What? Do I remember the first World Bowl? Like it was last week, kid. Those were great days back in 1991. Those were young days 20 years ago. The fans and the game and the players all had a freshness to them, as though nobody had told them the game didn't matter. Not like now, not like the monster hype vehicle you see today. You know how many American sportswriters flew to London to cover the first World Bowl? One. Me.
You laugh, but I'm serious. This was before the shoecam and the pigskincam and even the pom-pomcam. The World League of American Football was zilch back then. I'll never forget the week before the World Bowl. At a charity dinner, the WLAF president, Mike Lynn, bumped into Prince Charles, whose charitable trust benefited from the game. Lynn says to the prince, "So, you coming to the game?" And the prince goes, "What game?"
Those were the days when nobody was sure whether the World League was football or something held over from the Wilson Administration. The WLAF was sort of like Jerry Lewis—very big in France but couldn't get arrested in the States. That made media access to the players ridiculously easy. I rode on the London Monarch team bus back to the hotel one day. Can you imagine that now, with the, what, 3,000 reporters around? The Moscow coach would have you hung in Red Square if he caught you on his bus.
There was even a question of whether the first World Bowl would be a sellout. The WLAF tried just about everything to get one. "We're ready for the New England Patriots," said Monarch general manager Billy Hicks in the week leading up to the game. "We could hold our own."
Of course, they almost did sell all 63,500 seats. Wembley Stadium was rockin' that day, with 61,108 banner-waving, mostly pre-40, American-pop-freak fans ready to make history. Here's how new everything was: The MVP of the game, London cornerback Dan Crossman, didn't even know that he got a $16,000 van for winning the award. "Guys kept coming up to me during the game, telling me I was going to win the car," Crossman would say later. "But I thought they were kidding. I mean, I'm thinking, This isn't the Super Bowl."
He was right. This was more fun than the Super Bowl. When London won—21-0 in a blowout over the Barcelona Broncos, er, Dragons—the Monarchs did something I'd never seen in pro football. They went into the stands to get their trophy from Lynn. Then they romped around Wembley carrying it over their heads, dancing to excruciatingly loud music, waving the Union Jack around as if it were their very own (all but four players were American) and generally carrying on as if they cared, which—and this is the funny thing—they really did. The fans cared too. Twenty-five minutes after the final gun, maybe 1,000 people had left.
In those days, the World League broke all the rules. The Monarch players spent the season living in some 100-year-old, vacant university dorms, which were a ¬¨¬®¬¨¬£30 ($50) cab ride from town. It was quite lovely. The dorms had shower heads at navel level, no telephones in the rooms, one television in each lounge, next to no heat, even less hot water and, as the sole source of amusement, a bedraggled dart board. It inspired various tournaments of backward darts, blindfolded darts, steeplechase darts (competitors had to come running into the room at full speed, leap over a couch and fire) and, of course, lucky darts, in which outside linebacker Danny Lockett, who also happened to be the league's defensive co-MVP that first season, would suddenly decide to bury the darts as hard as he could into a wall and everybody in the room would duck to avoid being punctured.
The other coaches in the league, whose players lived in hotels and apartments, said the Monarchs had an advantage in enduring this hell, because they "lived together, like a family." Right. "We were lucky to keep them off each other's throats," said the Monarch coach, London Larry Kennan. Actually, they weren't that lucky. The Monarchs had half a dozen shouting matches on the sideline during the year, plus one in the huddle during a game. Didn't bother Kennan much. He once had been an assistant coach with the L.A. Raiders.
Back in 1991 the World Bowl was practically run out of the back of a VW. The stadium crew at Wembley couldn't even begin painting the WLAF logo and the team names on the field that year until a schoolboy soccer match ended at five o'clock the night before the game.
And even once the historic event began, you weren't sure what in the world was going on. For instance, after London fumbled away the opening kickoff, Barcelona lost 12 yards on three plays and screwed up a field goal try. The holder dropped the snap, and kicker Massimo Manca tried to kick the ball while it was squirting on the ground, figuring the big guys chasing it would leave him alone. London recovered, went nowhere and punted, and then Barcelona was intercepted. Anyway, after almost 15 minutes, the score was 0-0, so, naturally, the soccer fans at Wembley felt right at home.
But on the last play of the first quarter, a pass from the London 41-yard line, Monarch wide receiver Jon Horton—yes, the Jon Horton; believe it or not, at that point in Horton's career, the NFL didn't think he was any good—totally embarrassed Barcelona cornerback Charles Fryar (Irving's cousin), letting Fryar think he had an interception, then stealing the ball out of his hands at the Barcelona 19. Fryar fell down, and the safety sideswiped Horton and missed. Horton could've scored the first World Bowl touchdown in a Beefeater's uniform: London 7-0.
Every fifth catch Horton made that year was a touchdown. Not bad for a guy who couldn't make it through one season in the Canadian Football League and had to make a living playing pro basketball in Mexico, eh?
Barcelona quarterback Scott Erney threw his next two passes to Crossman, the second of which was returned for a score. Crossman just sneaked inside a down-and-out, "squeezed the ball like a baby," he said, and floated in for a 20-yard TD. Crossman would get a third interception later in the second quarter. Up in the royal box, actor John Cleese and the Moody Blues (who did not lip-sync God Save the Queen) were having a bloody good time. London was up 14-0.
Then, with 52 seconds left in the half, Monarch quarterback Stan Gelbaugh threw a rope to halfback Judd Garrett—they hooked up 12 times that day—for a 14-yard touchdown. Bring on the marching band from Central State University, in Wilberforce, Ohio, which the Wembley crowd greeted like a Beatles reunion. London 21-0, and you know the rest.
Back in the States, you probably could've heard the Nielsen ratings dropping through the floor, but in London, what one veteran Fleet Street writer called "as fine a celebration as ever seen at Wembley" was building. When the game ended, the idea was for Gelbaugh to go into the stands and accept the trophy, a 40-pound glass globe (it lit up, too) from Lynn and his pals Pete Rozelle, Tex Schramm and Tom Landry. However, Gelbaugh's shoulder was hurting, so he asked Crossman to accompany him into the stands and help him lift the globe. Next thing you know, all 41 players and the coaches were stomping up to the royal box to get their big paws on the globe. Then came the Stanley Cup lap.
"The NFL should do that," I remember Lynn saying afterward. "The NFL just goes in the locker room, and nobody gets to see the celebration."
That's the way that first World Bowl went down, kid—almost 25 years to the day after the NFL and the AFL agreed to merge-in front of a crowd that was 838 short of the attendance at the first Super Bowl, in Los Angeles in 1967.
There was something wonderfully honest, low-rent and delicious about World Bowl I. Afterward, the Monarchs, who finished 11-1, dressed in a "locker room" that was nothing but some partitions put up in the middle of a giant exhibition hall, with portable showers trucked in for the World Bowl. The game was dreadful and terrific at the same time: You didn't know whether it was the beginning or, who knew, the end of something.
"If that wasn't big-time football out there," said London Larry, "I don't know what is." Across the way, Monarch head trainer Mayfield Armstrong was showing off his new and very permanent tattoo, a Monarch logo on his butt.
And to think England's favorite sport used to be soccer.