September 8, 2009 in Sports

Former Mead Panther helps French football team as player, coach

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

French football coach Jean-Robert Bortulus and former Mead High player Chris Elo, right, attend a Panthers’ practice at Albi Stadium.danp@spokesman.com
(Full-size photo)

Chris Elo was in the lineup for Mead in 1998 the first time the Panthers played Mt. Spokane in football.

Now living in a suburb of Paris, France, he was back at Mead on the sidelines watching a Mead practice in August, picking the brains of coaches, many who mentored him when he was a player.

Elo’s journey to Paris and back into football playing and coaching for a regional team is something like the John Grisham novel “Playing for Pizza,” about Italian professional football (based in part on another Spokane area player, ex-West Valley and EWU athlete Craig McIntyre).

Elo was here with his Filibustiers head coach, Jean-Robert Bortulus, a Frenchman of Italian-Egyptian descent, who had forsaken soccer for American football after watching the movie “Black Sunday.”

“No one knew the rules and I said ‘I know,’ ” said Bortulus in broken English. “You put the ball between two irons in the end zone. I play and smash my face, break a nose.”

Bortulus’ rudimentary knowledge led to his becoming head coach of Filibustiers, a 5-year-old club team in Villeneuve-Saint-Georges, France. Elo, who played guard for Mead, assists in coaching and also plays – even taking over at quarterback in the team’s spread offense.

“My last play (in high school) came with 30 seconds left against Shadle Park,” he said. “I suffered a knee injury and figured that was probably the last game for me.”

Elo’s journey back to football, and eventually to Europe, came following what he termed “a dark period in my life, like any young man. I dug myself out of a hole, out of a bad period and moved to San Jose.”

It was there, in 2005, he met his future wife, Yara, while attending San Jose State and helping coach at a high school, he said. She was from France, studying journalism and mass communications. Yara, he said, born in Germany to Syrian anesthesiologists, moved back to Syria and ultimately to France where she studied English at the Sorbonne.

Yara returned to France in 2007 to take a job with France 24, an international news network, he continued. He returned to Spokane for a time then followed her to France and proposed upon his arrival. They married last year.

In France, he discovered the Filibustiers and met Bortulus. The regional division is lower level football. Elo is the only American on a team that is allowed two.

“I saw a practice and it was like the ‘Bad News Bears,’ ” Elo said.

He proved to them he had football knowledge and could show them how to hit.

“I coached the line when I got there. I told Jean-Robert it was what I know best and what I could help them out with.”

When the team switched to the spread offense, he quarterbacked – wearing a helmet with a lineman’s facemask. He injured a shoulder and, coupled with the time of his marriage, missed several games. He eventually moved back to the line.

A team that had won but once in four years last year went 4-2-2 and made the playoffs. As a result, it moves up a Division to D-3, which is why Elo and Bortulus came to Mead this summer, to learn more about building a football program.

Friday was a reminder of the past after Mt. Spokane won 7-0, after four straight losses in the 12th renewal of the rivalry.

“It was a bit of a disappointment,” Elo said of the 1998 two-point loss. “We could have done better had I been concentrating at the end.”

Trailing 25-23, the Panthers, he said, were tearing up chunks of yardage with a quick-count sweep.

“We were down to the 20 and I knew we would score, I felt it,” he said. “I forgot the count, went on the quick count and lost five yards for us, which kind of hurt.”

Mead failed to score and the Wildcats, in only their second year in the sport, first in the GSL, had the upset.

Elo will stay in France for the foreseeable future, he said, but obtaining a visa and finding work is an obstacle because of governmental bureaucracy.

“They say ‘in hell the English cook and the French administer,’ ” Elo explained. “It’s a vicious circle over there. To get a job you have to have a visa to get a contract. But you have to have a contract to get a visa.”

Still, he said he speaks passable French and enjoys his new life. Besides, it is there he reconnected with football.

“I never lost my love for the game. I always thought of coaching and having a chance to play again is unbelievable,” Elo said. “I never thought I would strap a helmet on again and knock heads (let alone in France). That was a big surprise.”


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