S Sergey Ivanov made what is believed to be the first tackle in an NFL game by a Russian player on Saturday night in Miami
Sometimes safety Sergey Ivanov will pause for a second when he is speaking and say, "I can't find the right words."
The Moscow native who will be spending the entire season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as part of the NFL International Practice Squad program speaks English fairly well, so that's only part of the reason for his hesitation.
Perhaps another cause for the pause is that he simply can't find the words to describe how excited he is about the opportunity that has been afforded him.
"It's a great experience for me," Ivanov said. "I try to get better every day. I have a great coach, a great position coach, a great special teams coach. Jon Gruden is a great coach, the best I've had in my life. We have great players and good relationships, so it's great for me. I can't find the right words, but it's a great experience for me."
The Russian footballer spent three seasons in NFL Europe, two as a member of the Berlin Thunder, where he crossed paths with Dwayne Stukes, his position coach in 2006.
Stukes is now a special teams quality control with the Bucs, so Ivanov's arrival is a reunion of sorts.
"I think he's grown up a bit," Stukes said of the 6-3, 218-pound 23-year-old. "He was younger when I coached him over in NFL Europe. He's matured, mentally and physically. He still has to adjust to the game as far as learning the Bucs' defense and what we do on special teams. The defense and special teams over there are a little bit more limited. Over here it's a little bit more complex."
Coming from NFL Europe, that adjustment to the American version of the NFL game is naturally one of Ivanov's biggest obstacles, but he says the Bucs' coaching staff has been outstanding in helping him develop.
"It's so tough," Ivanov said. "The coaches tell me to try to get better every day, try to eliminate mistakes on the field. It's the same off the field. Even in the locker room, they try to tell me some good stuff, like, 'What are you going to do on this play?' They do an outstanding job in the meeting rooms and they spend a lot of time with me to try to eliminate mistakes and watch film."
In fact, Ivanov said he expected much less out of his coaches before arriving in the States. Since Ivanov will be on the practice squad all year, he expected the coaches to overlook him as they tried to focus on getting the regular players prepared for the season. That hasn't been the case.
"They're always trying to help me," Ivanov said. "I'm so appreciative for the great coaches. I didn't expect it when I came here. I thought it was going to be, 'Go this way, go that way, just be on the practice squad.' But they are trying to teach. It's special, it's great."
As difficult as his transition is on the field, Ivanov's adjustment to life in the United States off the field is actually going more smoothly than you might expect. As it turns out, he's actually familiar with both the Bucs full-time home in Tampa and their training camp headquarters in Lake Buena Vista.
"I've been to the USA many times," Ivanov said. "This is actually my fourth time. I used to play for NFL Europe and we used to have training camps in Tampa, so this place is real familiar for me. Especially Orlando, this was my first trail to the USA when I played for a Russian team in a Pop Warner Championship right here in Disney's Wide World of Sports. I've been many times."
Oddly enough, Ivanov said he was always a big fan of the Bucs, so getting a chance to play for them is a dream come true.
"It was always my favorite team and Jon Gruden was always my favorite coach and they had a couple especially good players," Ivanov said. "My favorite players were John Lynch, Warrick Dunn, [Mike] Alstott and Warren Sapp. Those guys are real famous in Russia, so as NFL players I respect them."
Ivanov's outgoing teammates and fast-talking position coach, Raheem Morris, have also helped ease the cultural shift as he tries to fit in. In fact, the Bucs have taken to calling Ivanov by the nickname "Drago," in reference to Ivan Drago, the Russian boxer in the Rocky IV movie.
"I think it's tough, coming from Russia, just getting accustomed to how guys are going to react to him and being away from his family and friends," Stukes said. "But I think he's doing a good job as far as fitting in with the guys. They call him 'Drago' and I think he likes that, so I think he's coming along."
Added Ivanov, with a chuckle: "It's my nickname. It's very cute. I'm Russian, so I really expect it. In NFL Europe they used to call me Drago too. My last name is Ivanov, and in the movie it was Ivan Drago. So his first name reminds them of my last name. Ivanov sounds familiar. It's just fun. I saw our game on the NFL Network yesterday and they were like, 'You know his nickname, the guy who just made the tackle? They call him Drago.' It's funny. I don't mind."
That tackle Ivanov referred to was actually a more momentous play than most in the preseason. Late in the fourth quarter of the Bucs preseason opener in Miami, Ivanov tallied what is believed to be the first tackle recorded by a Russian-born player in NFL history.
The significance of the play wasn't lost on the young Russian.
"It's amazing. I really can't find the words," Ivanov hesitated once again. "The first Russian tackle in NFL history – I was so excited about it. When it happened, I couldn't realize what happened. I said, 'Oh my goodness, what have I done?'"
The other defensive backs were quick to recognize the importance of their foreign teammate's big play as well.
"My teammates surrounded me, especially Ronde Barber," Ivanov said. "He put his face in mine. Jermaine Phillips, he respected me. It was great, but I'm just trying to get better and show some skills. It's definitely the biggest play of my career. I used to play for NFL Europe and got some tackles there, but in the NFL, it's not a good example. The NFL is the NFL. It's the preseason, but it's still the NFL."
While the highlight of his career to date was a nice beginning to his life in the NFL, Ivanov said he has much bigger goals than tallying preseason tackles.
"The Buccaneers, as I said, are my favorite team and my favorite defense because how tough this defense is out of the entire NFL," Ivanov said. "They're always trying to hit somebody. It's just a great experience for me. I want to keep playing football and if I do alright, try to make a practice squad next year in the same program, the International Practice Squad program. I hope it will be Tampa again, because next year we've got 32 players to send to NFL teams. I want to do my best so the team will want me here."
It remains to be seen whether or not Ivanov will land with the Bucs again come 2009, but Head Coach Jon Gruden is certainly proud of Ivanov and impressed with the program he's a part of.
"I think it's a great thing to let people from a foreign country participate," Gruden said. "You would think they might do it at the college level or at a different level – this is tough sledding, man. But he's got great coaching in Raheem Morris. He's a great kid and he's going to have a hell of an experience here."
For a native-born Russian who didn't play much football growing up, the chance to prove himself on the national level in the NFL International Practice Squad program is an amazing opportunity to prove himself, and his country, on the most elite of levels – even if he can't find the superlatives to describe it.
"I think it's a great thing," Ivanov said. "I never played in high school, I never played in college, I just started playing football when I was 15 years old. Now, here I am representing my country and representing myself. I can prove to everybody that Russians can play. Not only Americans can play American football; Russians can play, all Europeans can play American football. It's my main mission for me, so I try to prove to everybody that we can play and that the Russians don't give up."