A Camas quarterback in Europe

Reilly Hennessey, who now has dual citizenship, is an American football champion in Italy

A love for football, American football, and an adventurous spirit led Reilly Hennessey to Europe a few years ago.

At the time, he was simply a man from Camas who wanted to travel and continue with the game after his playing days at Central Washington University.

Today, Hennessey is a champion … and he now holds dual citizenship. 

Reilly Hennessey and his parents Patrick and Connie pose with the Italian Bowl trophy on Saturday. Reilly Hennessey, a 2014 graduate of Camas High School, plays American football in Europe. He led his team, the Parma Panthers, to the championship on Saturday. Photo courtesy Reilly Hennessey
Reilly Hennessey and his parents Patrick and Connie pose with the Italian Bowl trophy on Saturday. Reilly Hennessey, a 2014 graduate of Camas High School, plays American football in Europe. He led his team, the Parma Panthers, to the championship on Saturday. Photo courtesy Reilly Hennessey

Reilly Hennessey, an American quarterback from Camas High School, also calls Italy home.

“Playing college athletics, you don’t get to go study abroad, you don’t really get to have a life outside of football,” Hennessey said. “This was kind of my way, a cool way to experience something new and use football as a catalyst to see the world.”

That was the plan, anyway. 

Along the way, he fell in love with Italy.

Reilly and his mother Connie were laughing about it just a couple days ago.

“She never would have thought I would be here three years later, immersed in the culture and in the community and just be so enthusiastic about something so different,” Reilly Hennessey said. “It’s a beautiful experience and an eye-opening thing. Don’t get me wrong. There’s still amazing things about the U.S. But it’s been so fun to see new things, learn new things.”

The move to Italy also gave Hennessey the opportunity to claim a championship. On Saturday, he played in what was described in American as Italy’s Super Bowl. Over there, it is called the Italian Bowl. 

Hennessey led the Parma Panthers to an overtime win over the three-time defending champions, exorcising some demons from years past.

In the fall of 2013, Hennessey and the Camas Papermakers were up 13 points with less than two minutes to play in the state championship game. Camas lost. 

In college, Hennessey and the Central Washington Wildcats were up 21 points in a playoff game, but lost to the team that would eventually win the national championship.

And in the Italian Bowl, the Panthers were up three touchdowns before Seamen Milano rallied to tie the game, sending it into overtime.

Reilly Hennessey and his parents Patrick and Connie pose with the Italian Bowl trophy on Saturday. Reilly Hennessey, a 2014 graduate of Camas High School, plays American football in Europe. He led his team, the Parma Panthers, to the championship on Saturday. Photo courtesy Reilly Hennessey
Reilly Hennessey went to Europe for American football, then fell in love with Italy and now is a dual-passport citizen. Photo by Giulio Busi, courtesy of Reilly Hennessey

“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t having flashbacks,” Hennessey said. “There’s no way the game of football can do this to me again. If it had ended like that again, I would have had serious doubts about my participation in football.”

It didn’t end like that. Hennessey threw the game-winning touchdown pass, took off his helmet and sprinted — faster than he had ever run, he said — toward the stands where his parents, Connie and Patrick, and other family members and friends were cheering. 

“It’s finally put to rest,” Hennessey said of those nightmarish endings of his past.

Instead, dreams have come true in Italy.

He signed with Parma just after his senior season at Central, back in November of 2018. American football is played in the spring in Italy. Hennessey was on the field for the Panthers in 2019. It was a down, up, and then down year for him on the field. Hennessey broke his ring finger on his throwing hand in the first game. Missed four games, returned, then broke the same finger in the final game of the season.

Off the field, it was all amazing.

“I absolutely fell in love with the program, the people, the culture,” Hennessey said.

He returned to Washington to work on finishing his degree and was a student-assistant coach at CWU in the fall of 2019. 

Back to Italy in early 2020 to prepare for another European season. 

That’s when COVID hit. Italy had the first major outbreak outside of China. He was in Italian lockdown and couldn’t leave his apartment other than for basic necessities.

“It was like a movie. It was crazy,” he said.

The season was cancelled, and Hennessey returned to America. He completed his studies as an education major and was a student-teacher last fall with Camas High School.

Still, football — and Italy — were calling him for another year.

Only two Americans and one dual-passport player are allowed on each team in Italian League American football.  Americans are the most sought-after players, Hennessey said, because they grew up playing the game.

Hennessey’s dad has Italian ancestry, Reilly said, and that made Reilly eligible to become an Italian citizen. So yes, while he fell for the country and its culture, it also gave Parma a boost in football. Hennessey became the dual-passport player which allowed the club to seek out another American.

It should be noted that “Italy’s Super Bowl” is nothing like what American fans can imagine. It is not a de facto holiday. 

In fact, for regular-season American football games in Italy, Hennessey noted that there are fewer fans at his games in Italy than there were on Friday nights at Doc Harris Stadium.

It was a much bigger crowd for the Italian Bowl, but again, this is not a case of selling out a huge soccer stadium.  

Hennessey is a professional football player, but he is not getting rich by any means. He gets paid a monthly salary, and all of his expenses are covered by the club. 

Interestingly, only the Americans and dual-passport players get the monthly salary. The Italians get expenses paid for traveling to games. That’s it. 

“We practice from 8 to 10:30 at night because all the Italian players have day jobs,” Hennessey said. 

Those players, though, are not just teammates. Hennessey knows their wives, their children. They have become family.

Hennessey is also impressed with the fans. Not a huge number, but a very loyal crowd.

“It’s a very niche community. Very passionate. One thing Italians don’t lack, it’s passion about what they enjoy,” Hennessey said. “The small community that loves and follows (American) football, they live and breathe it. They want to exhaust you of all of your knowledge. It’s a really cool thing.”

The players give those fans everything they’ve got, Hennessey said. For the players, it is as important as a state championship for a high schooler at Camas or a national championship for a college player at Alabama. 

In the Italian Bowl, the team’s right tackle injured his ankle early in the game. He gutted it out, returned to the field, and helped the Panthers to victory. The next day, that player learned he had broken his ankle. 

“It just gives you chills,” Hennessey said.

Then there is Hennessey’s own history, with those devastating losses on those huge stages during his career. He had a lot on his mind as the Italian Bowl went into overtime.

“What is it going to take to win this game?” Hennessey recalled. “How much of myself am I going to have to give for my team in order to finish this?”

A touchdown pass from Reilly Hennessey won the game for the Parma Dragons. And he sprinted to his family.

“They’ve been to every single one of those close games I’ve been on the opposite side for,” Hennessey said. “Just a waterfall of emotion.”

The Panthers celebrated at the stadium, taking pictures with the trophy. And after a 45-minute drive back to Parma, they celebrated again with a small, loyal group of fans who were waiting for the team in the wee hours of Sunday morning. 

“The sun was coming up when I was walking into my apartment,” Hennessey said.

Later on Sunday, while walking around the city wearing a Parma Panthers T-shirt, a fan gave Hennessey a high-five and said “Great game.”

A celebrity, right? 

Well, not exactly.

“I’m not even sure if they recognized me. They just saw my shirt,” Hennessey said.

It was also the first time, he said, that any stranger said anything about the Panthers outside of game day at a stadium.

Nope, no fame. Just American football in Europe.

“As weird as it is, the dream has never been to play in the NFL, to play super high football,” Hennessey said. “I play football because I love it.”

Football has been part of his education, from high school to college. Football brought him to Italy, and he has now enrolled at the University of Parma with the goal of earning a master’s degree in international business.

He also has some decisions to make regarding his playing career. 

With dual citizenship, he has the opportunity to try out for the Italian national team. And as a reward for winning the Italian Bowl, the Parma Panthers qualified to play in the Champions League of Europe, featuring every nation’s best American football club.

Hennessey, who suffers from a chronic back issue, is not yet sure if he will return to the field. If he does not play, though, he expects to be with his club as a coach or in some other capacity.

“My future is definitely with the Panthers and the city of Parma,” he said.

No matter where he is living, though, he will always proudly be from Camas.

While Hennessey was playing in the Italian Bowl, the man who runs the Twitter handle Joe Papermaker was live-tweeting the game. Joe Papermaker does not have an official affiliation with Camas High School but is one of the biggest supporters of Camas athletics on social media.

It was almost 20 hours after the Italian Bowl before Hennessey checked his Twitter account. He saw all the notifications.

“Seeing Joe Papermaker had live-tweeted the game and was so invested … it’s humbling. That’s the only word that comes to mind,” Hennessey said. “I’m a 25-year-old bumming my way through Europe, and there are people back home tweeting about me. That’s incredible. I wish I could tell them how much I appreciate it.”

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