The MMQB went on a European vacation to see where, how and why American football is being played overseas. We begin with the continent’s Super Bowl
BRAUNSCHWEIG, Germany — Some American traditions travel well overseas, assuming you find yourself in the right place at the right time.
On the third Saturday in June, Hannes Irmer wandered around the turf at Eintracht-Stadion wearing a gold medal around his neck and smoking what he called a “fat lady” cigar—you know, because it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. And now that it was over in the early evening, the 28-year-old guard was celebrating the Braunschweig New Yorker Lions’ 24-14 victory over the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns in the Eurobowl, the continent’s version of the Super Bowl.
“I can’t realize it,” Irmer kept saying in disbelief. “I just can’t realize it.”
There’s more to Irmer than first meets the eye. He is a 102-kilogram offensive lineman—that’s about 225 pounds—who took his medical school final exams just two weeks earlier, which meant the cigar also signified the end of his football career. He’s quitting the game because the pounding on the line of scrimmage is too dangerous a hobby for a man who will literally hold the lives of others in his hands: He will soon be a heart surgeon.
For the past three years, though, Irmer played out his dream. For six months a year he took a four-hour train ride from Dusseldorf to Braunschweig at least twice a week to play in games and attend as many practices as he could fit in around his classes. Like many of his teammates, his compensation wasn’t much more than an unlimited train pass that allowed him to commute free of charge.
“It was sometimes hectic and stressful,” he says. “I had to be strict on everything. But you’ve got to have something in life where you can go all out, and let the freak run out.”
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In late June, The MMQB set out on a European vacation to see where, how and why American football is being played overseas. Our odyssey began in Germany for a reason. By almost all measures, the country is the strongest bastion of the game beyond North America. There are about 500 teams playing American football in Germany, from youth flag football to the senior semi-professional level, almost all of which exist through local sports clubs rather than schools, as is the norm for all sports in Europe. Carsten Dalkowski, a criminal lawyer who volunteers his time to be chairman of the German Football League, says half the people playing American football throughout Europe come from Germany.
As the NFL looks to expand its lucrative regular-season International Series to more locations beyond London, it’s no surprise the league is again eyeing the German market (Mexico and Brazil are also options). In May, Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international, visited Germany and met with media, marketing companies and sponsors. The next step would be a trip to scout potential stadium sites. He’s certain the NFL could sell out a stadium in four or five German cities, but the roadblock is the TV exposure needed to nurture fans’ interest—there is no availability for NFL games on free-to-air TV, and it’s limited on the pay channels.
Waller estimates that there are more NFL fans in Germany than in the U.K., and a big reason why is NFL Europe, which had five of its six teams based in German cities before the league ceased operations in 2007. But the presence of the NFL’s developmental league was a double-edged sword for German club teams. It offered access to clinics with American coaches, used equipment and potential opportunities for their best players. But it also got German fans accustomed to a big-budget level of game-day entertainment that local teams couldn’t match.
“You have to compare it to the Harlem Globetrotters in basketball,” says Robert Huber, president of the American Football Association of Germany. “If they travel abroad, of course that will increase awareness for basketball. But that does not help the local structure, because everyone knows that’s the Harlem Globetrotters and we will never play against them.”
More than 30,000 fans attended the German Bowl championship in 1999, but attendance and participation for the German club teams were on the decline until NFL Europe shuttered. Numbers are on the rise again—club participation has more than doubled since 2007, and more than 53,000 coaches, players, officials and administrators are now involved with the game in Germany. But American football is still a niche sport: The Lions’ home stadium will fill up with 23,000 people for its second-division soccer team, but just 5,068 fans attended the Eurobowl, a football game that is the equivalent of the Champions League final.
Ignoring one road trip this season to Innsbruck, Austria, during which the team had to tape side mirrors onto the bus, the New Yorker Lions are one of the more privileged teams in Europe. In 2011, Friedrich Knapp, CEO of the Braunschweig-based NewYorker fashion label, purchased naming rights to the team. This allowed the Lions to employ two full-time coaches—Troy Tomlin, the head coach, and defensive coordinator Dave Likins—and an office staff that works to secure other funding. Pretty much every square inch of the players’ jerseys is sold to sponsors, right down to a patch across the seat of their pants advertising an automobile company.
“We’re like the New York Yankees,” says cornerback Tissi Robinson, who played at Division-II Chadron State at the same time as Danny Woodhead and boasts that he was with the Moscow Black Storm when they offered Tim Tebow a $1 million contract. “Or, Bayern Munich of Germany. You’ve heard of them, right?”
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American football came to Braunschweig, a city of about 250,000 in northern Germany, in 1987, via two brothers who fell in love with the sport after watching a college game in the United States. The team was built haphazardly at first. It recruited bouncers at nightclubs and some of the most notorious soccer hooligans to play.
Tomlin and Likins were among a wave of Americans who, in the early ’90s, followed colleagues in the coaching business to Europe in search of an adventure. The sport was much more primitive back then on the continent. Likins recalls trying to run an Oklahoma drill during one practice: The first offensive player didn’t understand that he was supposed to block the defender, so he turned around and tackled his own ball carrier. Then the defender tackled both of them.
It wasn’t unusual for the first football game a player had ever seen to be the one he played in. Now they’re getting players who come up through the Lions’ youth program, such as 32-year-old starting safety Christian Petersen, who played on the German youth national team with Patriots tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Most of Petersen’s teammates call him Emmitt, a nickname that has endured since he started playing flag football at age 12. He always showed up in the only football jersey he could find—the Emmitt Smith jersey his parents gave him for Christmas.
Braunschweig has about 60 players in the 19-and-over senior division, and as in every league in Europe, there’s a cap on the number of American players who can be on the field at the same time. For the Eurobowl, they’re allowed to dress five Americans, but only three can be on the field together. In German Football League games, only two Americans can play at the same time. They’re branded conspicuously with an ‘A’ on the back of their helmets and another sewn on the back of one shoulder, so officials can keep track.
When American football first arrived, it wasn’t unusual for the first game a player had ever seen to be the one he played in.
The Lions found their American quarterback, Casey Therriault, through a Thailand-based former French player named Yoan Schnee, who once played in NFL Europe and now helps to connect players with teams in Europe for a small finder’s fee (about 300 euros). Therriault has quick feet and a good arm, but his football career was thrown off course as a teen when he served six months in jail for involuntary manslaughter after throwing a punch in a street fight. (Therriault, who went on to star at Jackson State in Mississippi, is the subject of a biopic being developed by Lord of the Rings producer Mark Ordesky.)
Import players, such as Therriault, get an apartment, a car, a gym membership and about 1,000 euros per month after taxes. But the core of the roster comprises German players who work day jobs. The most you can earn in Germany for a side job is 450 euros per month, but that’s not standard. Petersen, a Volkswagen executive who has played 300 games for the Lions, doesn’t ask for any money.
The team’s longtime equipment man, Walter, is pretty much the only person who doesn’t speak any English. The middle linebacker, the son of a Tunisian immigrant, makes the defensive checks in English. Therriault, who often calls his own plays in an offense reminiscent of the Bills’ old K-gun system, does so in English. But some things get lost in translation. Consider how Tomlin tried to instruct his long snapper to take some speed off the ball during the pregame walkthrough before the Eurobowl.
“You can throw a fastball and bring the heat,” Tomlin said, “but if you can’t get it over the plate, it doesn’t matter.”
Jens Vogt, a police officer in Dusseldorf, started back at him blankly. Baseball isn’t big in Germany.
“You have no clue what I am talking about,” Tomlin said with a sigh. “OK, you can kick it hard, but if you can’t get it in the net...”
Vogt nodded vigorously.
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The Lions might have had to give out free tickets, but fans at the Eurobowl proved to be louder than an NFL crowd with their horns, clappers and wooden noisemakers the size of cutting boards (the decibel level exceeded 100). If the whole affair seem like a novelty, look no further than page 20 of the game-day program, where an article explaining the rules of “der coin-toss” and “der kick-off” and “1&10,” is headlined “Die Faszination Kurz Erklärt.”
It translates to “the fascination, explained briefly,” says Claudia Tomlin, the head coach’s wife.
Ten minutes before kickoff, a hype video begins playing on a large screen inside the stadium. There are two primal drumbeats. The music rises. Then a male voice with an American accent begins a dramatic narration reminiscent of Star Wars.
From the beginning, mankind was searching
For joy, fun and action games
But now … the search is over
You have power, party and sex appeal
Stand up for the football heroes…
The New Yorker Lions!
On cue, Braunschweig sprints out onto the field through a giant inflatable black-and-red lion’s head. The noisemakers clap and honk and whirr.
They’ve done everything they can to make this an entertaining experience. An American experience. A food stand sells two flavors of pizza—Texas, topped with corn, ham and sausage, and Arizona, with corn, pepper and sausage. The Eurobowl trophy is on display between two red Mustangs. Last year, the team asked members of a local Harley Davidson chapter to bring their bikes in for every home game.
“Because it’s typical American,” says Horst Fitzner, a 65-year-old retired teacher who is one of the Harley riders. “As American as apple pie.”
“In our chapter,” he adds, “there are no real soccer fans.”
One of the biggest differences between soccer and American football is the breaks in the game, so football games are no longer played without a DJ present. In between downs, the stadium speakers blast American artists such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson. The music has become so integral to the game-day experience that Tomlin thinks fans resent his no-huddle offense, because it means fewer opportunities for music.
“It’s like an open air disco,” Tomlin says. “Oh, and also, an American football game broke out.”
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The Lions played in last year’s Eurobowl but lost on a hot day during which the stadium in Berlin ran out of water for fans by halftime. Therriault, who has been with the team on and off for the last three seasons, wasn’t their quarterback that day. Nor was he with the Lions when this season started. He’d been pursuing CFL tryouts, but when the Lions’ quarterback went down in May with a quad pull that turned into a blood clot that needed to be removed surgically, Therriault flew back to Germany from his native Michigan.
Despite spraining an ankle, in this year's Eurobowl he led the offense to three first-half touchdowns, two passing and one on the ground. Of his 29 passes, he completed 19, a number that is more impressive considering he had about five hours of practice with his receivers each week—and most aren’t close to mastering hot reads. On his 26th birthday, he was named the Eurobowl MVP.
Likins’ defense, a 3-3-5 scheme borrowed from former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, surrendered only one big play—an American import receiver for the Unicorns put a move on a German cornerback for a 71-yard touchdown. Likins, whose unit made up for the miscue with two interceptions, has made a career as a European defensive coordinator, having coached games or practices in 10 different countries. He’s been the defensive coordinator in four of the last five Eurobowls, putting his European history degree to use in a way he never quite imagined. “I know about the later Roman Republic, I think I can stop the option, and I know beer,” says Likins, who coached NCAA programs for 12 years but admits this is the most fun he’s ever had.
Tomlin feels the same way. He married Claudia, who is from Braunschweig, and he’s put down roots in Germany. (Their 9-year-old daughter, Rachel, is developing an appreciation for football, but she won’t miss a game.) It’s not that there isn’t pressure here—Tomlin was fired from his first stint as the Lions’ head coach after losing four German Bowls from 2001 to ’04. Since coming back in 2013, he’s only lost four games. He won a German Bowl last year, and now, a Eurobowl.
“I would love to have a chance to coach in the U.S. if the right thing came along,” Tomlin says. “The Cleveland Cavaliers coach was in Europe, and he almost got a championship this year. Who knows? But at the same time, this is a tough place to leave.”
You would think the Eurobowl is the kind of game that might draw the attention of NFL scouts, but none are in the press box. (There aren’t any CFL scouts either.) Nor is the game televised in Germany—or anywhere in Europe. The Lions would have had to pay 20,000 euros to produce the game footage and provide it ready-made to a TV station, and their budget can’t accommodate that.
“I probably won’t get noticed,” says Therriault, shrugging as he walks off the field past the empty boxes of Radeberger Pilsner beer that has been supplied for the champions. “But if teams ask what I’ve been doing, I can tell them I’ve been winning championships.”
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