American Football may not catch on in Europe the way MTV and cheeseburgers have, but NFL-style pro franchises opened for business on the Continent last weekend, whether Europe was ready for them or not. Come to think of it, whether the American organizers were ready or not. That the 10-team World League of American Football kicked off on schedule—beginning with the London Monarchs playing the Frankfurt Galaxy last Saturday night in Germany—may go down as the greatest American achievement in Europe since the first McDonald's opened there, in Paris in 1972.
Hey, last Friday, two days before the New York-New Jersey Knights faced the Barcelona Dragons, the goalposts still weren't in the ground at Montjuic Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. They were held up in Spanish customs, as was almost everything else—athletic tape, video equipment, shoulder pads—shipped from the U.S. The goalposts did arrive, but when a hole was dug for one of them, it filled with water. "We had us a nice little well," said Dragon coach Jack (el Caballero) Bicknell, who, said a Spanish newspaper, "reminds us of Gary Cooper."
The locals had a solution: "Why not just move the goalpost five yards to the left?" And why not? The end zones were already three yards short of regulation size because the grass playing surface wasn't large enough. So what would it matter if the goalpost was put near the band? The posts were finally planted late on Friday, but nobody was sure the concrete would set in time for Sunday night's game. (The goalposts withstood a torrential rainstorm.)
Then there were the buses. The Frankfurt players spent more time on buses than Ralph Kramden. Because the league is trying to hold down costs, the Galaxy's hotel is located just this side of Czechoslovakia. The players bus 30 minutes to a sports facility, where they have meetings and change into their uniforms. Then they bus 45 minutes to the practice field, and later they bus an hour and 15 minutes back to their Best Western hotel. "We ought to be sponsored by Trailways," said Frankfurt quarterback Mike Perez.
April 1, 1991
London's bus got stuck in mud one day, and 30 players were needed to push it out. Barcelona's bus came so rarely that el Caballero learned to make backup transportation plans every day. "If it weren't for Willie Nelson," Bicknell said, pulling aside his headphones, "I'd go nuts."
Then there was the food. "Hey, Chief!" Perez yelled to a teammate, defensive end Kevin (Chief) Hendrix. "How many meals in a row have we had pork?"
"I don't know," answered Hendrix. "How many days have we been here?"
Some WLAP players are wondering which will be higher—their weekly paycheck or their cholesterol count. It got so bad that when one Galaxy bus ran over something with a loud thump, the players were rooting for it to be a deer. "Hey," one wiseguy hollered, "venison tonight!"
Then there were the beds. Barcelona players were putting their nightstands at the ends of their tiny beds so that they would have something to rest their feet on. Figures. Of the WLAF's three guinea-pig European teams—the other seven franchises are located in six U.S. cities and Montreal—the Dragons were definitely running the worst maze.
For one thing, the Dragons' practice field sits at the base of a huge hill on which stand crude mausoleums that resemble apartment buildings. Barcelona ran out of room for cemeteries a long time ago, so the town began stacking corpses Lego-style in what Barcelonans wryly call "your last apartment." However, because the mausoleums are not well sealed, when the wind shifts in the direction of the practice field, the players get a whiff of their quiet but decidedly smelly neighbors. Ugh.
The team hotel is a half hour from Barcelona, in Castelldefels, and even if the players were closer to town they couldn't afford to go there. "We went in one place and ordered a beer," said backup Dragon quarterback Tony Rice, the former Notre Dame star, "and it cost $13." Thirteen-dollar beers do not mesh well with the average WLAF player salary of $20,000.
Indeed, the budget for your basic POW (Prisoner of the World, as the Dragons like to call themselves) is tight all around. It can cost $7 a minute to call home to the U.S. from the hotel. Plus, the Barcelona owner, Josep M. Figueras, Spain's largest real estate baron, can really pinch a peseta. He makes the players pay for game tickets and souvenir T-shirts and hats.
Then came word from the league office in New York City that $175 per week would be taken out of every WLAF player's paycheck for room and board. That was more bad news for the players, who in the first week often arrived at the training table only to find all the board gone. "The cooks are having a little trouble realizing how much 41 players eat," said Bicknell. "I've been here two weeks, and I haven't had a piece of meat yet."
Europe-on-$10-a-day was perilously close to causing a walkout among the Dragons. "If they think they're going to make us pay for living in a hotel 10,000 miles from home, they're crazy," said lineman Brian Voorhes. "We may show up at the game and forget to put on pads."
Oh, and you know that innovative coach-to-quarterback radio transmitter system with the receiver built into the quarterback's helmet? It needs a little work. "That thing kills your ears," Perez said as he ripped off his helmet during a practice. Plus, every time an airplane flew over Waldstadion, the Galaxy's home field, the transmitter went on the fritz. With Waldstadion located right next to the Frankfurt-Main International Airport, WLAF quarterbacks should catch a lot of static. Somebody is going to become the first quarterback to run for 100 yards, pass for 300 and land three 747s.
Still, for all the warm milk, cold showers, fatty meals and skinny paychecks, there was a sense that history was being made in Frankfurt. A helicopter landed at midfield, and out popped WLAF president Mike Lynn with the game ball. "Good luck, men," Lynn said in German, and the men went out and played like Hans and Franz.
In the first quarter, the quarterbacks completed three of 12 passes between them, three punts traveled less than 35 yards, and Frankfurt gained 15 yards to London's one. Let it be recorded at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, that the first points ever scored in this league were the result of a player running backward—a safety. This was about as Fahrvergnügen as you can get from 49ers-Giants. Still, with no more than five non-Americans on each 40-man roster, it was significant that a foreign player, Philip Alexander of London, kicked off, and another foreign player, Victor Ebubedike of London, made the first tackle.
Happily, the robust Waldstadion crowd of 23,169, including a large contingent of Americans, hung with it, aided mostly by its own giddiness at getting to watch something other than soccer hooligans. The Germans in attendance had been coaxed to the game with ads that read "Come watch 11 men and their egg."
Admittedly, what makes the World League go round are U.S. players who rank somewhere between once-was and never-will-be, a kind of Goodwill box that might contain something somebody should have kept. Take, for instance, an unemployed asbestos inspector, London wide receiver Jon Horton, who played for Arizona. He caught a 96-yard Bombe to open the second half. A few minutes later the Monarchs' Dana Brinson, a flanker out of Nebraska, made a wicked move on a reverse for an eight-yard touchdown, which was capped by the league's first polka, a little German hip-hop celebration in the end zone that would have sent the NFL owners immediately into committee meetings. London won easily, 24-11, giving meaning to the new World order.
Somewhere near the bottom of that order, for now, are the New York-New Jersey Knights, who flew to Barcelona, had their baggage accidentally switched with a marching band's, got it back a day later and then had their helmets handed to them on Sunday night by the Dragons 19-7 in cold rain and wind. Who knows why 19,223 Barcelonans showed up in that weather to watch a game they didn't understand. Still, they stayed until the final gun, singing soccer songs, holding up banners and lighting flares. They were, without a doubt, the stars.
"We've got to teach them to quiet down when we've got the ball," said Barcelona starting quarterback Scott Erney, "but other than that they were fantastic." And somebody's got to talk to the team tailor. He sewed receiver Thomas Woods' name upside down on his jersey. His teammates kept calling him "Spoom."
Back in the States, where two other league openers were played last Saturday night, a crowd—53,000 at Legion Field in Birmingham—also was the big story. An estimated 35,000 fans paid the full ticket price to watch the Birmingham Fire play the Montreal Machine, while the rest of the folks were interested enough to take advantage of special ticket discounts and giveaways. "John Q. Public doesn't like prima donnas," said Fire coach Chan Gailey. "He likes Joe Blows who work their butts off. They love football here, especially if it's played hard and enthusiastically." Montreal had the better Joe Blows on this night, winning 20-5. At Hughes Stadium in Sacramento, a junior college field with stands bordering railroad tracks, the Sacramento Surge beat the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks 9-3, also in a steady downpour, before 15,126 fans.
Montreal quarterback Kevin Sweeney, a former Dallas Cowboy, provided an accurate assessment of the WLAF's first weekend. "It's a lot like strike-team ball, at least right now," said Sweeney, who combined with Birmingham quarterback Brent Pease to complete just 22 of 55 passes. "We haven't had enough time to put the whole kit and caboodle together."
For the winning coaches, it was easy to forget all the weeks of headaches that came before the season openers. The league had saved a few shillings by putting London coach Larry Kennan's team on a 7 a.m. flight to Frankfurt last Friday, which meant the bus to the airport had to leave at 4:30 a.m., and Kennan had to get up at 2:30 a.m. "I wonder how Al Davis would like this?" he muttered.
The weird thing is, Davis might like it. This was pro football played without agents, NFL paranoia, talk shows, assistant coaches in charge of the kicking tee and, remarkably, inflated egos. With a salary scale for players, and incentive payoffs tied more to team performance than to individual stats, nobody played with decimals dancing in their heads. The WLAF is a cast of understudies, making little and hoping for too much. They made the game new and vital, if not overly pretty. And it was an adventure.
One day, as the Galaxy bus trundled back to its hotel following a practice, the singing among the players was deafening. Can you imagine NFL players singing? NFL players hire other people to sing for them. But why not sing? As Barcelona noseguard Mike Ruth put it, "We're getting paid to play football and see the world. How can you beat that?"
A $3 six-pack would be nice.