The Super Bowl, by comparison, seems tasteful and understated.
Player introductions at the World League of American Football
game between the Frankfurt Galaxy and the Barcelona Dragons on
May 6 were accompanied and interrupted by prancing cheerleaders,
exploding Roman candles, bongo drummers and a troupe of stilt
walkers. Frankfurt won 24-20 on a terrific touchdown pass in the
game's penultimate minute, but who wanted to talk about football
with the circus in town?
Please join us in extending a warm Willkommen back to the NFL's
World League, up and running this spring after a two-year
hiatus. Gone are the helmet-cam and the seven apathy-inspiring,
unprofitable North American franchises. New to the league --
which now has six teams, all based in Europe -- are franchises
in Amsterdam, Dusseldorf and Edinburgh. New also is a raft of
rules. Say hello, for example, to the four-point field goal,
designed to inflate scores and capture the interest of Europeans.
In its reincarnation the league is emphasizing frugality --
players earn, on average, $15,000 for the 10-week season -- and
entertainment. Three hours before kickoffs at Frankfurt's
54,000-seat Waldstadion, the Galaxy kicks off its Power Party, a
kind of open-air rock concert crossed with a Punt, Pass and Kick
competition. Ride the mechanical bull. Join the dancing in front
of toolshed-sized speakers to the tunes of ZZ Top, George
Thorogood and Joan Jett. Or wander over to that cordoned-off
area and try the World League Experience.
The Experience comprises games designed to give Europeans an
appreciation of football skills. In the Quarterback Challenge
they get points for hitting a cardboard receiver in the hands.
The most popular game is Extra Point, a breeze for soccer
players who don't fare so well at catching passes at the Down
and Out booth.
May 21, 1995
There are other aspects of the World League experience that
would baffle most Europeans and a lot of Americans, too. How to
figure players who sit in hotels in some of the world's most
glamorous, cosmopolitan cities and complain about how tough they
have it? But whine they do. A sampling of beefs collected on a
recent tour of the league: London women are plain; the Germans
don't say excuse me when they bump into you; the bratwursts are
entirely too long for the rolls in which they're served; and
Amsterdam's street musicians are bad yet expect to be paid.
In addition, some players feel unappreciated. Media coverage has
been sparse, and attendance through the first six weeks of the
season has been disappointing -- the London Monarchs, Amsterdam
Admirals and Scottish Claymores are each averaging fewer than
10,000 fans a game. ``These are some of the best players not in
the NFL,'' says former Florida State quarterback Brad Johnson.
``We deserve more coverage. But we know that the people who
really matter'' -- NFL general managers, coaches and scouts --
``are seeing film of our games.''
Also displeased is Geoff Torretta, one of three older brothers
of Dusseldorf Rhein Fire quarterback Gino. Geoff runs the
family's restaurant and sports bar in Pinole, Calif., and the
only World League action he can pull down on the bar's satellite
dish is a weekly half-hour highlight show. ``He says they don't
show the turnovers,'' reports Gino, ``but they do show all the
Then there are those puzzling new rules. The much-ballyhooed
four-point field goal, for kicks attempted from more than 50
yards, has been a bust so far: Only two have been attempted;
only one has been successful. In hopes of pleasing fans
accustomed to the more continuous action of soccer, the league
uses a 35-second clock. To promote scoring and preserve the
health of quarterbacks, defenses have been shackled.
Bump-and-run pass coverage, two- deep zones, outside blitzes and
defensive-line stunts are all forbidden. ``Next week,'' says
Monarch strong safety Kevin Porter, ``they'll outlaw tackling.''
If your team is off to a slow start, it's no problem. World
League II features a split season, the better to sustain fan
interest. The World Bowl championship game in mid-June will pit
the champion of the first half of the season against the
champion of the second half. Amsterdam is in already by virtue
of its 5-0 start. ``We're over here in the middle of nowhere,''
says Amsterdam quarterback Jamie Martin. ``We might as well win
The Dutch might argue that Martin's alma mater, Weber State in
Ogden, Utah, is closer to the middle of nowhere than this
700-year-old city of 700,000 that has given the world Heineken
and Rembrandt. They would have a point.
While his three months overseas may seem like a penance to
Martin, they will have been a godsend for Amsterdam punter and
former Australian Rules football player Darren Bennett. After
winning the Australian Football League's long-kicking contest in
1993, Bennett, a full forward for Melbourne, was awarded two
round-trip tickets to Los Angeles. As long as he was Stateside,
he says, ``I figured I'd ring up a team to pursue this
ridiculous dream I had.'' The San Diego Chargers agreed to take
a look at him. Though it had to be explained to Bennett that it
was not a good idea to scramble around behind the line of
scrimmage and punt on the run, as he would in an Aussie Rules
game, he impressed the Chargers enough to rate an invitation to
last year's training camp. Once there Bennett began to boom
70-yard rainbows, which earned him a spot on the taxi squad.
The Chargers did not activate him last season and sent him off
to the World League for more seasoning. Smart move. In addition
to booting several 60-plus-yard punts for the Admirals this
spring, he has demonstrated mastery of the pooch kick by
dropping an incredible 14 balls inside the 20. As a result
Bennett could win the Chargers starting job this fall.
Each World League team is required to carry seven European
players, or so- called nationals, and play three each game for
six plays apiece. From 1991, the league's inaugural year, to
now, the difference in the quality of the nationals has risen
dramatically. ``The first year they weren't tough,'' says
Barcelona coach Jack Bicknell. ``They were in awe of the
hitting. They're much tougher now.''
In addition to seven nationals, each team has five to seven
players who, like Bennett, are on loan from the NFL. These
allocated players preside atop the World League's caste system.
They know that, come mid-July, they'll be in an NFL camp.
Still, allocated guard Terrence Wisdom, who plays for London,
can't help fearing the worst. Cut in 1993 by the Seattle
Seahawks, who signed him as a free agent out of Syracuse, T-Wiz
was picked up by the New York Jets last season. They liked him,
kept him and sent him overseas for seasoning. During a recent
stroll with teammates along the Thames, Wisdom said that it
concerns him to be so far away while other Jets are at team
headquarters, lifting weights and otherwise currying the favor
of new coach Rich Kotite and his staff.
``Nobody's won a job yet,'' said teammate Kevin Porter, seeking
to reassure Wisdom. ``Did they draft any linemen?''
Wisdom winces at the question. ``Second and the fourth rounds,''
he says, ``then they signed four more offensive linemen. They're
filling up the roster, and I'm stuck over here. We're not on TV,
nobody's writing about us, nobody's talking about us. Sometimes
it just feels like you fell off the face of the earth.''
Professional insecurity is not the sole source of his misery.
``I've got a six-month-old son back home,'' he says. ``I got a
call the other day -- he's getting a tooth! He's sitting up now,
starting to crawl, and I'm missing it.''
Gino Torretta doesn't ache with homesickness so much as he just
aches. It's been three years since Torretta, then a senior
quarterback at Miami, rose from his seat at New York City's
Downtown Athletic Club to accept the Heisman Trophy. These days,
as the World League's most sacked quarterback, he's spending a
lot of time rising from the turf of European stadiums.
No one harasses Torretta on the cobblestone streets of
Dusseldorf, this lively city on the Rhine. No one recognizes
him. After a practice one afternoon, as he shouted out his order
in a crowded Dusseldorf beer hall -- ``Zwei Biers, bitte'' --
Torretta enjoyed utter anonymity.
Does he resent being in Europe?
``Absolutely not,'' says Torretta. ``This is game action -- this
is exactly what I need. You've got to remember, I basically
haven't played since college.''
Drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round of the
1993 draft, Torretta lasted a season and was cut last August. He
languished unemployed until the Detroit Lions signed him as a
backup in November after losing starter Scott Mitchell to
injury. Since dispatching Torretta to Deutschland, the Lions
have signed two quarterbacks: Don Hollas from the Cincinnati
Bengals and Don Majkowski from the Indianapolis Colts. He
suspects, as many do, that these acquisitions bode ill for him,
but he seems to accept them philosophically. ``Put yourself in
their shoes,'' he says of the Lions. ``They didn't have a backup
quarterback with any experience. They feel more comfortable
having a vet around.''
Torretta's pet peeve about the country in which he is a guest is
the native tongue. ``I don't like the sound of it,'' he says.
He makes a couple of guttural, throat-clearing noises to
demonstrate what he's talking about.
Torretta should consult Frankfurt linebacker Mike Stonebreaker
for linguistic tips. Stonebreaker originally had difficulty
mastering the German farewell auf Wiedersehen. Now, when it is
time to bid a German adieu, he says these words as rapidly as
possible: Our feet are the same!
Unfortunately for Stonebreaker, living accommodations aren't the
same. The Barcelona Dragons boast the league's sweetest, housed
as they are in condos overlooking a topless Catalonian beach,
while the London Monarchs occupy an old police barracks 25
minutes outside of town with one shower and one toilet per
floor. The Galaxy players are quartered in a hotel in the shadow
of the Frankfurt airport. ``So,'' a reporter jokingly inquired
of former Akron kicker Daron Alcorn, ``a big night out means you
guys catch a shuttle over to the airport and cruise the
``Actually, yes,'' he said. ``There's a McDonald's over there.''
The hotel is not without its attractions. It is usually packed
with flight attendants. Says Alcorn, conspiratorially, ``Some of
them go naked in the sauna.''
Which explains why, in addition to having the league's most
loyal fans, its top offense and its top-rated quarterback, in
allocated Colt Paul Justin, the Galaxy probably leads the league
in saunas taken.
It also has one of the league's most talented national players
in Olaf Hampel, a 6'6", 310-pound offensive guard from Essen,
Germany, who claims he astonished Denver Bronco coaches last
spring by leg-pressing 620 pounds 92 times.
``That's right, 92,'' he says, tapping a reporter's notebook
with a bratwurstian forefinger. ``Put that where the scouts can
read it.'' Hampel lasted with the Broncos until last summer's
final cut and is one of just two European starters in the World
League. His run blocking is terrific; what he needs to do to
make it in the NFL -- according to Mark McHale, an offensive
line coach with the Galaxy -- is become more adept at holding.
Hampel, whose teammates call him Diesel, played team handball
and rowed in two- and four-man sculls until he was 14. It is his
ambition not only to play in the NFL but also to work for the
league when he retires as a player. Hampel foresees a day when
the presence of a nonkicking European on an NFL roster will be
``no big deal.''
If that happens, football's experiment in Europe will not seem
so wacky after all.