Ryan Christian played football before 6,000 fans at Aledo High School and in front of a record 50,307 spectators at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Today, he plays the same game in front of a few hundred dedicated fans in Parma, Italy.
But for Christian, his genuine love for the game trumps attendance numbers, and he believes Italy is exactly where he needs to be.
The former TCU halfback's football journey has spanned some 6,877 miles between Aledo, Christian's hometown, Fort Worth and Toronto with a flight to northern Italy.
The running back has scored touchdowns in Horned Frog purple, registered a 110-yard major (Canadian slang for touchdown) in the Canadian Football League and has eaten authentic Italian cuisine after playing American football in the Italian Football League.
Christian, who is extremely strong in his faith, said he does not have any desire to play in the NFL in the near-future and is "perfectly happy where The Lord has me" with the Parma Panthers.
Tim Buchanan, Aledo High School's head coach since 1993, said Christian is the best all-around football player he has ever coached and has the ability to break into the NFL.
"Ryan was one of the best all-around football players to ever play high school football, not just in Aledo but in the state," Buchanan said. "When Ryan first came out of college, he was as good if not better than many free agent slot receivers and return specialists that made it in the NFL. But for some reason he never got the opportunity."
His career stat line speaks for itself. Christian lettered all four years at the 4A high school powerhouse and compiled 6,071 yards along with 63 career touchdowns before the future two-time Mr. Football USA and 2011 Gatorade National Player of the Year Johnathan Gray-era began at Aledo.
Even with his numbers, Christian's only Big 12 scholarship offer was from Baylor with TCU (then in the Mountain West Conference), Houston, Air Force, New Mexico and Utah State also offering.
“Aledo is a small town and everyone goes to the games, but a lot of people went to see him,” Jennifer Wilson, a senior sports broadcasting major and Aledo alum, said as she recalled witnessing Christian play while in eighth grade. “His speed was one thing that I remember most. He would get the ball in the backfield and be gone in a heartbeat.”
Buchanan said that Christian's 5-foot-11 size in a 170-pound frame affected his recruiting process. Ten additional pounds would have helped him receive more attention.
"I was honestly very stressed out during the recruitment process because I didn't know if I wanted to stay in Texas or go out of state," Christian said. "Ultimately I ended up choosing TCU because I felt comfortable with the coaching staff and liked the direction the program was headed."
As a Horned Frog, Christian accumulated 1,858 yards and nine touchdowns playing on an offense that included the future NFL players like Andy Dalton (Cincinnati Bengals) and Jeremy Kerley (New York Jets) with Marshall Newhouse (Green Bay Packers) and Marcus Cannon (New England Patriots) starting on the offensive line.
"He played with a kind of reckless abandon that you don't typically see from skill positions," Curtis Clay, a wide receiver with Christian at TCU, said. "He was always willing to sacrifice his body to make a play for the team."
Christian said his standout moment in a TCU uniform was his 16-yard touchdown reception Nov. 14, 2009, against Utah in front of 50,307 spectators when he shook a Ute defender with a juke to his right before sprinting down the sideline.
"He was one of the shiftiest players I ever played with," Clay said. "He had great agility and straight line speed and not to mention the ways you could use him out of the backfield."
Eventually, it was time for the 2010 TCU pro day. For the many non-mainstream college football players who are not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, pro day is their last chance to make an impression on NFL scouts before the draft process begins.
Christian never had the opportunity. What should have been a day catching footballs turned to catching the flu. Running the 40-yard dash and passing routes at pro day turned to frequent runs to the restroom to puke into a toilet. Instead of being weighed, measured and evaluated on his physical stature, Christian lost 10 pounds in a week.
"I knew that I wasn't going to perform my best if I showed up, so I decided not to go," Christian said.
As time passed after pro day, Rusty Burns, a former TCU wide receivers coach and current co-offensive coordinator, encouraged Christian to look north of the border at the CFL.
"He said he thought it would cater to my skills and told me to put a highlight tape together and send it to them," Christian said.
Within a few weeks, the Toronto Argonauts, who have won the Grey Cup (the Canadian version of the Super Bowl) a record 16 times, invited Christian to try out for the team in Florida. In May of 2010, he signed his first professional football contract.
Jim Barker, Christian's head coach in 2010 and now the Argonauts general manager, was unavailable for comment.
According to Christian, Canadian football differs from American football and has a "little bit of rugby incorporated" into the game. Each side plays 12 men at a time on a field that is 110 yards long by 65 yards wide (NFL fields are 100 yards by 53 1/2 yards). The offense is allotted three downs instead of the typical four downs, which Christian said makes the game more pass-efficient with less emphasis on a rushing attack.
Christian was a utility player on the high-scoring Argonaut offense but also spent time as a kick returner. On Aug. 14, 2010, against the Montreal Alouettes, Christian stamped his name in the Argonauts' record book as he flipped into the end zone for a franchise-best 110-yard kickoff return, a feat that cannot be achieved in the NFL due to a field dimension rule.
“I won't forget the play because when I flipped into the end zone, I jarred my pelvis,” Christian said. “I had to run down on the kickoff next play, and I'm pretty sure I looked like a 90-year-old man running down field because I was in such pain.”
Despite his record run, Christian did not return to the CFL for a sophomore season and flew home to Texas to work as an intern with Fort Worth church Christ Chapel.
Except playing recreationally with friends on occasion at TCU’s intramural fields, football seemed to be calming down in Christian’s life until an email conversation resumed with Parma coach Andrew Papoccia.
Currently in his seventh season as Parma’s head coach, Papoccia first contacted Christian in 2009 before eventually signing him in 2012 after numerous online interactions.
Papoccia played football at Illinois State where former TCU offensive coordinator, Justin Fuente, was his offensive coordinator. Fuente, who was introduced as the University of Memphis’s head coach on Dec. 8, 2011, was Papoccia’s first reference to look at Christian. Including the coach, each team in the IFL is only allowed to have three American players on a roster.
“Ryan is a dynamic player that we envisioned using in multiple roles, much like he did at TCU and later in the CFL,” Papoccia said.
Neither Papoccia nor Christian expected quarterback to be included in those multiple roles.
On Mar. 23, 2013, Christian’s first game in a Parma uniform turned into his first appearance ever as a quarterback when starter Tommaso Monardi broke his hand on a helmet.
“I had zero experience as a quarterback before coming to Italy, so it was pretty interesting,” Christian said. “In the beginning, it was hard to get the cadence down, send people in motion and read the defense at the same time. After a week or so, I got the hang of it.”
In that inaugural IFL game against the Rhinos Milano, Christian gained a net total of 74 yards and a touchdown on the ground. He also completed 5 of 7 pass attempts for 28 yards and threw an interception as the Panthers won 13-12 on the road.
In the Panthers second game of the season on April 7 against the Giants Bolzano, Christian was relieved of his quarterback duties and produced 97 total yards and a touchdown.
“He has shown great toughness in these first two games, and I'm confident Ryan will have a great year for us,” Papoccia said. “Ryan has been everything we thought he would be.”
Christian said he receives $770 per week, so a long-term stay in Italy is unlikely. But to Christian, a touchdown has the same meaning in every language.