The man who lays claim to the title of the new “Greek Freak” – as Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is widely known – is not another member of the basketball star’s talented and famous family, nor is he another Greek to spring from the domestic scene of that sport, which has always produced big names.
The title has fallen into the hands of a strapping young man named George Karlaftis, whose tremendous achievements in the National Football League (NFL) led his Kansas City Chiefs head coach, Andy Reid, to assign him the nickname “Greek Freak II.”
Of course, being compared to Antetokounmpo is an unbearable weight that could bring even seasoned athletes to their knees, but this young man’s shoulders have proved too strong to yield.
Until a week ago, Karlaftis was almost unknown in the country where he was born, 22 years ago, on April 3, 2001. His great success in being drafted in the first round with the 30th overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in April 2022 didn’t attract much attention in Greece.
American football may be the most popular sport in the United States, but in Greece it remains practically unknown to the vast majority of fans, whose knowledge of the game is basically limited to a few scenes from Hollywood movies.
And yet, Karlaftis signed a contract with the 2020 NFL champion, who claimed the repeat the following year. He can also boast such great teammates as legendary Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce. Until last week, the news of the young Greek’s career trajectory appeared only in few publications. That changed with the triumph of the Kansas City team over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 57, a topic of widespread sports interest, with Karlaftis being hailed for a great appearance and building his personal legend.
The Greek Freak II of the NFL thus became the second Greek in history to win the prestigious title, with the difference that Chris Maragos, who paved the way, was a child of immigrants and had not lived in Greece.
On the contrary, Karlaftis was born and raised in Greece. He left the country in 2014 after the sudden death of his father but he was never cut off from his roots. As he himself has stated, he talks to his grandfather in Greece every day and his contact with the language and Greek customs continues in the summer, when he spends his holidays at the family’s summer house, on the island of Paros.
He asked questions that made Americans laugh and knew absolutely nothing about the sport apart from how tough it is
The NFL champion’s other link to Greece is his pathological love for Greek sports club Panathinaikos and Gate 13 – the name of the team’s ultras group. There’s a good reason too: Karlaftis was a goalkeeper for the club’s water polo youth team, but also in the national youth team, a teammate of the now famous Alexandros Papanastasiou, Dimitris Skoumpakis and Konstantinos Gkiouvetsis.
In fact, Karlaftis’ response to a question from an American reporter about which Greek team he backs, soon went viral: “Panathinaikos always, all day. Gate 13 man, come on now. My first outfit I was ever born in, Panathinaikos. Green and white, man.”
This passion for Panathinaikos was instilled by his father, Mattheos, an accomplished track-and-field athlete who later became an associate professor at the National Technical University of Athens, until his life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 44, during a work trip on the island of Kos, in June 2014.
For Amy, Mattheos’ American wife, the only way forward was to move with her kids back to Indiana to be closer to her family and her support network there. The lives of George, his brothers, Yannis (who won a youth world championship in judo at the age of 11) and Nikos, as well as his sister Annie, changed dramatically but they quickly adapted to their new home and blossomed. Lacking water polo infrastructure in his area, Karlaftis first turned to shot put, before timidly discovering the world of American football.
His first high school coach has stated how out of touch young George was with America’s national sport. He asked questions that made Americans laugh and knew absolutely nothing about the sport apart from how tough it is from father’s stories about a serious head injury he had suffered while playing for his varsity team. Karlaftis turned to American football with incredible determination and will to succeed.
1.93 cm of muscles
Karlaftis worked very hard to build the bulk and muscle need to stop his formidable opponents, as the best defender of any team should. For an athlete who is 1.93 meters tall and weighs 125 kilograms, his speed is truly incredible, as is his maturity, taking on responsibilities beyond his age in a star-studded team built for championships. His four-year contract is estimated to be somewhere in the range of $11 million to $12 million, making him one of the highest paid Greek athletes in history, and clearly shows that he is looking at an open road ahead .
That’s exactly what legendary coach Andy Reid, who led Kansas City to the title after a 50-year “drought,” was thinking when he called him a “high-octane.”
‘A wonderful family’
For Michalis Lazaridis, head coach of Panathinaikos’ water polo team, Karlaftis’ attachment to the club is a given. “His entire family, from his grandfather to his father, were major Panathinaikos fans! He had a tremendous love for the team; his father took him everywhere, mostly to soccer and basketball games,” he tells Kathimerini. Lazaridis was among the first to marvel at Karlaftis’ impressive physical qualities, but also recognized the values instilled by the athlete’s family.
“He was a special kid, you could tell right away that he could excel in any sport. He was a giant compared to children his age. Although he was a goalkeeper, in one-goal games we had him swim out 4-5 meters from the goal post just before the final whistle and shoot. He usually scored! He was a dear and intelligent child, raised in a wonderful family, with the gift of leadership,” he adds.
“His father’s death came as a complete shock to me,” Lazaridis said. “He was a great person, a lover of sports, with principles and passion. We have kept a loose contact with his mother and I learn about the children’s achievements. It’s not just George. It’s also Yannis and Nikos. Despite the difficulties, the children made their way and excelled. And this is a great joy for me.”