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The NFL’s First Real Foray Overseas, 30 Years Later

The plan was audacious. The results were mixed. And for those who were part of it, the World League’s inaugural season was like nothing they’d experienced before, or ever would again.

As the halftime performers burst from the tunnel at FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou, clad head to cleat in what must’ve seemed like modern gladiatorial garb—full pads, white jerseys, green helmets each with green face mask and a fiery dragon logo—a murmur of confusion spread through the La Liga crowd. “They were all looking around like they didn’t know what was going on,” Louie Aguiar says.

Down on the soccer pitch, the feeling was mutual. Aguiar and his fellow Barcelona Dragons had been dispatched by team officials to generate buzz for their debut season opener in the startup World League of American Football. The players spent five or so minutes scrimmaging at practice speed while a stadium announcer spelled out various gridiron terms in Spanish. No matter what long pass or power rush the Dragons dialed up on that Sunday night in March 1991, though, fans responded with little more than tepid applause … at least until Aguiar stepped out to punt.

“The place just erupted,” recalls Aguiar, then 24 and a few months away from the start of a 10-year NFL career. “All the guys looked at me like, ‘Why are they so happy?’ I said, ‘They understand me kicking the ball. They don’t understand you guys that are 6' 8", 300 pounds, running around in these tight uniforms.’ “

SI Daily Cover on the inaugural World League Football season

Three decades later, the WLAF—an unprecedented transatlantic spring experiment spanning five countries and two continents—mostly stands as a historical footnote beneath a long list of NFL-backed efforts abroad. Look at the landscape today: Three German cities are jockeying to join the U.K. and Mexico in hosting regular-season games as soon as next fall. Nineteen NFL teams are bidding on league-issued marketing licenses in Brazil, Australia and China, among other places. And international expansion continues to provide an evergreen talking point, no matter how unlikely the actual prospect.

Still the 10-team World League, as it’s alternately known, remains relevant for many reasons. Launched amid widespread skepticism, not to mention an overdose of punchlines from sports columnists involving an acronym that evoked a comedy radio station, the WLAF succeeded in bringing lasting innovations to the pro game; fueling the careers of future NFL coaches; and serving countless new fans with a unique slice of Americana best summed up by a series of promo billboards seen throughout Frankfurt, home of the Galaxy: “Come Watch 11 Men and Their Egg.”

Above all, though, the inaugural 1991 season of the WLAF endures as an unforgettable memory for the many players, coaches and staffers who formed its three pioneering European clubs: the Dragons, the Galaxy and the London Monarchs. For it was they who made the exhausting road trips, who mingled with the soccer-crazed locals, who withstood the lacking football infrastructure to lay a footprint for the future.

“It’s an incredible story of the NFL’s first foray overseas, where we truly built the plane while on the tarmac,” Dragons general manager Andrew Brandt says. “It was not just a job, but an adventure.”

On July 19, 1989, the NFL’s 28 team owners gathered at a hotel in a Chicago suburb for a high-stakes, closed-door meeting. Much of the next nine hours was devoted to addressing the grievances of 11 members who, frustrated with their lack of involvement in the selection process, had conspired to block the election of commissioner Pete Rozelle’s intended successor, Jim Finks. But the group also came together long enough to overwhelmingly approve the formation of what Patriots owner Victor Kiam touted as “a global league.” Initial plans called for a dozen franchises: six in the U.S., and one each in Mexico City, Montreal, London, Barcelona, Frankfurt and Milan.

Leading the charge was WLAF president Tex Schramm, the longtime competition committee czar whose 30-year tenure atop the Cowboys front office had met its recent end when an Arkansas oil tycoon named Jerry Jones bought the team for $140 million and fired Schramm’s longtime ally, coach Tom Landry. (Schramm waited for the sale to become official before resigning.) This wasn’t some cushy retirement project either; earlier that summer Schramm had set out on a whirlwind barnstorming tour through both continents, drumming up interest in possible host cities. “I’ve been moving so much I’ve been saying danke schoen in France and gracias in Germany,” he told reporters outside Chicago.

By then the NFL was already busy exporting its business—notably to Britain, where highlight packages aired every Sunday evening on Channel 4, annual merchandise sales were projected to hit $50 million, and some 200 teams competed in amateur leagues. But while the league also staged semi-regular preseason games in London, Montreal and Tokyo, these were baby steps compared to the giant leap across the pond that Schramm envisioned, going where no football startup—see: the USFL and the International League of American Football, which folded in April 1990—had before.

“American football deservedly has an audience around the world,” wrote a New York Times columnist, “but until those countries produce home-grown players, the N.F.L.'s spring league will be nothing more than a marketing ploy, a second career for Tex, with a typical whiff of football arrogance.”

A whiff? Schramm wore his bold goals like bad cologne. “He said, and I’ll never forget this, ‘The World League is going to be bigger than the National Football League,’ ” says then-ABC broadcaster Brent Musburger, recalling an exploratory meeting that he and color analyst Dick Vermeil had with Schramm. “I didn’t know whether to laugh there. I was stunned.” Ultimately, though, such confidence led to Schramm’s downfall when he was ousted in October 1990. As Sports Illustrated reported the decision, “Schramm wanted the WLAF to be the big leagues and the NFL wanted Double A ball.”

And so Schramm found himself sitting on his fishing boat that winter when the WLAF announced its final launch plans under new commissioner Mike Lynn. Milan and Mexico City had been scuttled, leaving seven North American and three European teams that would kick off in spring 1991. Franchise fees of $11 million would foot the majority of bills, but 26 of 28 NFL owners—Chicago and Phoenix chose not to participate—also forked over $50,000 apiece, a sizable safety net when paired with the multiyear, million-dollar rightsholder deals inked by ABC and USA. (An all-star cast of NFL players, featuring Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason and Warren Moon, were later hired as color analysts.)

World League commissioner Mike Lynn poses with the helmets of the league's first 10 teams

Lynn with the helmets of the league's first 10 teams.

Then there were the World League’s various riffs on NFL canon, all together geared toward luring that elusive spring football audience. Some were rulebook matters: The play clocks would be shorter (25 or 35 seconds instead of 45), teams could attempt two-point conversions (at the time allowed only in high school and college), and on-field celebrations were declared legal. Others were technological, such as quarterback-coach radios and a helmet camera that captured first-person footage for TV, à la the GoPro.

Behind the scenes, front offices soon filled up with rising industry stars: former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, 30, the Galaxy general manager; Michael Huyghue, 29, credited as pro football’s first Black GM in Birmingham; and Brandt, 32, then working as a player agent. “I remember Mike Lynn giving me this whole sell job, that we were going to spread American football around the globe and be huge,” says Brandt, now a sports law professor at Villanova (and regular SI contributor). “I decided, Why not?”

The sidelines, however, were stuffed with what SI described as coaching “retreads”—Frankfurt’s Jack Elway, father of John; Barcelona’s Jack Bicknell, late of Boston College; and London’s Larry Kennan, who was coming off a stint as the Colts’ offensive coordinator—a side effect of the WLAF’s difficulties luring young talent from the NFL ranks. Rosters, however, had more global flair thanks to the World League’s talent search program, Operation Discovery, which mandated that each team field four players from a pool of 40-plus soccer players, ruggers, sprinters, boxers, wrestlers, javelin throwers and other world-class athletes who had pivoted to semipro American football abroad.

Along with 650 American players, ranging from undrafted rookies to washed-up veterans, these international prospects were invited to Orlando for the WLAF’s combine and position-by-position draft in February 1991. Base salaries were modestly capped ($25,000 for quarterbacks, $15,000 for punters and kickers, $20,000 across the rest of the board) to prevent the sort of lavish spending that toppled the USFL. But even attractive individual and team bonuses was less of a carrot for many Americans than what the World League offered in the abstract. “Everyone was looking to do the same thing and get to the NFL,” says London quarterback John Witkowski, a sixth-round pick of the Lions in ’84 who left his sales job to sign up. “That was the golden ring at the end: a chance to showcase your skills.”

At the same time, the prospect of shipping out proved daunting to many who were picked by the European teams. For starters a chaotic preseason schedule loomed after the draft, requiring players to stick around in Orlando for two weeks of domestic training camp before flying straight to their new cities. “Had to pack everything,” Greenwood says. “Once you made the team, you never went home.”

Scenes from the World League tryout in 1991

Scenes from the World League combine and draft.

And then there was the uncertainty of what awaited them when they arrived. “I was a little dismayed,” says Monarchs running back Judd Garrett, who joined the World League alongside brothers John and Jason, all of whom learned about the opportunity when info packets were mailed to the family’s central Jersey home. “Nothing against London, but I didn’t want to go. I didn’t know if we’d have any people go to the games. I didn’t know if people even knew what American football was there.”

Stan Gelbaugh was out of football in early 1991, selling photocopiers around the Washington, D.C., area and hating it. Then the career backup quarterback got a call from an old Bills teammate, Jim Haslett, who had joined the WLAF’s Sacramento Surge as an assistant coach, asking if Gelbaugh wanted back in the game. “Hell yeah,” replied Gelbaugh, despite admittingly knowing “nothing” about the new league itself.

A few weeks later, Gelbaugh was caught off-guard when the Monarchs, not the Surge, selected him in the WLAF supplemental draft. (Officials had realized rosters were thin on talent and deputized coaches to find players for a communal pool.) But he found comfort in a passing familiarity with London, having appeared in the inaugural American Bowl at Wembley Stadium as a Cowboys rookie in ’86. “That was really cool to come back,” Gelbaugh says. “Understood the difference between a pound and a dollar.”

Not everyone so eagerly embraced the cultural differences. “When we first got there, there was almost a revolt over the more European-style food,” Monarchs offensive coordinator George Warhop says. “And we’re big men, going over to an environment where people didn’t eat as much as we ate.” Meager rations were a similar problem at the Barcelona hotel where the Dragons were living. “Their servings were at 9:30 p.m., so we paid for an extra serving at 6:30, and they never had enough,” Brandt says.

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Accomodations left much to be desired, too. Dragons CEO Jack Teele once recounted booking practice time on a soccer field outside Barcelona after meeting the land’s owner in a local tavern and buying three rounds of drinks; Brandt describes rounding up night tables and pillows to put at the ends of hotel beds so his taller players wouldn’t slip off. Over in Frankfurt, the Galaxy rode two and a half hours round-trip from their Best Western each day, stopping in the middle at a separate facility to dress and hold meetings. “We ought to be sponsored by Trailways,” quarterback Mike Perez quipped to SI.

The Monarchs didn’t have it much easier, bunking on the campus of a once-masonic boys school known for serving as a popular filming location for British murder mysteries. Meetings were held in cramped classrooms, or otherwise what Garrett remembers as a “garage-type thing.” Practices took place atop a swath of steadily sloping pasture behind the cafeteria. Players were divided into two dorms: one freshly renovated with working A/C and heat, the other so dingy that some dubbed it the Slums, or the Ghetto. (At least the food issue was resolved. “They brought in a chef, and all of a sudden we’re eating a little bit more pancakes for breakfast, steaks for dinner, bacon cooked American style,” Warhop says. “Just some of the things that had to happen to make it a better experience.”)

Equally difficult as installing a playbook and developing chemistry under these conditions was the task facing Brandt and his front-office counterparts. Local television deals figured to be instrumental in helping the World League reach potential new audiences. but promo ads and postgame highlight shows alone weren’t going to fill the teams’ Olympic-sized home stadiums (Wembley, Barcelona’s Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc and Frankfurt’s Waldstadion). And to sell seats, teams had to sell football.

Perez recalls making a slew of public appearances to promote the coming season, including on U.S. military bases and at a luncheon with Frankfurt business leaders. London brass went the publicity stunt route, inviting rugby legend Ellery Hanley to suit up one practice at running back. “He ran through the middle, and no one was supposed to hit him, but one of our players lit him up,” Gelbaugh says. “The guy’s agent came running on the field, cussing at us. [Hanley] didn’t care. I think he actually wanted to see what it was like.” The team also received a royal boost when kicker Phil Alexander, a former soccer pro who joined the WLAF through Operation Discovery, was invited to a meet-and-greet with Princess Diana. “I shook her hand, said hi,” Alexander recalls. “She was lovely. The paper had a nice picture of us together, and a headline that said, ‘Monarch Meets Monarch.’ ”

Where curiosity might’ve driven new fans to snag single-game tickets, team officials banked on the game day experience bringing them back. “I said, ‘We’re going to sell three hours in America. That’s what they want,’ ” Brandt explains. For the Dragons this meant importing “thousands of pounds of hot dogs and hamburgers,” along with 80 of 180 members of the Central State University Marching Marauders band. (“That’s all the new league could afford,” one report noted.) In London auditions were held for the Monarchs’ cheerleading squad, the Crown Jewels, who performed clad in star-spangled Wonder Woman costumes. And when the Dragons hosted the Monarchs in the first-ever World League game, after the Galaxy had taken the field beneath a shower of fireworks, the kickoff was delayed 14 minutes while the commissioner Lynn landed at midfield in a helicopter to deliver the game ball.