Mention Paris in NFL circles and you are likely talking about Bubba, not France. In those few colonies abroad where the league has established fans, its game is still known as "American football," and its current champion as "America's Team." Super Bowl winners may call themselves world champions, but in fact the NFL is no more global than the International House of Pancakes.
Or is it? The Super Bowl-bobo Buffalo Bills drew 67,132 spectators to an exhibition game last Saturday night in Berlin, where the Bills are, of course, very famous. "Frank Reich," intoned a German television reporter beginning an interview with Buffalo's backup quarterback after the Bills' 20-6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, "you are very famous in Germany for your come-from-behind playoff win against New Orleans, and...."
"I think you mean Houston," Reich offered.
"Houston?" said the journalist, cocking a skeptical eyebrow at Reich before reluctantly conceding on camera: "Yes... I think you are right."
August 15, 1993
One night later in London the world champion Dallas Cowboys appeared very much Great Britain's Team in their 13-13 tie with the Detroit Lions, even though Detroit was the team with linebacker Antonio London and Etonian-sounding running back Shaumbe Wright-Fair. It didn't seem to bother fans that the only stars the Cowboys fielded at Wembley Stadium were on their helmets. Six weeks ago quarterback Troy Aikman underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back and is not expected to return until Dallas's final preseason game, in Chicago. Running back Emmitt Smith, whose recently premiered Reebok commercial features the tagline "All men are created equal—some just work harder in the preseason," is a preseason holdout.
And still a crowd of 43,522 came to Wembley, which means that in eight days during this preseason the NFL drew 205,377 fans to American football games in four foreign outposts: Barcelona, Tokyo, Berlin and London. Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate, once a backdrop for Hitler's birthday rallies and later left sandwiched in the dead man's land between East and West Berlin, last week finally said hel-lo to the lovely and talented...Buffalo Jills.
All of which raises the question: For the love of God, why?
Why has the league played 20 exhibition games overseas since 1983? Why has the NFL played preseason football in Berlin every summer for the last four years? In Tokyo for the last five? In London for the last eight? And why has the league become so intent on putting a helmet on every Helmut? Last spring 10,000 players and 1,000 coaches attended NFL clinics, mostly in Germany. More than 200 amateur teams now play American football there. For the first time a European who is not a kicker is in an NFL training camp: Olaf Hampel of Germany might actually make the Denver Broncos as an offensive tackle. German figure skater Katarina Witt is believed to have attended every American Bowl game in Berlin. Germans, clearly, have picked up the pigskin habit, which is a little frightening, given the amount of pork already in that nation's diet.
Why, indeed, are NFL teams willing to cart the more than 200 members of their traveling parties around the world simply to play preseason football? Even if that figure, in the case of the Cowboys, did include all 32 members of "The Often-Imitated, Never-Equaled, Internationally Famed Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders," as this double-jointed dance line was called when introduced to a breathless crowd on Sunday evening?
Why? For starters, there is the World League. The NFL expects to decide by mid-September whether or not to resuscitate this outfit that you may not have realized was dormant. Officially suspended last year after two seasons that resulted in losses of $20 million, the original World League comprised seven anonymous teams in North America, plus three very popular ones in Europe. At its demise 32 World League alumni had graduated to NFL active rosters. Should it return in the spring of '94—and NFL officials are optimistic that it will, provided they can sign the joint-venture agreement being discussed with two international media companies—the brave new World will be an all-European league of six teams: holdovers London, Barcelona and Frankfurt, plus new teams in Germany and the United Kingdom. Other bureaus under consideration are Madrid, Amsterdam...and Paris. April in Paris? Now we're talking football.
"We do not see the World League as an instrument for profit," says Roger Goodell, the NFL's vice-president of operations. "We see it as a tool to make American football more popular. Ultimately, we'd like to expand [the World League] to the Far East and Latin America."
The Far East? Latin America? The World League was big in Europe, but if it weren't for bad luck, and Oliver Luck, well, the league would have had no luck at all. The first points scored in the first Frankfurt Galaxy game came on a safety. On March 23, 1991, bemused Frankfurters watched the offensive unit of the London Monarchs move backward into its own end zone, while the scoreboard rang up two points for the team without the ball. "Oh, nooo," said an omen-sensing Luck, then the Galaxy general manager, now the NFL's director of European operations. "Is anyone going to know what's happening here?"
As it turns out, Europeans who attend American football games are as knowledgeable as their American counterparts, insists Luck, a former Houston Oiler quarterback who has lived in Germany for three years. The NFL envisions European franchises of its own one day, a transatlantic league.
There may also be an American Bowl in Moscow very soon. These preseason games, after all, create new fans every year, thanks to the kind of pigskin diplomacy practiced by the likes of Jim McMahon. At a Pressekonferenz in Berlin, new Viking quarterback McMahon expressed little interest in seeing anything in Germany, save for perhaps the quirky offerings on German TV. "What's the Fish Channel?" he asked German journalists. "I watched that. Nothin' but fish and music. And the Train Station Channel. I watched that for two minutes, until I figured out what happens: A train pulls up. It stops. And it keeps going."
"I am a promotional translator," said Paul Arend, the man retained to interpret the likes of McMahon for the German press last week. "So some things I will just leave out of the translation."
While his camera-toting teammates gaped at the stunning San Souci palace in the 1,000-year-old city of Potsdam, McMahon sat on a bench and read a newspaper. In other words, he did not exactly make like John F. Kennedy and declare, "Ich bin ein Berliner" (to Germans, literally, "I am a jelly doughnut") while in Deutschland. But Buffalo offensive tackle Jerry Crafts, who weighs 351 pounds, might have. Hew a jelly doughnut, and on Wednesday he graciously pressed the flesh with the locals coursing through the McDonald's on the Ku'damm, Berlin's busiest boulevard. Meanwhile Lion receiver Brett Perriman was declaring that McDonald's hamburgers in London "taste like soybeans." Some people are all beef.
Buffalo's Thurman Thomas is not among those people. At Olympic Stadium in West Berlin, site of the 1936 Summer Games that were dominated by Jesse Owens, Thomas thoughtfully paid homage to the pioneering black athletes who paved the way for him to become, just three weeks ago, the highest paid running back in NFL history. In addition to honoring Owens, Thomas thanked Dodger great Frankie Robinson, but the error was a trifle. The sentiment was genuine.
And, marketing goals notwithstanding, that's what these exhibition games are really about: thoughts and experiences that one cannot enjoy when in, say, Foxboro to play the Patriots. "You are in one of the world's greatest cities, so enjoy it," said Cowboy quarterback Hugh Millen, who made sure to "queue up" and see the sights in London. "I'm not going to say that [the long trip] isn't an issue with anyone. But you only live once. This is the only time that a lot of these guys will ever be in London. The positives of a trip like this far outweigh the negatives." (Complaining just wouldn't be Wright-Fair.)
Inevitably, Berlin provided a more sobering sojourn. One afternoon four tour buses carried the Vikings and their wives through residential East Berlin, where it still takes two to three years to have a telephone installed, and past a desolate weed-covered lot that was the site of the bunker in which Hitler dispatched himself on April 30, 1945. Two days later a group of Viking rookies visited a memorial and museum at the former concentration camp of Sachsenhausen, 40 minutes north of Berlin. Meanwhile members of the Bills inspected what remains of the Berlin Wall. The effect of all of this was overwhelming.
"Even though we toured a museum and saw pictures and saw the wall, we still can't really comprehend it," said Reich. "It's mind-boggling how recent these things were: within the last 50 years. You would like to think it was 200 years ago."
The gemütlichkeit of Berliners and the beauty of the city's surroundings provided a happy balance. Even McMahon enjoyed a moment of levity, stopping on the gangplank as the Vikes boarded a cruise boat on the Havel River and turning to his teammates behind him: "Is this a three-hour tour?" he asked, suggesting that, somewhere on German TV, he had found an all-Gilligan's Island channel.
At least one Buffalo player rented a high-performance German automobile and opened it up on the no-speed-limit Autobahn, but this was a method of release not recommended for the Vikings, who were more than a little logy upon arriving in Berlin. The day after touching down, rookie quarterback Gino Torretta tried to recall the team's itinerary. "Saturday we flew from Minneapolis to Dallas," he said. "We played the Cowboys on Sunday, flew back to Minneapolis after the game, got in at two in the morning, slept in our own beds, had a meeting at two that afternoon, left for Berlin at four, stopping in Boston for fuel. We got here the next morning. But it's not so bad—I see the commissioner got something like 8,000 frequent-flier miles in a week."
Indeed, Paul Tagliabue sounded less like the Commish and, to hear fragments of his sentences last week, more like an international financier. "I was reading an interesting article in Der Spiegel about the Bundesleague...," he would say in one breath, and in the next, "I was talking on the telephone to someone in Moscow, and Mr. Goodell would like me to meet with people from Hong Kong when I'm in London...."
In fact, Tagliabue is an international financier, trying to drum up his global market for the NFL. To that end, something called the NFL World Partnership was formed last December to promote American football as a participation sport in Europe. Clinics by former Pittsburgh Steeler coach Chuck Noll, for instance, have been wildly successful, especially in Germany, and the NFL would clearly like to see Hampel, a former member of the Frankfurt Galaxy, make the Broncos. "The NBA has Detlef Schrempf," Luck says of the Indiana Pacers' German star. "Kids who play American football here could use an example like that, someone they can point to and say, 'He made it in the NFL, so can I.' "
The kids are willing to learn. Perhaps it is instructive that the German word for school is spelled Schule, but pronounced Shula. After conducting a recent series of clinics in the former East Germany, Luck stayed to watch two local teams clash in the first football game ever played in the city of Cottbus, near the Polish border. In the crowd he spied one boy in a Los Angeles Raider cap and another in a San Francisco 49er jersey. The league had done it! The NFL stood astride the globe, having conquered the world, having infiltrated the former Soviet bloc. The Iron Curtain? Mean Joe Greene was part of that, wasn't he? Proudly, Luck approached the boys and introduced himself, the director of the mighty NFL in Europe.
"Ahhh," said one of the boys in German, clearly impressed, the league's elegant red-white-and-blue shield adorning his Niner jersey. "The NFL...it is a clothing company?"
"It told me two things," says Luck. "It said that NFL Properties has done a great job in merchandising over here. But it also said that, in other areas, we still have a long way to go."