Some of these guys are real-life Olympic athletes, bobsledders and stuff like that.

"I watched the highlight tape, saw the blocking assignments, watched the type of offense they were running. I looked at the size of the players. Our line is all about 6-foot-3. They look like football players, no doubt about it. They look every bit of the part."

Ah, but as happens, a Russian villain has emerged: Mikhail Zaltsman, owner of the Moscow Black Storm, archrival to the traditional-power Patriots.

Rome began tearing up the seven-team Russian league as a 250-pound read-option QB - he played fullback at North Carolina and in the United Football League - and as he did, Zaltsman brooded.

In the tradition of bombastic owners, he countered by postponing the teams' recent regular-season meeting so he could hire a handful of what Rome called "imports" from the U.S. and Europe "to play against me."

They televised the rescheduled game, a couple thousand fans came to watch, Rome ran for 300 yards, but the Storm won 33-31. Zaltsman, though, wanted more.

With the Patriots and Storm slated to meet again in Saturday's playoff semifinals, Zaltsman floated a million-dollar offer to Tim Tebow, who reportedly rejected it Tuesday.

Nonetheless, Zaltsman is thought to be hiring even more imports for the rematch, which Rome said will be a spectacle televised nationally "with 21 cameras.... This is the richest city in the world," Rome said. "They do things pretty big."

Rome, 27, owes his presence there to Taylor, an aspiring business manager and agent who met Rome in college. When the UFL folded last year, Rome, who got a mini-camp look from the Green Bay Packers in 2010, wanted to keep playing, but didn't know where to look. He considered the Canadian Football League, but didn't like his chances as a fullback in its wide-open style.

So Taylor began scouring for opportunities in Europe. Her networking produced a contract with a team in Croatia, also called the Patriots, but that deal collapsed late last winter.

Undaunted, Taylor reworked her contacts until the Moscow Patriots' manager viewed Rome's highlight video and offered a deal. Rome said he balked at first, confessing: "I didn't know much or care much about Moscow." But he agreed to go for less than his $5,000-per-game UFL contract in return for the chance to play quarterback, as he did at Granby, and to be a pioneer.

"I started doing research and realized Moscow was a big, big place, the richest city in the world, with all these billionaires," Rome said. "I said, 'Wow, it sounds like a land of opportunity to me. So why not go on this nice adventure?' "

He and Taylor, who recruits for the Patriots, secured three-year work visas and arrived with Gia Bella in April.

Weather, congestion and language are challenges; Rome said he calls plays in English, but uses lots of hand signals. And as an African-American, "I've noticed some stares from people who don't really prefer minorities here," Taylor said. "But it's really not an issue. When we start speaking English, they want to talk to us and see what we're about. They're interested in us."

Rome and Taylor hope to visit their families in November, but Taylor said the Patriots, who are owned by the founder of a chain of opulent gyms, want Rome back to beat the football drum all winter.

"Russians really value quality and will pay for quality," Taylor said. "They view Bobby as an asset, and they want to make sure he stays around."

Russia is among 62 countries in the International Federation of American Football, a developmental partner of the NFL, which televises games in Russia. Rome - or Rum or Roma, as some translations have it - said his team and league are moving toward going pro.

That he would wind up as a leader in that effort, while causing a particular rival owner to choke on his borscht, "is one of the best moves I've ever made," Rome said.

"They treat me good here, man. They're looking to build something long-term with me, as far as developing football in the country. They didn't offer me that opportunity anywhere else."

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