League officials bill NFL Europe as "family entertainment," but
in the case of Frankfurt Galaxy fan Fabian Schmidt, the family
that comes to mind is Charles Manson's. Four hours before
kickoff of the Galaxy's June 8 game with the Rhein Fire, Schmidt
arrives at Frankfurt's WaldStation looking like an enforcer for
an outlaw biker band. He's got a chain on his wallet; a
long-neck beer bottle in his hand; a ring through his nose; a
catalog of predators etched up and down his arms; five temporary
Galaxy tattoos stuck on his forehead; and, pinned to his sick of
it all T-shirt, a half-dozen buttons expressing allegiance to
Harley-Davidson. Schmidt's gut pushes far enough out over his
belt to qualify him for the presidency of the Hells Angels.
"I love American football," says this native Frankfurter, with
relish. "I love the crush. I love the smash. I love to see the
Schmidt is talking football while standing waist-deep in foam at
the Galaxy's "Power Party"--a Teutonic tailgate that's something
between a state fair and a Grateful Dead concert. While guitar
riffs roar like Formula One racing cars, Power Partiers
bungee-jump, ride a mechanical rhino and frolic under a
Maytag-like contraption that dumps suds on them. "I love the
bubbles, too," Schmidt exults as he and a bunch of wash-cycle
revelers tumble to Chris Rock's No Sex in the Champagne Room.
Ostensibly, Schmidt came to see the Galaxy play the hated
Fire--one of 58,572 spectators, the most ever to attend an NFL
Europe regular-season game. The two franchises entered the game
tied for the best record (6-2) in the six-team league, and the
outcome would go a long way in determining the matchup for next
Saturday's World Bowl in Dusseldorf. (One day after the U.S.
meets Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, the
hometown Fire will face the Berlin Thunder in the American brand
of football. Another huge crowd is expected.)
Fans of the Galaxy and the Fire are ecstatic about football, a
game that few Germans have ever played and that many find
mystifying. At a time when the other four clubs on this
soccer-mad continent struggle to draw 10,000 a game, Dusseldorf
and Frankfurt routinely pack their stadiums, with fans paying up
to $25 for a ticket.
The NFL first came to Europe in 1991, with the 10-team World
League of American Football, which included seven North American
and three European teams. The London Monarchs were the flagship
franchise, winning the first World Bowl in front of a Wembley
Stadium crowd of 61,108. However, the North American teams never
found an audience, and the league suspended play after its second
It returned in 1995 with a leaner, Europe-only format: Charter
members London, Barcelona and Frankfurt were joined by Amsterdam,
Dusseldorf and Edinburgh. Alas, Monarch fans were turned off by
the two-year shutdown and five straight losing seasons. By 1998
the team's average home attendance had dropped to 5,944, and the
Monarchs were replaced by the Thunder. At least the Scottish
Claymores stayed in Great Britain, moving from Edinburgh to the
more working-class Glasgow.
From the beginning, the league has shown it can develop NFL
talent--most spectacularly Kurt Warner, the 1998 Amsterdam
Admirals quarterback who in 1999 was the NFL and Super Bowl MVP
with the St. Louis Rams. No fewer than 10 signal-callers who
started an NFL game in 2001 had some NFL Europe experience,
including four starters on playoff teams--Warner, Brad Johnson
of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jay Fiedler of the Miami Dolphins
and Jim Miller of the Chicago Bears.
Back in 1995 NFL teams were not required to help stock rosters
in Europe, and a total of only 37 players were sent. These days
each of the Stateside clubs is required to allot a minimum of
six. Of the 266 prospects parceled out this spring, 50 were sent
To keep the game from being so overrun with Americans that the
locals lose interest, eight of the 48 players on each team must
be non-North American, and at least one must play every other
series. As you might expect, many are punters and kickers--most
notably, Fire kicker Manfred Burgsmuller, who at 52 is anything
but a baby boomer. The salary structure in these four capitalist
countries is distinctly socialistic: Everybody gets the same
pay--about $1,300 a week--except quarterbacks, who make about $300
a week more.
Not coincidentally, NFL Europe players tend to be much humbler
and less programmed than their big-name counterparts in the U.S.
"They're refreshingly open and approachable," says Fox analyst
Brian Baldinger, who has been covering the league for the network
since 1997. "It doesn't feel as if you're dealing with
businessmen, like in the NFL, where players put up a shield and
give you cliched answers. It's more like high school football:
Guys play for the pure joy of it."
Their joie de vivre is not lost on the fans in Frankfurt and
Dusseldorf. "They have a deep appreciation for the fact that
these are just regular players and not NFL starters," Baldinger
says. "They may even identify with that."
Since signing with the Rams as a rookie free agent in 2000, Deke
Cooper has been with three teams without playing a single down.
Yet the Fire safety led NFL Europe in interceptions this season,
with five in 10 games. "The German papers call me King Cooper
and Lord of the Interception," says Cooper, who is on the
Carolina Panthers roster. "German fans treat me like a superstar."
Having played college ball at Notre Dame, Cooper has a unique
perspective on what it's like to play before a huge crowd of
diehards. "Fans in Dusseldorf are half the age of the fans in
South Bend," he says, "and twice as into the game."
More often than not, they are twenty-something guys with their
dates. "They'll be dressed up all kinds of crazy ways," says
Galaxy center Wilbert Brown. "I've seen men in the stands in
purple clown wigs and ladies in nothing but G-strings."
NFL fans in Germany are boisterous--there's something unnerving
about 30,000 Dusseldorf fans shouting "Fire!" in a crowded
stadium. "German football fans are the greatest in the world,"
says Fire defensive tackle De Vone Claybrooks, a veteran of the
Cleveland Browns' practice squad. "They're just as rowdy as the
ones in the Dawg Pound, if not rowdier."
Frankfurt embraced the NFL from its opening coin toss, partly
because of its U.S. Army base, partly because the foundation had
been laid by the city's amateur Lions, the first football team
in Germany, and partly because the sport is seen as a taste of
American pop culture. The Galaxy has more than 100 fan clubs,
one of which is based in the nearby city of Worms. Members of
the Galactic Worms name a Worm of the Week and lavish him with
plaques, caps, Worms-brewed beer and Gummi Worms.
To some of the less adventurous players from the U.S., Gummi
Worms are the only edible item in German cuisine. "Eating out in
Germany makes you appreciate what you take for granted at home,"
says Frankfurt wide receiver Brian McDonald, who's with the
Philadelphia Eagles. By which he means free condiments in
fast-food restaurants. Adds Galaxy cornerback Corey Ivy, "I
asked for extra ketchup and barbecue sauce for my Chicken
McNuggets and got charged 15 cents a packet. And how about no
ice in your cup and no free refills? I looked at the guy behind
the register and said, 'No refills! Are you kidding me?' He
said, 'That's the rules.'"
Germans love rules as much as they love football. Their other
great love is innovation. One of their favorites in NFL Europe
has been the four-point field goal for attempts from 50 or more
yards. Another is the 35-second play clock, a nod to fans used
to the more continuous action of soccer. But cheerleaders--an
alien concept at European soccer matches--may be the most
popular attraction of all. That and beer, which flows freely at
games. "At first I only like the party," says Galaxy fan Juergen
Salla. "Then, after three or four matches, I like the game."
Ah, the game. Unless you were a connoisseur of punting or an
aficionado of fair catches, the June 8 meeting didn't have much
to offer. Neither quarterback--the Galaxy's Bart Hendricks or the
Fire's Tee Martin--seemed capable of stringing two completions
together. Yet through it all the faithful waved a forest of flags
and sang the popular European ditty, "Alice, who the f--- is
Alice?" with lusty, out-of-tune reverence.
Salla didn't understand half of what was happening on the field,
which was probably for the best. Still, whenever Martin overthrew
a receiver, Salla warbled the refrain from Who Let the Dogs Out?
loud enough to be heard in Heidelberg, if not Green Bay. And when
Frankfurt finally crossed the 50-yard line midway through the
second quarter, he tossed confetti in the air and crooned,
"That's the way (uh-huh, uh-huh) I like it."
He took Frankfurt's 3-0 loss--a soccer score if ever there was
one--with good-natured sportsmanship. "I go to Galaxy games to
join the party and have a good time," said Munich college student
Florian Ratzinger. "It's something you can do with your
girlfriend without getting beat up."
2001, including Warner, have played in Europe.