Grant Mason had never been outside of North America, and his first experience has shown him one thing.
Europeans like to ride bikes.
“Everyone in the area rides bikes,” said Mason, who played for Michigan from 2004-05 and just finished a season playing for the NFL Europa Amsterdam Admirals. “I haven’t ridden a bike since junior high. . I would just look silly.”
Adam Stenavich (2001-05 with Michigan) paused for a minute before he responded to the question of what he didn’t expect to find in Europe.
“The TV is awful,” said Stenavich, who started at left guard for the Admirals. “They play MTV shows from six or seven years ago.”
But both Mason and Stenavich overcame the transition from America to Europe with the help of two fellow former Wolverines: Tony Pape and Norman Heuer.
The former Michigan offensive and defensive linemen are no strangers to the ways of the Europeans and NFL Europa, which folded Friday, less than a week after its 16th season.
Pape, who played tackle for the Wolverines from 2000-2004, reneged on retirement from football to play for the Berlin Thunder last season and the Admirals this year.
Heuer, a defensive tackle for the Wolverines from 2000-2004, suited up for the Admirals in 2005, when they were World Bowl Champions, before a brief appearance in the Arena Football League and now one final chance at hopefully making it on a NFL roster.
“I figure I’d give it one more shot,” Heuer said.
Even with their goals set on returning stateside, the elder Wolverine graduates showed their old college teammates the ropes, from prime Amsterdam bars to drinking beer in the hotel the team stays in during the season.
“It’s like being a freshman in college,” Pape said. “You go from room to room, drinking beer, knocking on doors and hanging out with your teammates.”
All four of the former Wolverines have their eyes set on the same NFL dream but took different paths to NFL Europa.
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Mason in January as an undrafted cornerback but sent him to NFL Europa to see how he looked at safety. Mason said he has grown into the position with Amsterdam.
“I feel at home (as a safety),” Mason said. “I always played both until college. I love the one-on-one battle at the corner position, but as a safety, I have a lot more leadership.”
Stenavich knew Green Bay would ship him overseas before the end of 2006 NFL season.
The Packers signed Stenavich, who played left tackle for Michigan, to their practice squad last November but wanted him to get game experience at guard.
Following the NFL Europa season, Stenavich will report back to Green Bay before returning to Charlotte for a month to prepare for Packer training camp.
For Pape, it was a question of desire. Drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 2004, Pape made their practice squad, but retired after the season.
That’s the reason he played for Amsterdam and not in the NFL.
“NFL teams were reluctant to pick me up,” said Pape, who was allocated to NFL Europa by San Diego. “They wanted to see me play a full season. I just burned out and played a season over here.”
And after the Admirals finished a disappointing 4-6, Pape said he will return to San Diego to finish up training camp with the Chargers refreshed and ready to compete for a job.
The four Michigan alums didn’t spend all their time worrying about what awaited them back in the states. They enjoyed the competition – admittedly weaker than the NFL – experienced paying 50 cents to go to the bathroom in a bar and felt what it’s like to play in front of understanding fans.
“You don’t see the numbers like the NFL, but those who come to the games really love it,” Mason said. “They’re happy to be able to watch the games, and coming from a place like Michigan where you win or you’re the worst thing in the world . it’s cool.”