Greg Gibson felt on top of the world when he helped Stonington High win its first and only CIAC state football championship in 1991.
Gibson scored a touchdown and intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter to help seal the Bears’ 20-12 victory over Sacred Heart-Waterbury and had his picture on the front page of The Westerly Sun the next day.
A generation after that accomplishment, Gibson is looking to return to that top-of-the-world feeling ... on the other side of the world.
He’s the defensive coordinator of Sweden’s national U19 American football team, which will compete in the International Federation of American Football World Junior Championships starting on July 14 at Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. Sweden qualified for the six-team tournament by winning the European title.
Gibson’s experience playing football and winning a championship has stuck with him as he approaches his mid-40s.
“The lessons, discipline, friendship and camaraderie were the best part of my experience at Stonington,” Gibson, a 1993 graduate, said in an email. “I would be foolish not to mention the skills learned from coach Bob Mitchell, who taught us that being good at controlling the small details leads to accomplishing big goals.”
Gibson had a good idea football would remain a big part of his life when he decided to make a career out of teaching and coaching. He coached at three Massachusetts high schools from 2002 to 2015.
But he had no idea he would some day coach in Sweden, teaching a game to teenagers who did not grow up with the sport the way Americans have through the years. He met a Swedish international student in 2008 while getting a college degree, married her in 2015 and moved to Sweden shortly thereafter.
“The best fit was to work as a teacher here in Sweden,” said Gibson, who teaches sixth grade at the International School of Helsingborg, an English school. “In Sweden, word travels fast if it is known an experienced coach has moved to the country. So not long after coming here, I was approached and asked to coach the Limhamn Griffins of Malmö Sweden.
“Knowing it was going to be tough for me culturally — not too bad, though — I needed to add some normality and do something I loved doing outside of work. Naturally, coaching football made the transition into my new life easier. It also helped me make friends rather quickly. ”
After a year of coaching there, he was approached by the Swedish national U19 team and asked to be defensive coordinator of the U19 team and over-19 senior team.
“Team Sweden will be much better at the world championship than most will think,” Gibson said. “The players are committed, hard working and smart. They learn quickly and aren’t afraid to ask questions. I feel most of the average players on Team Sweden are at the Division II or III college level, with five or six who can play at the FCS or BCS Division I level.”
Gibson said Sweden features a number of linemen close to 300 pounds. He said team speed is improving but will be a few ticks below the running ability of Team Canada and Team USA. He said the Canadians are the team to beat since the country sends its best players while the USA’s top 19-year-olds are playing college ball.
While American football grows in popularity in Sweden — NFL games are available on television — Gibson said the media does not publicize its games as much as other popular international sports, such as soccer, hockey, skiing and track and field.
“The funny thing is football is popular here for some, but most people who live in Sweden don’t realize it exists here,” Gibson said. “It is very common for people to react like this when I mention American football: ‘You coach American football? Where do you practice and where do you play?’ I really believe if there were more dedicated coaches here, the sport would really take off. Because it is looked at like a hobby here, many coaches take the same approach.”
Though Scandinavia is the historic land of the Vikings, Gibson said the Patriots get a slight nod over Minnesota’s NFL team as the country’s favorite American squad.
“Honestly, I thought it was a joke when I got here, because many of fans do actually like the Vikings — which I thought was hilarious,” Gibson said. “Later, I found out that in the ’90s the Vikings played a preseason game in the Swedish city Gothenburg, and many people picked them up as a favorite. Now, due to their recent success, many fans pull for the Patriots. The Cowboys may be America’s team, but the Patriots are the world’s team.”
Gibson looks for a solid showing as he brings Team Sweden to the Western Hemisphere next month.
“In order for Team Sweden to beat the US, or Canada, we will have to play mistake-free football with no turnovers, limit the big play on defense, create a few turnovers, and make a play or two on special teams,” he said. “These teams, especially Team USA and Canada, will have a distinct speed advantage over us. We will be able handle the size, but it will be really difficult to maintain leverage against linemen with so much speed and experience.”