Cobras quarterback back in states after European success
Football is becoming a universal language, but Justin Walz has needed a translator for the past couple years. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound quarterback went to Europe after his college career and played in both Poland and the Czech Republic.
"Football over in Europe is kind of like soccer for us," Walz said. "But the sport is growing."
So are his leadership skills.
Walz, 25, will be asked to take the Seattle-Tacoma Cobras' offense under his wing, although that won't be a new concept for the dual-threat signal caller. He was a four-year starter at Western New England University, an NCAA Division III school in Springfield, Mass., where he also was a four-year starter as a middle infielder for the Golden Bears' baseball team.
"His leadership has really stepped up," Cobras head coach Richard McCleskey said. "He has command of the offense. His football IQ has been phenomenal. He's really coming into his own."
Originally from Groton, Conn., Walz went to Fitch High School and played both quarterback and defensive back. A good student, he drew some attention from Ivy League schools — Yale, in particular — but Walz said many schools wanted him to play defense. He wanted to be the man under center, and he also wanted to play baseball wherever he went.
Among many honors, Walz was named the team MVP in 2007 and '08, and he was Western New England's co-Male Athlete of the Year in 2008. The Boston Globe honored him with its NCAA Division II/III Gold Helmet award in 2007.
After he graduated in 2010 with a bachelor of arts degree in sport management, Walz turned to Europe.
"One of my former coaches was a head coach there for five years, mostly in Norway," he said of the connection.
In 2011, Walz played for the Crew Wroclaw in Poland, and he served as the team's starting quarterback and offensive coordinator. The team went 10-0 and won the SuperFinal VI national championship, and he was a first-team all-league selection.
During the eight-game regular season, Walz averaged 277.5 passing yards per game. He completed 68 percent of his passes (105-for-154) for 2,220 yards with 29 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he added 540 yards and 12 TDs on the ground.
Walz was named the best quarterback in the league and the MVP of SuperFinal VI.
Walz was the starting quarterback and offensive coordinator for the Prague Panthers in the Czech Republic, a team ranked No. 9 in Europe. In 10 games, he threw for 1,441 yards with 16 scores and six picks as the team finished second in the league.
So far, his transition back to the states has gone fairly smoothly.
"It's easier," Walz said. "You can say things and use terminology that doesn't have to be translated."
Although he picked up a few Polish and Czech phrases — just enough to help him find his way if he got lost, Walz said — many players overseas spoke a fair amount of English.
But it doesn't beat being back home, even if Seattle is still 3,000 miles away from his real home.
"It's good to be back playing in America," he said.
Walz also views himself as a student of the game.
"I like to think I outwork others, physically and mentally," he said.
His biggest adjustments have come with how quickly the Professional Developmental Football League players fly around him.
"You have the D-I athletes that are out there," Walz said. "That's the biggest difference."
If it doesn't work out on the field, Walz has other plans. He's already served as quarterbacks and secondary coach at Fitch High, where he's also been in charge of the team's passing game, and he's been the strength and conditioning coach.
Most recently, he's been an assistant at Western New England in charge of quarterbacks and receivers, and he's currently taking online classes through the university as he pursues his master's in business administration.
Walz has only been in the Northwest for a month, and he's already helping the Cobras gel.
"It's definitely still in its early stages, but it's coming around," he said.
By Brian McLean