Former Denver Bronco Coach John Ralston was doing his best Mr. Rogers impersonation while giving a dozen European athletes their first chalkboard session on American football. "O.K.," Ralston said as he turned to face husky Gerald Weiss of Germany and gestured with powerful arm motions. "Fullback. Big. Physical. Blocker. Tough. Understand?"
Ralston's multilingual assistant, John Workman, interpreted: "Fullback. Gross. Aggressiv. Blocken. Hart. Verstehst du das?"
The 6'2", 235-pound Weiss listened intently and nodded. A few hours later he was being fitted with his first football uniform—his shoes were too small, and he put his hip pads in upside down—and participating in calisthenics. "Ein, zwei, drei, vier!" Weiss and the nine other Germans chanted with vigor. Ninety minutes into his first practice, Weiss had blisters on both heels. He took his shoes off and continued in stocking feet. His first attempts at throwing a football resembled the motion of a shot-putter, with the ball traveling like a knuckler.
For Weiss, 30, who finished sixth in the javelin for East Germany at the Seoul Olympics, this was quite a day. Here he was in America, in Orlando, Fla., to be exact, taking part in the formation of the World League of American Football. The 10-team league, which will open play on March 23 with franchises in Barcelona, Frankfurt, London, Montreal and six U.S. cities, conducted its inaugural administrative meetings, scouting combine, player drafts and workouts from Feb. 8 through Feb. 24 in Orlando. Weiss was one of 42 foreign athletes there whom Ralston had unearthed last fall as head of the WLAF's worldwide scouting network, dubbed Operation Discover by the league. Ralston & Co. turned up potential players in Australia, Canada, Mexico and all over Europe, including the U.S.S.R.
March 4, 1991
Back home in Schwerin, opportunity hadn't come rushing in for Weiss after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November 1989. Once regarded as a national hero in East Germany, Weiss makes 512,000 a year as a trainer at a sports club, but with the dismantling of the East German sports machine, there's no guarantee the job will exist after this year. The chance to earn at least $20,000 in four months—the WLAF's base salary for most of its players—and the chance to master a new sport drew him to Orlando, even though it meant leaving his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter.
After dinner and another meeting with Ralston and Workman, which ended at 8:45 p.m., the Germans—five from East and five from West—headed for J.J. Whispers, an upscale singles' bar. Lots of hostesses with lots of leg. Lots of light beer. Lots of central Florida women staring at the handsome Weiss. Lots of Janet Jackson and INXS on the disco side of Whispers and lots of oldies from the band on the live-music side. First singles' bar of Weiss's life. First light beer of Weiss's life. One more first: Weiss had traveled extensively as a track athlete, but this was the first time he'd been out at night in a foreign country without being tailed by East German authorities.
At 11:45 p.m. Workman rounded up the players to return to the hotel. Weiss looked pained. "The party has just begun," he said. But Weiss departed willingly, because two workouts were scheduled for the next day, and, he said, "My motivation is 110 percent football."
Weiss is typical of the athletes found by Ralston, who during a recruiting visit to Germany timed Weiss at 4.51 seconds in the 40 and projected him as a fullback or linebacker in the WLAF. The league plans to randomly assign four non-U.S. players to each 40-man roster. Said Frank Emmelman, a former world-class sprinter for East Germany who was trying to make it as a wide receiver, "This is such an opportunity. We feel like we've been let out of the cage." Nine days later, Emmelman became discouraged in trying to adjust to the game and decided to go home.
If Weiss can stick it out, he probably won't contribute much the first year, but he and his fellow football neophytes are almost certain to see action as special-team players because of the WLAF's small rosters. For now, Weiss loves the game and the contact. In his fifth practice he took a handoff, cradled it and burst into a blocking dummy. Whap! "You can't be 6'2" and 235 and run like he does and not be a player," Ralston said.
"I'm like a child crawling in football, about to take my first steps," said Weiss through Workman. "My muscles aren't sore. I'm not afraid to dish out punishment. The only thing that bothers me is that the ball is shaped like an egg."
Mike Lynn, who gave up his position as general manager of the Minnesota Vikings to become president of the WLAF last October, has grand plans. He sees the league having divisions in the Far East, Australia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe and North America by the year 2001. He sees the Tokyo Tidal Wave, the Beijing Wall, the Canberra Kangaroos, the Moscow Muskrats, the Brussels Sprouts. And he is excited. "I can see," says Lynn, "500 million Chinese buying World League merchandise and watching their own team on TV."
Lynn has good reason to believe the WLAF will have a healthy future, because club owners are paying peanuts to the players—quarterbacks receive a base salary of $25,000, punters and kickers get $15,000 and everybody else earns $20,000—and because the league has the support and seed money of the NFL owners. But what about the present? Well, the league does have a few headaches. The Frankfurt Galaxy can no longer count on attracting 10,000 U.S. troops based in Germany to each home game because the threat of terrorism has confined the soldiers to their bases. By late last week, with only a month to go before the start of the 10-game WLAF season, the Orlando Thunder had sold just 3,000 season tickets to the 70,000-seat Florida Citrus Bowl. Worse, the London Monarchs had sold only 300 season tickets, which was 300 more than the Barcelona Dragons had sold. Sports officials in Spain told the WLAF they had never heard of season tickets and, in fact, that Spaniards knew of just one pro football player: Joe Montana.
Imagine starting a pro football league. New leagues are oh-for-two since 1975.
Now imagine starting an international league in the midst of a recession and a war, with no marquee players to boot. "Pick any year since the end of World War II that you wouldn't want to start a sports league, and we're in it," says Lynn.
Finally, imagine trying to pull all of this off with the help of a good many people who don't know beans about the game. During an indoctrination for club executives one afternoon in Orlando, Barcelona owner Josep Maria Figueras yawned, leaned toward Lynn and whispered, "When do we take the siesta?"
This league has no shot, right? Not so fast. The concept is workable, unless attendance is horrific. Every player is paid according to the salary scale, plus an incentive plan that is based on playing time as well as on individual and team performance. The league figures the 10 teams will average $1.1 million in player salaries. Thirty-four NFL players each earned more than that in 1990. Further, neither the World Football League (1974-75) nor the U.S. Football League (1983-85) had the backing of the NFL.
Over the 17 days in Orlando during which the WLAF took shape, ownership groups heard how the league would be run, coaching staffs scouted 710 American players, drafting 650 of them, and the indoctrination of the Operation Discovery athletes began. Weiss's experiences typify those of the foreign athletes who are being integrated into the WLAF. Here is what this brave new world is about for some other people who have signed on with the league.
The conference table in the hotel suite was covered with bags of pistachio nuts, peanuts, pizza chips, potato chips, tortilla chips, jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o chips, Chex mix, Cheez Doodles, pretzels, Vanilla Cremes, Nutter Butters, a tin of smokeless tobacco, 14 soda cans, six yellow legal pads and, occasionally, some feet. And something else was on the way. "Could you please send up three large pots of coffee and 10 cups?" San Antonio Riders defensive coordinator Greg Newhouse asked room service at 11:05 p.m.
"You get a chance to eat dinner?" Rider coach Mike Riley asked Tom Landry.
"This is my dinner," Landry said, popping a jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o chip into his mouth.
The two men laughed because both were having a great time. Landry, 66, was back in football for the first time since 1989, when Jerry Jones fired him as coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Landry and his son, Tom Jr., bought an 8% share of the Riders, and Tom Sr. put himself at Riley's disposal. Riley, 38, has asked him to help scout some players in Orlando. So here they were together, with seven other coaches and front-office types, figuring out whom to draft the next day. "It's fun," Landry said. "It's like the start of the Cowboys, when we'd be up till four in the morning working on the draft."
Riley won the Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League's championship trophy, in 1988 and '90 as coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. But presiding over a draft meeting and getting input from Tom Landry...well, Riley would say later, "This is a career highlight."
The WLAF had hoped to have a bunch of Riley types—bright young innovators—including two or three blacks, running fast-paced offenses. However, the league wound up hiring some coaching retreads along with an equal number of Rileys, but the real shame is that it has no black head coaches. According to Lynn, seven blacks were interviewed for head jobs, but all seven told the WLAF they were not interested. The league held fast to its salary scale for coaches—each head coach earns $100,000 and the four assistants per club are paid a total of $160,000. Reggie Williams of the New York-New Jersey Knights, the former Cincinnati Bengal linebacker who's one of the league's two black general managers, says he was unable to sign up San Francisco 49er assistant Sherman Lewis, who's black, because the NFL offers better job security and a better pension.
Coaching in the WLAF is not going to be easy. Frankfurt will have to fly 13 hours, over nine time zones, to play Sacramento on April 13. With the small rosters, coaches cannot risk injury by conducting hard-hitting practices during the season. Raleigh-Durham Skyhawk coach Roman Gabriel and Knights coach Mouse Davis plan to have some players go both ways. The Skyhawks' first pick in the draft, Brad Henke, who was selected by the New York Giants in 1989 and has been cut by three NFL teams, will be a full-time offensive guard and a part-time nosetackle.
Even the draft was a unique experience for the coaches. They scrutinized players at a specific position on one day and drafted them the next. (For example, quarterbacks were evaluated on a Sunday and selected on Monday.) "Getting your players isn't like life or death," says Barcelona coach Jack Bicknell. "It's like choosing up sides at the playground."
Michael Huyghue, 29, the general manager of the Birmingham Fire, is out to build the best organization in the WLAF. "Like the 49ers," he says. "There's a certain feel when you step into a high-class setting. That's what we'll build." The Fire will give its players custom-made warmup suits and travel bags. Training-camp headquarters will be a luxury hotel in Birmingham. Three hundred women are vying for spots on the Firing Squad, the cheerleading unit. The mascot will be the Torch, a circus performer who breathes fire.
All of this for a team whose biggest names are Brent Pease and Joe Henderson. "It's important that the fans don't see us as minor league," says Huyghue (rhymes with fugue), "and they won't."
Huyghue carries a cellular phone everywhere he goes. He's a Michigan law school grad who has worked for both the NFL Players Association and the Management Council. He's bright and confident, the prototypical pro football executive of the 1990s. And he has been sought out by a member of Birmingham's Shoal Creek Country Club to see if he would be interested in joining. He'll decide later.
Such is life when you're the first black hired as a pro football general manager. "When I took this job, they [citizens of Birmingham] expected me not to be vocal," says Huyghue. "I'm not Nelson Mandela, but I'm here in this position, and besides doing my job as well as I can, I hope to make some positive changes in the community."
The decision to take the job with the Fire, he says, wasn't based much on the opportunity to become the first black G.M. in football. "This league was going to let me show I could be a general manager," says Huyghue. "What I've fought so far in my jobs is being young more than being black. I really needed to be in this league to show I could run a franchise."
The league is full of sharp young general managers—Tex Schramm protègè Billy Hicks, 30, in London; former NFL quarterback Oliver Luck, 30, in Frankfurt; former player agent Andy Brandt, 32, in Barcelona; and Williams, 36, a former Cincinnati city councilman, of New York-New Jersey. Being a general manager in this league has some advantages but not many. All players sign contracts with the league, not with individual teams, so general managers are spared the big headache of player negotiations.
The front office's biggest job will be to get people to attend games. Some teams are going about it the right way. Sacramento, for instance, has a $125 season ticket plan for a family of four—five games, four seats per game. Huyghue must be doing something right, too. Birmingham, with seats priced from $8.50 to $18.50, has sold 7,500 season tickets.
The whistle blew, and the player with the number 28 on his T-shirt began running a shuttle drill, which measures lateral quickness. He moved to his left, and then planted his left foot to move back to his right. However, the sandy dirt of the Florida Citrus Bowl field gave way, and Paul Palmer fell down. He jumped to his feet. "Can I do it again?" he asked eagerly. No, he was told. Move to the next drill. Palmer's performances in the rest of the drills, particularly those that evaluate a back's elusiveness and cutting ability, proved he was the best running back in Orlando.
When Palmer was drafted in the first round and signed by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1987, he was handed a $450,000 bonus. When he signed with the WLAF, he was handed a plane ticket from Kansas City to Orlando. Even if he turns out to be a premier player and earns almost even' bonus in the league's incentive plan, he'll make only about $40,000 this year.
WLAF officials urge players not to think of the new league as a stepping-stone to the NFL, but most players are doing just that. Palmer's goal this season is to see the world and to carry the ball 20 to 25 times a game so that he can prove he deserves a fifth shot at the NFL. That isn't necessarily a bad thing for the league. Palmer has to play hard and produce big numbers for another NFL team to take a flier on him.
Kansas City cut him before the 1989 season, in part because of a smart-aleck remark he made to an assistant coach about deliberately fumbling during a game to get even for having his playing time reduced. Palmer was signed by the Detroit Lions, but they traded him to the Cowboys six games into the '89 season. As a Plan B free agent after that season, he was signed by the Bengals but was cut and sat out '90. After the incident in Kansas City, he was viewed by other NFL teams as a marginal player. "I guess there's this stigma on Paul Palmer," said Palmer, who was drafted by Barcelona. "There's nothing I can do about it except go out and prove people wrong."
As for the overall quality of the players, Pease, the top pick among the quarterbacks, has suited up for the Vikings and Houston Oilers but has never played in a regular-season NFL game. The top choice among offensive linemen, Caesar Rentie, taken by New York-New Jersey, played for the Chicago Bears in 1988 but was cut by the Buffalo Bills in '89. "This league conjures up ideas of the old AFL," says former Princeton wide receiver John Garrett, who wrote his senior thesis on the history of that league. (John and his quarterback brother, Jason, were drafted by San Antonio, while brother Judd, a running back, was selected by London.) "The emphasis on offensive excitement will be like what Sid Gillman brought to the AFL. The big difference is that the AFL didn't have a salary scale. We do."
Now, if only the WLAF can be the success story the AFL was. "It's the land of opportunity," says Williams. "It's Ellis Island, and not just for players. A lot of people are going to prove themselves in this league."
You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
A few things you should know about the World League of American Football:
•Before the Birmingham Fire's home opener, on March 23 against the Montreal Machine, Jerry Lee Lewis will perform Great Balls of Fire on a piano at midfield. The city fire marshal nixed the team's original plan to set the piano on fire when Lewis finished singing.
•Sacramento Surge quarterback Ben Bennett's new nickname is the Surgin' General.
•The London Monarch cheerleaders, the Crown Jewels, are led by choreographer Joy Howarth, who formerly worked with Paula Abdul.
•When the WLAF called to ask former University of Oklahoma running back Lydell Carr to sign on, a woman was moaning and screaming in the background. "It's my wife," said Carr. "She's having a baby."
•Former Seattle Seahawk running back Tony Burse, now a member of the Surge, was asked on a questionnaire to name the nonathlete he would most like to meet. Burse wrote, "Dave Krieg."
•The WLAF did not adopt two dreaded NFL rules—instant replay and a penalty for excessive end zone celebrations.
•Of the 66 running backs who were signed by the league, six were not taken in the draft. Among the six was Joe Dudek, the former Division III All-America from Plymouth (N.H.) State and SI coverboy.
•Before the season is over, the USA cable network hopes to outfit a WLAF quarterback or two with a helmetcam during a game. The helmetcam, described by USA producer Ken Wolfe as "half the size of your thumb," is still being perfected.
•When the San Antonio Riders score, a white horse will circle the track at Alamo Stadium. When the opposition scores, a donkey will take a lap.