Photo: Lowlanders Bialystok
Growing up in Schenectady, New York, a young Brandon Gwinner could not have fathomed the journey he’s been on the last two years. A promising baseball player who changed course after falling in love with the physical side of football, he went on to play locally at tiny Morrisville State and never had eyes for the big leagues.
“I don’t think I even dreamed of being a professional athlete,” Gwinner admits. “And I didn’t even know about international football until a former teammate played in Germany my senior year.”
That peaked his interest and the quarterback has been on an unexpected rollercoaster ride across the world ever since. It’s seen him play in four different countries since the start of 2019, coming tantalizingly close to a championship twice and spending three and a half months in quarantine on the other side of the world. Now under center for the Bialystok Lowlanders of Poland, Gwinner wouldn’t change it for anything.
“When I had my first opportunity to show what I’m capable of, it’s was just good for my soul. It was like, wow, you can really do this and compete with athletes from all over the world,” he says. “It’s crazy to think there are actually athletes all over the world playing football, better athletes than I’ve played with before. It’s been an incredible experience.”
Unlike most international imports, Gwinner’s first foray into the global world of American football wasn’t in Europe. After setting up a profile on Europlayers.com, Gwinner got an email from the Brisbane Rhinos of Australia. It was simply too good a destination to pass up.
“It was a great opportunity to go out and see a country I would probably never get to if it wasn’t for football. The country is amazing and it’s so beautiful,” Gwinner raves. “It’s a little hard football wise because most teams don’t pay so I had to find my own job and pay for my own apartment. That was a bit stressful at times but being in that country, the vibe was so good you couldn’t let that bother you.”
Of course the prospect of a part-time job was made much more palatable by the land down under’s famously high wage scale, always near the top of international lists when accounting for purchasing power parity.
“Once I found a job, I was making 25 dollars an hour which was really good money,” Gwinner recalls. “Not in Australia, that’s considered decent. But for me it was really good money.”
Gwinner believes that if Australia committed to the import market, it could be one of the top league’s in the world. The quarterback excelled amidst the host of talented athletes and soon signed a contract with the Yeditepe Eagles of Turkey. It was a fascinating new culture to experience and a promising team, but Gwinner never got to see the sights or strut his stuff on the field. After one game, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Turkey full force and Gwinner was locked down at Yeditepe University.
“We were quarantined on the campus for about three months. Luckily, we had the gym. Me and the other imports were always working out and trying to stay active to make the days go by fast,” he explains. “It took awhile because I didn’t want to have to pay for my own flight to get back home. I didn’t have enough money. I basically had to wait until the US embassy had a flight.”
Still, Gwinner doesn’t regret the experience.
“I can’t complain. I was just in a whole other country, living my life,” he says. “There wasn’t much else I could have done differently if I was at home.”
For most people, that might have been the end of their international adventure, at least until the threat of a deadly virus had passed. Not so for Gwinner. Not too long after returning to New York, the quarterback got a call from his Brisbane head coach John Booker, then with the Wasa Royals in the Finnish Maple League. He jumped at the opportunity to join him in Finland and underwent the long, stressful process of battling through travel restrictions to head back to Europe. It’s been smooth sailing ever since and the QB-coach duo are teamed up for a third time in Poland.
“He’s a great coach. I really got to know him personally in Australia and he’s a great guy,” Gwinner says of his relationship with Booker. “There is so much I can learn from him as a person and as a coach. When he asked me to come play, I was just excited and jumped on board.”
Poland is another unique import destination for Gwinner, which suits him just fine.
“It’s different from what I’ve been used to but I like different,” he says.
For a cash-strapped import, it also doesn’t hurt that money goes a little further in Eastern Europe.
“With American money, the exchange rate is like four-to-one so you feel like you’re a baller when you buy things,” Gwinner laughs.
There is no way to discount his performance on the field however. Gwinner has the Lowlanders undefeated and firing on all cylinders as they get set to face off against their top competition for Polish supremacy, the Wroclaw Panthers. The Panthers have rolled through the rest of the league with incredible ease, but Gwinner believes the Lowlanders have enough fire to knock them off their pedestal.
“Every game you’re excited to play, but especially going against one of your biggest rivals and one of the best teams in the league you want to perform at your best,” he says. “There are things we need to clean up. Our offence is very strong but we’ve been having a lot of turnovers lately, which you just can’t have against a team like the Panthers. We have to limit our mistakes but I think guys are hungry. They want to beat this team and prove that we are the best in Poland.”
The game also means a little extra to Gwinner. While this isn’t the playoffs yet, no one would argue this week isn’t a likely preview of the Polish final. Winning would end a string of gut-wrenching big game losses for Gwinner and Booker.
“In Australia, we lost by one point in the championship with us missing a field goal. In Finland, we lost by a point with them making a field goal. It wasn’t the championship but it was still the playoffs and it meant a lot to us,” he says of the game a little over a month ago. “Thinking back on those games, it gives me more fire. I want to win a championship and falling short twice is like a shot in the foot.”
It will be a tall order, but Gwinner believes a combination of the Lowlander’s up-tempo offense and over-aggression by a star-studded Panthers defense will give his team the edge.
“Our tempo is really good in Poland. Having an up-tempo offense always makes a defense struggle but being in Poland, it’s even more so,” he explains. “The Panthers are a very aggressive team and because they are so aggressive, they make mistakes. If we capitalize on those mistakes, we can beat them.”
It would be a massive win and an early highlight in what is looking to be a very promising international career for Gwinner. His journey has been a unique one but he’s fallen in love with a whole new world of beautiful countries, vibrant cultures and talented domestic teammates. Most importantly, it’s reinvigorated Gwinner’s passion for the game.
“I just want to keep playing football until I can’t anymore,” he beams. “That’s my goal, to keep playing until my body shuts down.”
The kid that never dreamed of playing professionally, now never wants to stop.