Tuesday, July 23, 2024

10 years after NFL Europe’s demise, alumni remember league fondly

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Elephants carrying in the championship trophy, hot tubs in the end zone, gallons of beer. Even 10 years after it ceased operations, the NFL Europe still brings a smile to the faces of those who left their mark on the league.

What started in 1991 as the World League of American Football — a plan hatched by two NFL commissioners and a handful of owners and executives — would become the NFL Europe and, in its final season, NFL Europa.

The developmental league was a springboard for some of the best performers to step foot on NFL fields. Among its alumni were three Super Bowl quarterbacks — Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson and Jake Delhomme; and two special-teamers on the NFL All-Decade team of the 2000s — kicker Adam Vinatieri and punt returner Dante Hall.

Although the league generated talent for NFL teams, which had the opportunity to allocate players in need of seasoning, ultimately it did not yield the revenues owners wanted. But until its final game on June 23, 2007, the NFL Europe was a fun, wacky, wild experiment remembered fondly by those along for the ride.

By the late-1980s, the NFL had supplanted baseball as America’s pastime, and there already had been efforts to expand the game internationally. When the league began its American Bowl initiative in 1986, NFL and AFL teams had by then played in more than a dozen international games. The American Bowl solidified the NFL’s interest in broadening its market, and Wembley Stadium in London, the Tokyo Dome in Japan and Olympic Stadium in Montreal soon played host to massive crowds for preseason NFL games.

It was in that environment that the World League of American Football was born, the brainchild of outgoing NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, incoming commissioner Paul Tagliabue, former Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm and a group of like-minded owners and executives that included Kansas City’s Lamar Hunt, Minnesota’s Mike Lynn and San Francisco’s Bill Walsh. In 1989, league owners voted to form the developmental league and set a goal for its debut of 1991, with three European teams — the London Monarchs, Frankfurt Galaxy and Barcelona Dragons — six in the United States and one in Canada.

Former NFL quarterback-turned-lawyer Oliver Luck was named general manager of the Galaxy at the age of 30. Andrew Brandt of the Dragons was an even-younger 30, the youngest general manager in professional sports at the time. Billy Hicks, a former Cowboys executive, was named GM of the Monarchs. They would be charged with essentially creating franchises from scratch.

Oliver Luck (Frankfurt’s first GM; later helped launch the Rhein Fire and became league president from 1995-99; now a high-ranking NCAA executive): “In December of 1990, I get a phone call from Joe Bailey, one of the lieutenants of Tex Schramm of the Cowboys. Tex was deputized to figure it out, and Joe called and said my slot was going to be as GM of the Frankfurt franchise. I’ll never forget: Joe called up and said, ‘I understand you were born in Germany?’ And I said, ‘No I was born in Cleveland, but my mother’s German.’ Joe said, ‘You married a German girl?’ ‘Nope. But I speak the language, been over there a lot.’ They got the facts wrong but the direction right.”

Andrew Brandt (Barcelona’s first GM and later a vice president for the Green Bay Packers; former ESPN sports business analyst who remains in sports media and is a lecturer at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania): “I was an agent representing NFL and NBA players for ProServ, working under David Falk. I negotiated a contract for Chris Doleman with Vikings GM/owner Mike Lynn, who was quite a character. He looked me up and down after we finished the contract, took a long puff on his ubiquitous cigarette, and said, ‘Do you speak Barcelonan?’ I thought it a curious question and responded, ‘Is that Spanish?’ He said it was. I later found out it wasn’t. He then asked me to become the first general manager of the Barcelona Dragons, explaining that the NFL was introducing football around the globe and that this would be bigger than the NFL one day.”

Oliver Luck: “I can’t emphasize how little had been done to prepare to launch a pro sports franchise. I first set foot in Germany in late-December, Christmastime, and they wired $50,000 over. There was no stadium deal, not one employee. No local staff, marketing, PR. Nor was there any football staff. It was a true truncated startup. Our first game was March 25. We had all of three months.”

Andrew Brandt: “There was truly no understanding of the game in Barcelona; logistics were challenging to say the least.”

Oliver Luck: “The first order of business was to find staff. … We had to get an office space. This is 1990, and the [Berlin] Wall had come down in ’89, and there were massive troop withdrawals. I ended up buying furniture from the Frankfurt Army base. A buck a pop, desks or chairs that Douglas MacArthur could’ve used. … The first course of business on the football side: had to hire a coach. Bill Walsh got me on the phone, said you should hire Jack Elway. I said to myself, who am I to question Bill Walsh? We had zero time to do a search. Jack Elway? Yeah, I know Jack. Boom, Jack’s hired. That was an easy decision.”

Larry Kennan (first head coach for London and longtime NFL assistant; head coach at the University of the Incarnate Word since 2012): “When Oliver Luck said it was hectic and wild, it certainly was. All our footballs got stuck in customs. For 10 days, all we had were eight or nine footballs. If you know anything about London in March, it rains every day, and all the footballs were waterlogged and heavy.”

Oliver Luck: “We were so focused on getting that first game off in Frankfurt. We had some VIPs coming over from the States. Didn’t matter who won or lost, we had to put it on. We totally neglected what the team does on Sunday. Weeks 2, 3 and 4 we were in the U.S. We forgot to book flights. This was the road trip from hell. People working all night Saturday into Sunday trying to figure out how we could fly to the U.S. The team had to bus to Paris, and our double-decker got stuck under a bridge, sent to the wrong airport. Only flight we could get was to Miami, then had to fly up to New York. By the time they ended up in New York, I get a phone call from the team captain, a defensive end from Michigan: ‘With all due respect, we’re going to quit.'”

Tilman Engel (one of the first Galaxy hires — in sales and marketing — by Oliver Luck in 1991; eventually became GM; now a sports business consultant in Germany): “From my first day in the office in the middle of January 1990, we did have some 10 weeks until the first game and virtually nothing in hand to draw on. Nothing means no computers, no office space, no ticket manifest, no customer database, no usable nationwide ticketing system [hard-copy tickets only and 100 independent sales offices], no truly qualified front-office staff — including myself — having to do and learn everything on the run, with a league directive to sell 30,000 tickets per game out of nowhere. In the end, only we did.”

Larry Kennan: “We didn’t have any goalposts, so we used the film tower as our goalposts. We figured if we hit the video guy, the field goal was good.”

Andrew Brandt: “When I saw the goalposts being installed, they were going up in the corners of the end zone.”

Larry Kennan: “We got to London and we were in Bushey at American University and we had a practice field that was sloped. You went to right to left, and there was about a foot-and-a-half difference. If you threw a pass to the left, it was always high, and to the right it was always low.”

Andrew Brandt: “The biggest problem: food. The hotel wanted to serve us on ‘Spanish time’ dinner, around 9:30 at night. That was a no-go. I paid extra for a 6:30 seating. No matter the hotel we stayed in, I would order food for 60 and it would be gone after 20 to 25 players. I rarely got to eat with the team; we always ran out of food.”

Larry Kennan: “We made a 17-day, 17,000-mile road trip to play three games. Think about putting a team of 65 people on a regular flight, flying from London to Dallas to San Antonio, staying four or five days, getting on another flight to New York, playing five days later, and then flying to Sacramento, and then flying back to London. The time zones, it was unbelievable. A bunch of 300-pound guys stuck in middle seats in the back. I was in the middle of two fat linemen on my left and right. Guys were like that every flight.”

Andrew Brandt: “When we arrived in Spain, having put a team together in a matter of weeks, we had sold scant few tickets to the opening game. I handed out tickets right and left and somehow convinced FC Barcelona to let us around during halftime to try to juice the attendance.”

Frankfort got 23,000 fans its first game and Barcelona got 20,000, and within weeks the WLAF gained steam. At the end of the year, Wembley Stadium had 61,000-plus fans in attendance for the league’s first championship game — the World Bowl — between the Monarchs and Dragons, which London won 21-0.

In 1992, the league’s European franchises all suffered losing seasons and interest waned, both overseas and among NFL owners stateside. After just two seasons, the league was put on hiatus.

The NFL set to work trying to bolster the league, and a new partnership with Fox, which had just acquired NFL broadcast rights, did just that. Fox became financial partners with the league in exchange for broadcast rights, and the WLAF was brought back with six teams announced in July 1994. The seven North American franchises were eliminated, and the original three European teams were buttressed by the Amsterdam Admirals, Rhein Fire (Dusseldorf, Germany) and Scottish Claymores (Edinburgh, Scotland, and later Glasgow).

In the interim, Oliver Luck had remained in Germany with some of his staff still on the job. He was asked to help launch the Fire and became their general manager in 1995, when play resumed. Later that year, he took over as WLAF president.

Soon, the league — which was rebranded as the NFL Europe after the 1997 season — would become a breeding ground for NFL talent.

Oliver Luck: “As we relaunched, I think there was a stronger commitment on the part of NFL teams to support the league. There were roster exemptions, and those are valuable. Some teams took advantage of it more than others. The Broncos, Chiefs — Carl Peterson was really engaged in NFL Europe. I’m a former backup QB. You don’t get to play much. To get over there, get five or 10 games in there, against good competition, that’s invaluable.”

Brad Johnson (backup QB for the Minnesota Vikings before leading the WLAF in completions in 1995 with London; became an NFL starter and led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl XXXVII): “I’d been in the NFL for three years, and at that time I was backing up Warren Moon with the Vikings. He was getting older, so it was great for me, because I was getting a lot of practice time. I’d get him half-days off, but I wasn’t getting any game time. I went to [then-Vikings offensive coordinator] Brian Billick, told him I heard the league was coming back, and at that time, they allocated the quarterbacks to certain teams. I got allocated to London, and it was an opportunity for me to go make plays, to make mistakes, to be a leader, to prepare as a starter.”

Adam Vinatieri (after playing for Amsterdam in 1996, was signed by New England and went on to become one of the NFL’s all-time greatest kickers; four-time Super Bowl champion with the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts): “We had a couple scouts looking at an offensive lineman, Adam Timmerman, who’d go on to a career in the NFL, so I got a couple scouts to look at me. But it was much more difficult getting the exposure. For me, the NFL Europe was a great experience, because it gave me the opportunity to transition from a smaller school to a professional situation. It gave me some more exposure to NFL teams who wondered how I’d perform in front of bigger crowds and a different stage.”

Jake Delhomme (undrafted free-agent quarterback sent by the New Orleans Saints to Amsterdam in 1998 and Frankfurt in 1999; later led the Carolina Panthers to Super Bowl XXXVIII): “I was told in the fall of ’97 and ’98 by the pro personnel people with the Saints that they’d send me. I was all for it. I’m an undrafted free agent, I’m supposed to shut my mouth and work my tail off.”

Kurt Warner (after three years in the Arena Football League, played for Amsterdam in 1998; went on to a Hall of Fame career, playing in three Super Bowls and winning one with the St. Louis Rams; gets his Canton bust in August): “My story was a little different. Having been in arena football at the time, my wife and I talked about it, and I always believed that if I was going to get a shot, I’d have to get back on the big field. NFL Europe was kind of the avenue I’d hoped I’d get an opportunity with. When I got cut by Green Bay, I tried hard to get picked up, but there were no takers. In 1996, got a call from [Amsterdam head coach] Al Luginbill, asked if I’d come over and play for him. I told him I’d love to play over there, but the only way I’d give up what I had in arena — I was making a good living, and things were stable — was if I could get hooked up with an NFL team. He called me back a couple weeks later, and he said he had no takers. I said I had interest, but I’m going to pass. A year later, another phone call from Al Luginbill. Same question, same answer. He called 13 teams, 12 not interested. One said we’d bring you in for tryout: the Rams. The Rams allocated a lot of players to Amsterdam to play for Al. Whether because they were interested in me or as a favor to Al, we’ll never know. I went in for tryout, had an awful tryout, but the Rams said they’d sign me later that week. They were either really good and saw something or they were just doing another favor for Al.”

Jake Delhomme: “Kurt and I were teammates in ’98. Here I was at 21, maybe just turned 22, and here’s Kurt, 26, married, kids, already cut from the NFL, had to make his way back, stock his shelves [working at a grocery store]. He knew this was his one and only shot. Me, young and football immature. The following year, when I went back, it was a lot different for me then. Being around someone as mature as Kurt was, that really inspired me.”

Brian Finneran (had an 11-year NFL career, mostly with the Atlanta Falcons, after becoming an All-NFL Europe wide receiver for Barcelona in 1999): “When the Seahawks cut me in ’98, I sat out the whole season and didn’t get picked up. But on my way home from training camp, the wide receivers coach, Milt Jackson, gave me a call and said you’re good enough to play in this league. Go play football somewhere. At that point, I got a little bit of fire underneath me, just kept working out. The NFL Europe had a draft in January, training camp started in March or April, and I’m married with two kids at the time. … I knew I had one last-ditch effort. I didn’t really want to do arena, because I knew if I did that, I was done with my NFL dreams.”

Yo Murphy (Scottish Claymores wide receiver; MVP of 1996 World Bowl victory; also played in the CFL’s Grey Cup and the NFL’s Super Bowl): “Before I went to NFL Europe, I was playing in the CFL, and I wanted a shot. The NFL had been my dream as a youngster, my goal in college, and it gave me that shot. I played three years in the NFL, two practice-squad years. That wouldn’t have happened without NFL Europe. And after that, I got a chance to play in Canada again. As long as you can keep playing, it’s all good.”

Kurt Warner: “All the execs paid attention to what was going on over there. I was leading the league in about every category, and I think people took notice. How much that correlates to the NFL, I don’t know. But Charley Armey, GM with the Rams, he visited a couple times. We talked, and he was probably the first guy that was in my corner. He said, ‘You can play at the next level.’ He was that one guy who was instilling that confidence in me that this wasn’t just a stunt, that this could turn into a career in the NFL. I don’t know what all Charley saw, I don’t know what made him believe that, but there was no doubt he believed it.”

Jake Delhomme: “It truly helped three positions — offensive linemen, wide receivers and quarterbacks — because you have smaller-school, smaller players, getting them more reps. A kid who came from a smaller school, Tom Nutten, started on the Rams’ Super Bowl teams. Tom was a teammate in Amsterdam. Another guy who needed more reps.”

Brian Baldinger (NFL Network analyst and 11-year NFL offensive lineman; started his broadcasting career covering NFL Europe games for Fox in 1997 and covered the league until it folded): “We intently followed guys — you’d get a guy like Brian Waters, who played at North Texas and played his way into the NFL. A Brian Finneran, who carved out a nice career with the Falcons. You could find players at every position who’d have careers in the NFL. James Harrison, for a long time after he got cut, he carried that Rhein Fire bag with him to be a reminder.”

John Beake (NFL Europe managing director from 2000-04; helped guide the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles as GM from 1985-99): “I was pleasantly surprised by the level of talent. I always thought, and I think the officials would tell you this, the speed of the game was not the NFL, but much better than the college game. It was a good product. They were legitimate players.”

The WLAF/NFLE was not just a training ground for players, but for employees at every level, from trainers and scouts to announcers and coaches.

John Beake: “We had good coaching. Our philosophy with coaching — we tried to have a senior, experienced head coach and some experienced coordinators. But we gave opportunities [not only] to position coaches, but also trainers and video people and equipment people.”

Larry Kennan: “Our coaching staff, Hue Jackson was our running backs coach, George Warhop was our offensive line coach, Jim Washburn our D-line coach, and he’s been in the league 25 years since then. Maybe they don’t get the shot in the NFL, but for the experience they got.”

George Warhop (Monarchs assistant from 1991-92; NFL offensive line coach since 1996; now with Tampa Bay Buccaneers): “I was coming out of college, not a pro coach, so everything we did was a new experience for me. Larry Kennan was my head coach, a longtime NFL assistant, and Ray Willsey was our defensive coordinator, and he, too, was a longtime assistant in the NFL. Those two really showed me how to get things done: how you run a practice, how you build depth, how you rotate players. All that, I learned in London.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line coach George Warhop said coaching the London Monarchs from 1991-1992 in NFL Europe was probably his favorite job. “The media didn’t matter. It was just coaching your guys, getting ready to play, trying to win games — it was just pure football.”

Jenna Laine, ESPN Staff Writer7y ago

John Fassel (wide receivers and strength and conditioning coach for Amsterdam in 2000; currently Los Angeles Rams special-teams coordinator): “I was with the Colts in training camp in summer of 1999, got cut and spent that fall as an assistant at Bucknell. After the season, I still had hopes of playing, and Al Luginbill was still the coach, and I said, ‘I’d love to play, but I think I’m done. I’m coaching here at Bucknell, but if there’s anything, I’d love to coach.’ Coach Luginbill was so great to me. Coaching receivers, strength and conditioning, and his assistant for special teams. There wasn’t a contract; I didn’t get paid. I basically volunteered like a GA [graduate assistant]. They gave me way more responsibility than I was prepared for or really had earned.”

Curt Menefee (“Fox NFL Sunday” host and longtime announcer for multiple sports; worked NFL Europe games from 1997 until the league folded): “I started in ’97. I was doing local sports at the Fox station in New York. Fox sent me down to the old FX studios on 25th Street in Manhattan, asked me about doing play-by-play, and they wanted to send me down there to do a test. Baldy [Brian Baldinger] and I auditioned together. Then we went over for the last game of the ’97 season, and we did a game in Amsterdam. I knew nothing about play-by-play. I couldn’t find a folder or paper big enough — I had a brown paper bag I wrote names and numbers on.”

Adam Vinatieri: “Only having 32 jobs, as a kicker in the NFL you’re expected to come in and be good right away. If you have some gigantic leg, they may try to work with you. But if you get the kicker job, you better be successful or you find yourself flipping burgers. Your time can be done before you know it. For me, it helped because it gave me the confidence going to the NFL. It was almost like having a fifth year [of college]. It gave me another year to fine-tune my craft.”

Jake Delhomme: “It’s hard for me to quantify exactly what it meant to my career. As a quarterback, there’s only one playing at a time. Your amount of reps are so limited. To develop a quarterback sometimes, you can do as much as you want on the chalkboard, but it’s game experience that matters. You can’t put a price tag on it.”

Brian Finneran: “When you think about the number of guys who get cut from a roster — now they’re going from 90 to 53 — that’s 1,200 guys just sitting there. Now they’ve got to move on to the next phase of their lives? The NFL needs it [a developmental league]. But when it’s sucking money out of the NFL, the owners don’t like it and the league doesn’t like it. I never would’ve made it to the NFL if I didn’t have that opportunity.”

Do you know your NFL Europe helmets?

1. Amsterdam Admirals; 2. Barcelona Dragons; 3. Berlin Thunder; 4. Cologne Centurions; 5. London Monarchs; 6. Frankfurt Galaxy; 7. Hamburg Sea Devils; 8. Rhein Fire; 9. Scottish Claymores (Note: North American teams from 1991-92 not included.)

While the product on the field was generally good — certainly a notch or several above the CFL, XFL or Arena Football League — it would take a lot more for casual European sports fans to embrace a new sport, much less a new league.

Oliver Luck’s biggest charge as a general manager for two teams and later as league president was to combine enough off-field entertainment and excitement to sustain decent attendance. Those in attendance, however, varied from the completely novice to those looking for a good punt and a good pint.

Steve Bedwell (loyal Scottish Claymores fan; traveled overseas for Claymores games and landed on TV often as one of the famed Cheddarheads — the U.K.’s version of the Packers’ Cheeseheads; now a banking executive in the U.S.): “I’ve followed football since the early ’80s, from the first time it came on Channel 4 in the U.K. We’d get an hour-and-a-half, Sunday-night program. As you guys were watching live in the States, we’d get it a week later. At that point, amateur leagues started sprouting up. I ended up playing in college in Scotland — a wee, 5-8 Scotsman playing wide receiver. When we had the American Bowls, starting in 1983 the Vikings played against the Cardinals, and then from 1986 going forward, we’d get 80,000 at Wembley Stadium. That set up the climate: The NFL is here.”

Oliver Luck: “We had to create something out of nothing. We had to manufacture games. We had to figure out, how do we package a whole event around football? I started sitting with relatives. They had no clue about the game. They thought it was indecipherable. The one game they saw was the Super Bowl. They saw all the sizzle, the halftime show, pregame, all the bells and whistles. Totally different from the presentation of soccer. You go to Champions League final, there was no hoopla around it. We tried to take our regular-season home games, and we put on a massive show.”

Kurt Warner: “On the field, the biggest thing was people didn’t understand the game. There’d be whistles in the stands and cowbells, and they’d never know when to ring them. You’d be on offense and hear people blowing whistles. Your fans would be ringing the cowbells when you’re in. Trying to keep the dream alive, and these people have no idea.”

Brad Johnson: “We played in Frankfurt, Germany, at an American Army base, and there were 40,000 fans and it felt like 80,000. There was a drum beat going in the stands. You think back in the day with Peyton Manning on the 20-yard line saying, ‘Quiet, offense at work.’ It wasn’t like that.”

Other fans, of course, had a little more savvy. The Galaxy’s biggest fan might have been Oliver Luck’s son, Andrew. He might not have known the difference between a goalpost and a GO-GURT at the time, but Andrew was enthralled by the league as a child while living in Europe. His family returned stateside when he was 11, and he was soon a coveted quarterback prospect.

Andrew Luck (Pro Bowl quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts; grew up in Europe going to Galaxy and Fire games): “I didn’t watch the NFL besides the Super Bowl. I knew the NFL was another league, but what I got to see was NFL Europe. I loved soccer and basketball, but I loved football more, and that’s what I got to consume. When we lived in Frankfurt, I loved Mario Bailey. He was my favorite player. I was told once I wore his jersey for three months straight. The apex of athletics was NFL Europe, and Mario Bailey was god. You know what you see and you don’t know any different. At this stage, I have a pretty idyllic view of what that league was.”

Oliver Luck: “Kids are sort of clueless at that age, and he didn’t know the Frankfurt Galaxy from the 49ers. He’d go to these stadiums, sit on our lap and watch football, and we had games with 50,000 people. Mario Bailey — one of the few guys who played for years there — he [Andrew] didn’t take his jersey off for three months. For him, it was the equivalent of a kid living in Buffalo who became a big Bills fan.”

Mario Bailey (Galaxy fan favorite and the NFLE’s career receiving leader; still gets asked to return to Germany for appearances): “The reason my name is forever is basically I stayed longer than anybody did. Six years. You’re supposed to go over one year and gone. Maybe two years. But I had such a great time over there, and we were winning. My NFL career wasn’t going well, and I felt it was the best option. … Frankfurt fans were so over the top, I had no problem coming back year after year. That was my second home.”

Andrew Luck: “Frankfurt games, there was a tailgate, the Power Party, that was rocking. Everyone was drinking beer. They had the bad European techno music. It was like a big carnival. There would be games with like 50,000 people, and they’d bring their own cut-up newspapers and throw it up like confetti. They had these great chants. I remember there being a real energy. I thought it was the greatest thing as a kid.”

Jake Delhomme: “We’d get in a double-decker party bus and ride around the stadium. I don’t know if some of these fans had any idea about football, but it was comical. They had an understanding of the game in Germany, but we’d have 35K fans, and I saw them walking into the stadium and I see these people have gallons of beer in jugs. It looked like plastic milk jugs. It was a very laissez-faire kind of life. The fans embraced us.”

Oliver Luck: “We knew the Germans liked to get together and drink beer. At the end of the season, the FAZ — their version of the Wall Street Journal — their headline was, ‘Europe’s biggest open-air disco.’ We were unapologetic about it. It was the only way we could sell tickets.”

Brian Baldinger: “They wanted their faces painted up. They wanted to chug beers. They wanted to sing songs. They brought that energy to the game. That atmosphere was there. The party filed out of the stadium.”

Larry Kennan: “When we played for the world championship in Wembley Stadium — and, look, I coached in a Super Bowl — but it was the most spectacular sporting event I’ve ever seen. A huge crowd, and after the game, it was the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. We came out of the locker room, and the entire crowd had lined the streets for miles as we drove away, cheering us. It was really cool. One of the greatest things I’ve seen in sports.”

Steve Bedwell: “Absolutely, there was a buzz about it. I can’t underestimate it. We played in the national rugby stadium, and that’s got a 67,000 capacity. If you look at sport in Scotland, soccer is No. 1, rugby is No. 2, but the Claymores essentially established themselves as the third sport. It got people that much. It looked odd on U.S. TV, we’d only get 12 or 13,000 fans some games, but the enthusiasm that the fans turned up with was absolutely electric. Everybody in Scotland knew who the Scottish Claymores were. It’s a small country … It really ripped the heart out of the fans when they pulled the whole thing out. People are still very bitter about it to this day.”

The Monarchs lost much of their attendance base from the early WLAF days, and after playing in multiple sites throughout England in 1998, the team folded and was replaced by the Berlin Thunder.

The Amsterdam Admirals and Rhein Fire played continuously from 1995-2007, and the Barcelona Dragons lasted until 2003, at which point they became the Cologne Centurions, leaving the Frankfurt Galaxy as the lone remaining team from the original WLAF. The Scottish Claymores closed up shop in 2004, giving way to the Hamburg Sea Devils, reducing the league’s footprint to Germany and the Netherlands for its final three seasons.

The last World Bowl was played on June 23, 2007 — the Sea Devils defeated the Galaxy 37-28, with Casey Bramlet winning MVP honors — and the league closed up shop for good less than a week later. The reported financial losses for the final season were $30 million.

For some, the league squandered an opportunity. For others, it was the ideal launching pad. For many involved, it was an integral part of their lives, filled with lasting memories and stories they often tell.

Brian Baldinger: “We did a game in Birmingham, England, and there was a 90-yard field. Nobody really cared. They would’ve played these games on an unlined field.”

Brad Johnson: “We played at White Hart Lane [which didn’t have space for a regulation gridiron], and the end zones were only 6.5 yards. The last 1.5 fell off [on a downward slope]. Our linemen got a $1,000 bonus for having the least amount of sacks. I came out in the fourth quarter of our last game, and Kevin McDougal — who played at Notre Dame — came in, and we were on the 1-yard line. He dropped back, fell off from the back of the end zone. That counted for a sack, and the line was pissed. They’re not getting their money. I’m thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this.'”

Larry Kennan: “We went 17,000 miles, and we won all three games on that road trip. We get to airport in San Francisco, four players come up to me and said, ‘Coach, we met some chicks, how much will we have to pay if we’re late?’ I said, ‘Well, you have to pay the change fee, and the fine is $250 if you miss practice.’ They said, ‘Coach, believe me, it’s worth it.’ They did not fly back with us. They flew back on their own. It cost them each $1,500.”

Brian Baldinger: “I remember a game in Germany, they had this elephant come in. Same game, put this hot tub in the end zone. Certain well-endowed fans having a heck of a time in the hot tub. I thought this was just terrific.”

Oliver Luck: “If Ringling Brothers were in town, we brought in elephants, tigers in cages, whatever. Jugglers. Oh, yeah. Anything we could do that was entertaining. You can call it sizzle, call it schmaltz — we had it. Helicopters flying in. We invented the tradition of somebody or something delivering the game ball. Made it up as the football tradition. We probably had three cheerleaders riding on top of the elephant. We probably painted the elephant purple for the Galaxy colors.”

Brad Johnson: “We lived in an old police academy that had been shut down for years. Instead of water bottles and Gatorade, they were filled with Budweiser. That was the culture. And it was warm Budweiser. Apparently they didn’t have ice in London.”

Kurt Warner: “We stayed in an old hotel. We’d eat together downstairs in their lunchroom/cafe. We’d go through the line, and we’d have no idea what we were eating. There might be a sign that said pork. Here you are training to be an NFL athlete and you have no idea what you’re eating. We’d walk over to the lunchroom, and the only channel we could get in Europe to have some normalcy was Jerry Springer. Every day we’d eat together and Jerry Springer is up on the TV. That’s a moment where you know this isn’t Kansas anymore.”

Even in the midst of their best, and perhaps only, shot at the NFL, players knew they could not miss out on a once-in-a-career chance to play overseas.

Brad Johnson: “We had one day off, Tuesdays. You’d go from 8-4 the rest of the week, so it was similar to an NFL day, as far as film and practice and walk-throughs. But I got to live in London for 10 weeks. We went to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Scotland, Barcelona. That was an awesome experience.”

John Fassel: “My ‘welcome to Europe’ moment was they took us into Amsterdam, got to walk everywhere, and I was shocked how clean the city was, how many bikes there were, and how free-spirited everyone was about trying to sell you marijuana. Walked through the red-light district, see young kids walking around. I was like, ‘This isn’t what I thought it would be.'”

Jake Delhomme: “I was 21, 22, probably too young and dumb to realize, maybe I should’ve gone to the Rembrandt museum. In Scotland, we went to the Edinburgh Castle. Berlin, we saw the Berlin Wall. We tried to do a couple things, but I probably wish I would’ve done more.”

John Fassel: “I would say for me, it was about 95 percent NFL and about 5 percent Europe.”

Andrew Luck: “My dad would have to travel during the season, and I had younger siblings, and my mom would make him take me, so I remember going to Scotland and going hiking and watching a game in Glasgow, or going to Amsterdam and watching Adam Vinatieri kick field goals. I remember going to Barcelona with my dad and rollerblading on the boardwalk first.”

Curt Menefee: “When you’re living in London, you can have lunch by Buckingham Palace and next thing you know, you’re at Westminster Abbey. That was just a normal day. You’re in Amsterdam, get a chance to go to the Van Gogh Museum. Everybody had a good time when you were there, but the cultural aspects stood out.”

Yo Murphy: “We had a chance to go to Gleneagles Golf Course. The hotel was in a castle. I remember standing out in front of it, taking a picture with seven black guys in front of this castle. I said, ‘You guys ever think — and I mean, two guys from Ole Miss, couple guys from California, Oakland and L.A. — you ever think all of us we’d be in front of castle in Scotland?’ You sit and look at it, think about how big the world is.”

Adam Vinatieri: “Tuesdays were the fun day. Going to the Anne Frank House was a very humbling experience for me. Going to the tulip fields, putting on the wooden clogs. Seeing buildings that are older than our country. We didn’t even have settlers in America when they were built. I didn’t do a lot of the nightlife because it wasn’t my style. Guys have stories of things I didn’t partake in. There’s so much more to Holland than the red-light district. But we went to the beach, everyone’s half-naked, and it’s like, ‘Holy crap, I’m not in South Dakota anymore.'”

Andrew Brandt: “Although we didn’t experience a lot of beach weather until late in the season, players were quite taken with the topless nature of the beaches. I had to admonish one of our players who would constantly take pictures of women sunning themselves on the beach in topless states. We did not want a reputation like that.”

But it wasn’t the beaches and the bars and the buildings that the NFL Europe’s personnel remember most. It was the chance to prove it to their NFL counterparts that they just might belong.

Larry Kennan: “Stan Gelbaugh was our quarterback in 1991. Stan was selling copiers for about $20,000 a year. I’d worked him out a couple years before, and he ended up making $100K, and as a result of that season, he signed and made 7 or 8 million dollars over the next few years that he wouldn’t have gotten. Stories like that are really cool. Gelbaugh is a fabulous guy, but his career would’ve been over without the World League. Like Vinatieri and all the other guys, I mean, wow. Wow. A number of guys went from that league to the NFL and made it, and made it in a big way. They [the NFL] said it cost too much, but how can it cost too much when you’ve got player development like that?

George Warhop: “I wish we still had it today. It would help us. It would help the offensive line. It would help develop tight ends. With what’s going on in college, a lot of players aren’t exposed to pro-style offense. We need a league like this.”

Brad Johnson: “The games were extremely competitive, so it wasn’t semipro football. There were really good college players. We were all trying to get to the NFL. Man for man, was it as good as the NFL? No. But it was competitive. Instead of linemen being 315, they were 295. But it was great football.”

Mark Waller (NFL’s international executive vice president; helped usher in the International Series, bringing annual, regular-season NFL games to London in the wake of the NFLE’s closing): “Things happen in phases, and we couldn’t do what we’re doing today if we hadn’t built the initial phase of passion and development. I would be very keen to stress that the passion was as much internal as it was fans. Getting executives, coaches, players interested — that was fundamental.”

Brian Baldinger: “I think we pulled up the stakes too soon. I’ve been over to London and helped out with the international games — was there for the Cincinnati-Washington game, and there was a rabid interest in NFL football. They’re following the NFL Network. There was a real foothold in Europe, and I think NFL Europe was a big part of that. You still see Rhein Fire jerseys, Monarchs jersey. You can’t just dismiss these people.”

Mark Waller: “It really was the start of generating real awareness of the opportunities that exist to grow our game internationally. In that respect, in many ways, it took the blinkers off. Whether you were an athlete, coach, a league employee or a fan, it was an extraordinary opportunity to grow the sport beyond the borders of the U.S. From a player-coach perspective, there was a real fondness for the pioneering phase of taking the NFL beyond the domestic borders.”

John Beake: “Someone said this to me: ‘You were like the Marines. You were the ones who hit the beach and got things going, and then we came in.'”

John Fassel: “I was back at Wembley for Patriots-Rams 2012. The fans and the interest seemed like it had definitely increased since 2000, when I was there. On our bus ride to Twickenham [in 2016], when we got about five minutes from the stadium, maybe a mile away, it was unbelievable how many fans were wearing jerseys of current NFL players. Probably every single team was represented on the back of a fan. It was Giants vs. Rams, but there were Seahawks jerseys, Patriots, Steelers, Bucs, Lions, Jaguars, Tom Brady and everyone.”

Brian Baldinger: “I’m sure Kurt will drop some Amsterdam Admirals references in his Hall of Fame speech. It was a great training ground, a great proving ground. Nothing replaces the experience.”

Curt Menefee: “You were able to soak it in more than just being a tourist. You had to go to the grocery store. You had to exchange money! This was before the euro! It all helped make you an adult. Officials, people in the league office, there’s a bond between all of us. I was just at Giants training camp and [former kicker] Lawrence Tynes was there, and he said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I was in NFL Europe,’ and we spent 20 minutes talking about that story. Whenever you run into anybody, there’s a bond you share forever.”

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