Le quarterback: Former Bear J.J. Tomlin reflects on a summer of football in Geneva
It was a crisp early spring evening in Geneva, Switzerland, and for the first time in a long time, J.J. Tomlin was nervous for a football game. After three years under center for the Washington University football team and a brief stint in the professional world, he was about to take the field for the Geneva Seahawks of the Swiss A League, the highest level of professional American football in Switzerland.
“You’re playing in a new country, a new league, you don’t know what to expect,” Tomlin said. “There’s a lot of expectations on you, being the American quarterback.”
However nervous Tomlin may have been taking the field in his first professional start, he managed to put together a debut to remember, throwing for 350 yards and six touchdowns as his new team took down the Bern Grizzlies, 57-39.
“Everyone really rallied around me,” Tomlin said of his first game. “You kind of have a safety net when you have good players around you, so you can make a couple more mistakes which they’ll pick up. It couldn’t have gone better.”
Tomlin’s debut against the Grizzlies was both the start of his Swiss summer of football and the end of a long journey that took him to Zurich, one which started well before he graduated in May 2017.
While Europe is off the beaten path for American football players and professional sports are generally off the radar for Wash. U. grads, Tomlin had been exposed to the possibility of playing football abroad by his older brother, Hewitt.
Like his younger sibling, Hewitt Tomlin was a prolific college quarterback: By the time he graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2012, he had racked up the most passing yards, passing touchdowns and 400-yard passing games in program history. At a Division III school, those numbers do not get the NFL’s attention, but a few coaches in European leagues took notice and contacted him. Hewitt, however, decided not to play.
“When you graduate from a school like Hopkins or Wash. U., all your friends are taking these really nice graduate school and med school positions and whatever successful job it is, so there’s a lot of pressure to succeed,” Tomlin remembered about his older brother’s post college decision. “So he just decided that he’d rather focus on his career and football is behind him.”
Tomlin was aware of the possibility of playing American football in Europe throughout his Wash. U. career, during which he became the most statistically successful quarterback in the Bears’ history. While his resume certainly could have gotten the attention of coaches, there was one thing preventing Tomlin from jumping directly from St. Louis to his next football destination: Most European leagues begin play in the early spring, meaning it was impossible for Tomlin to graduate from Wash. U. and sign on to a club for the 2017 season.
So he put professional football on the back burner for a little bit and went to work with his brother’s strength and conditioning software company in Washington, D.C. But Tomlin’s dream of playing abroad soon reemerged.
“Around that fall and Christmas time, [European leagues] all started recruiting again and I realized that it was still something that I wanted to do,” Tomlin remembered.
Tomlin put up a profile on Europlayers, a recruiting website for European football teams, and after talking to coaches from teams in Norway and Germany, signed on contract to join the Seahawks.
Once the contract was signed, Tomlin started working out to get back into shape for football while still finishing up his last months at his brother’s company, an experience he said reminded him of his Wash. U. summers.
“It was kind of like back to summer workouts when you’re playing Division III and you have a full-time internship or job and you get off at [5 p.m.] and it’s you at the gym and at the field all by yourself and you have to go out and work,” Tomlin said.
Tomlin was not completely alone in his quest to prepare, however.
“I actually started recruiting guys from church and friends to come out and throw with me on the weekends,” he said. “I think they enjoyed it more than I did.”
Throughout the process, Tomlin sought out advice from his old football coaches, friends and in particular, two Wash. U. athletes who had gone on to play professionally in Europe: David Fatoki, a basketball player who graduated in 2015 and then played one season for UCAM Murcia in Spain, and Melissa Gilkey, who continued her basketball career beyond her 2015 graduation with the Virum Vipers in Denmark.
“They played professionally for a year each and then they both went and took great jobs afterwards,” he said of Fatoki and Gilkey. “They had been in the exact same shoes I was in. And really, anybody that I talked with that was over 30 years old told me the same thing: ‘Absolutely. Go do it.’”
Tomlin finally arrived in Zurich in late February, where he said he had a bit of a shock as a self-described “loud, friendly American” in the more restrained and polite Swiss culture.
“The first month, me and the other Americans were yelling everywhere and we were being overly friendly,” he said. “You catch a couple of looks on public transportation and that takes care of that after a little bit.”
There were two things that helped Tomlin adjust to life in Switzerland. First was his early upbringing: Tomlin spent the first few years of his life in Belgium, meaning he knew just enough French to get by in Francophone Zurich.
The other factor was Tomlin’s teammates, who welcomed him and all things football with open arms.
“[Football is] a relatively small sport over there,” Tomlin explained. “If you meet a European who loves American football over there, they really love American football. Those guys are a lot of fun to be with.”
As an American and as a quarterback, Tomlin said that he immediately stepped into something of a leadership role on the team, where even the older Swiss players were eager to pick his brain about real American football culture.
“A lot of these guys are 22 through 35 years old and they’re looking to you for guidance and respect and teaching,” he said. “It’s definitely a different position because you’re not dealing with peers in some ways, you’re dealing with men.”
The fact that Tomlin became a leader so quickly certainly would not have surprised his old college head coach, Larry Kindbom.
“He is a fierce competitor and yet immediately gives others a feeling of comfort when he steps into a room or into a huddle,” Kindbom said of his old quarterback in an interview earlier this year. “His gifts go well beyond his arm.”
Tomlin fit right in on the Seahawks, and the results on the field soon followed. The Seahawks managed a 6-3 record in the regular season, and won their semifinal playoff game to earn a spot in the Swiss Bowl, League A’s equivalent to the Super Bowl, for the first time since 1996.
“The atmosphere around the club was great, especially when we made the Swiss Bowl for the first time in that long, everybody was thrilled,” Tomlin said.
Geneva, however, was unable to cap off the season with a championship. Tomlin said that to a certain extent the team was a little too satisfied with the season before actually playing the Swiss Bowl.
“I think part of the problem with that was when we actually got to the final, some people were a little too happy just to be there, including myself in some ways,” he said.
Despite leading his team to a championship game, Tomlin said his fondest moments of the season came when he got to watch his team succeed without him, once when he was out with an injury and once when they picked up the slack when he was not playing well.
“Those games in particular were my favorites because that’s where the team grew up and didn’t have to rely on the Americans as much, but they actually won it themselves,” he explained.
Off the field, Tomlin said that his experience was something like a football semester abroad: Once he was done with training and film prep every week, he was free to explore everything Geneva had to offer.
“On our off days it wasn’t like we were stuck inside playing video games,” he said. “We were outside at the lake, on Lake Geneva, we were exploring the town, we were hiking the Alps. The Francophone culture: the cheese, the food, the wine, could not have been better. I could cry thinking about the fresh bread right now.”
Now back in the United States after his summer in Switzerland, Tomlin said he is unsure if he is going straight back into the professional world or going to try to extend his football career just a little bit more.
“You don’t want to say, ‘I’ve been there and done that,’ because Europe is so big and there’s so many more experiences, but at the same time it kind of feels like a check off the list,” he said. “That being said, I’d definitely be open to it. There’s also teams in Japan and Australia that I’d be open to.”
Tomlin said that he is giving himself until Christmas—the same time he signed with Geneva last year—to decide his future.
For now, he is waiting to survey all his options. But pretty soon, he just might start feeling anxious to play football one more time.