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History of NFL Europe

by Paul Johns
May 3, 2000 - National Football League Europa (NFLE)

History of NFL Europe

by Paul Johns

Most football fans have probably heard of the World League of American Football. Back in 1991, thanks to the success of the American Bowl games in Europe, NFL officials decided the fans needed more than just a meaningless preseason game. They wanted a professional team in a professional league to follow week in week out. The result was the World League of American Football. In 1991 the league's general manager was Tex Schramm, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys, and franchises were announced in Europe, Canada and America.

The European division consisted of the London Monarchs, the Barcelona Dragons and the Frankfurt Galaxy. In the west in America and Canada the teams were the Sacramento Surge, the San Antonio Riders, the NY/NJ Knights, the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks, the Orlando Thunder, the Montreal Machine and the Birmingham Fire.

The idea of the WLAF was to give fans a team to follow and also a 'farm' league for the NFL. There are so many college teams and so many great players in America, and with only 31 NFL teams, a lot of fine talent can be missed. The WLAF would be a chance for players to prove themselves on a global scale. Another idea was to promote football in Europe where soccer is the main sport. Each team had 3 national players. Players from Australia, Japan, England, Italy and Germany to name just a few, were allocated to each team. In the early years these players were 'novelty' players and hardly saw the field but in later years a lot of great home grown talent was produced.

Kickoff finally came in April 1991 when the London Monarchs traveled to Frankfurt to play the hometown Galaxy. Over 30,000 fans turned up to see the game, a very large crowd in Europe where the largest soccer teams regularly get between 30-70,000 week in week out, but average 15-20,000 fans per match. The game was very tight in the beginning as both teams had only a short training camp in Orlando to prepare themselves before the season kicked off. The Monarchs finally won 23-11 in the league's first ever game. Over in Barcelona, a rain soaked stadium saw the Dragons hold off the NY/NJ Knights who had installed the run-and-shoot offense under headcoach Mouse Davis.

Over in America the league was not taking off as well as expected. Several teams had good crowds but the fans did not take to it in the same way as the Europeans did. In America the fans had the real thing, the NFL, and watching 'second rate' players in a spring league did not appeal to many football afficionados.

Over in Orlando, the Thunder, with their famous flourescent green jerseys, were setting the league alight. Quarterback Kerwin Bell threw 5 touchdowns in week one with a handful more in week two and the offense was looking very explosive. In week three, the undefeated Orlando Thunder traveled to Wembley Stadium in England to face the London Monarchs and in front of over 60,000 fans, the Monarchs prevailed thanks to a great showing by their defense. The most exciting part for many English fans was the introduction of home grown halfback Victor Ebubedike. Ebubedike had played amateur football for many years in England for the London Ravens, where players had to pay the cost of the kit (uniform), pay to play in the league and played the game for the love of it.

Ebubedike came into the game late in the fourth quarter with the game beyond doubt and carried the ball six straight times. The fans were nervous as they wanted their own to succeed. Succeed he did. Ebubedike rushed for over 40 yards and in the waning seconds scored a touchdown, the first ever professional touchdown by an English player. The crowd went crazy and the Monarchs moved to 3-0.

At the end of the season, the playoffs started and the London Monarchs made their way to New York to face the Knights. Despite trailing early on, Monarchs QB Stan Gelbaugh led his team back and onto victory. In the other semi-final the Birmingham Fire led by Brent Pease (ex-Houston Oiler) were narrowly defeated by the Barcelona Dragons, and the league had its first ever World Bowl championship, London vs Barcelona, at Wembley Stadium England.

This was one of the finest moments in the history of American football in England. Wembley Stadium was packed with nearly 70,000 fans as the home team Monarchs scored a convincing 21-0 victory. All season long Dragons QB Scott Erney had thrown only a handful interceptions but in one half, Erney coughed up three picks as the top-ranked Monarchs defense which was tormented him all game long.

Question marks quickly arose after the season. The league's TV ratings in America were very poor, whereas in Europe the crowds were amazing and the fans loved the game. The 1992 season kicked off with a new team, the Ohio Glory who replaced the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks who, under head coach and former NFL great Roman Gabriel, had finished the season 0-10.

In 1991, no European team suffered a losing season Obviously the teams had to be a success in Europe and they were, but it seemed now that the power had shifted to America in an 'attempt' to get higher ratings. The Sacramento Surge were allocated a QB in Dave Archer (ex-Atlanta Falcon starter), and the Surge were the cream of the crop in the 1992 season.

After a 9-1 season and a World Bowl championship in England the Monarchs struggled the following year to a losing record, and attendance was down. Barcelona improved with some great play by former Kansas City Chief Paul Palmer at HB but failed to get back to the World Bowl. The American division was the success story in 1992, and at the end of the season the Sacramento Surge met the Orlando Thunder led by QB Scott Mitchell (ex-Miami, Detroit and Baltimore). The Surge ran out winners in World Bowl II which was held in Montreal.

Before the game there was news that the NFL was thinking of shutting down the league. Poor TV ratings were to blame and finally after several months the league announced that the NFL would suspend the WLAF.

Uproar was in Europe, as many English fans were turned off by what the NFL had done and vowed not to return to watch the Monarchs if the team did indeed come back. Looking back the decision was the correct one. The league was not working in America but proved to be a success in Europe. Still, the league suspended the WLAF for two years which proved to be too long and alienated many fans from the game.

In 1995, the league returned with new franchises. Gone were the American teams and just six European teams made up the league. The original WLAF teams, the Barcelona Dragons, the London Monarchs and the Frankfurt Galaxy came back and the league added three more teams. Scotland was awarded a team with the Scottish Claymores, Amsterdam was given a new franchise called the Amsterdam Admirals and Germany was handed another team with the Rhein Fire. In England, the Monarchs returned on a much smaller scale. From over 30,000 fans week in week out in London in 1991, the Monarchs came back to just 14,000 fans in 1995. Success occurred however in Frankfurt where nearly 40,000 fans turned out weekly to see the Galaxy win behind former Dallas Cowboy veteran QB Steve Pelleur.

Despite Brad Johnson starting at QB for London, the Monarchs fell to 4-6 and had to watch as the Frankfurt Galaxy held off the Amsterdam Admirals 26-22 in World Bowl III. The league turned to some bizarre marketing efforts in 1996 to get more fans to watch the game in England. Back in 1986, American football was huge in England, where they had just staged the American Bowl at Wembley with the Superbowl Champion Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys. Football was in all the newspapers weekly. The star of the game who appeared on many TV shows was William Perry, otherwise known as the 'Fridge and, despite being retired from football, Perry returned to play (allegedly for a large payment) for the London Monarchs. The result was embarassing. Perry was overweight (surprise, surprise), playing at over 400 pounds. He was a bust. Crowds continued to dwindle in London, and newspapers hardly even bothered to follow the league. Another big-name player, former 1000 yard rusher Gaston Green failed to ignite the Monarchs, and the team fell to yet another losing record.

That year the team that came through was the Monarchs' arch-rivals, the Scottish Claymores. Behind QBs Steve Matthews and Jim Ballard and HB Siran Stacy, Scotland marched to World Bowl IV where the Claymores defeated the defending champions, the Frankfurt Galaxy, in Scotland in front of over 30,000 fans. It was one of the largest sporting events that year in Scotland, and the team was a success on and off the field.

The 1997 season appeared on paper to be potentially the best season yet. More and more NFL teams were allocating players to the league which was now christened NFL Europe. In Barcelona, Jon Kitna was allocated to play from Seattle, London had QB Stan White from the NY Giants, and the Rhein Fire had former Rams QB T.J. Rubley starting. The champions in 1997 were the Kitna-led Dragons who defeated Rhein in the final to win World Bowl V.

The Monarchs were in serious trouble in 1998. In an effort to gain more fans, the Monarchs were renamed the England Monarchs and played two games outside of London to generate new fans. The plans backfired and, thanks to hardly any marketing, the Monarchs played in front of crowds of just 3-5,000 fans. NFL officials found the low attendance embarassing to the league and shortly after the 1998 season the Monarchs folded and a new franchise was given to another German city. The Berlin Thunder was born.

1998 saw more league success as more and more NFL teams sent players across the pond to play in the league. A record number of players (over 140) were sent, and playing standards rose even more than before. Home grown talent was succeeding, and former Australian punter Darren Bennett had played for Amsterdam for one season before moving into a starting role for the NFL's San Diego Chargers where he became a Pro Bowl punter. A young Scottish receiver named Scott Couper was contributing and scoring touchdowns for the Claymores and many National players would register yards on offense or sacks on defense on a weekly basis. New rules in the league forced teams to play a national player every play on offense and defense and now more home grown players were contributing to the league. Each team now carried seven nationals each.

NFL Europe saw another future star in Rhein Fire WR Marcus Robinson in 1998. Robinson caught nearly 40 passes that year and was something certainly very special. Indeed just a year later in the NFL, Robinson became an All-Pro as he caught passes for over 1000 yards and just recently signed a huge contract with the Bears. The Amsterdam Admirals had an exciting offense behind an unknown QB called Kurt Warner, Warner looked the real deal hitting big play after big play but his team narrowly missed the playoffs.

World Bowl VI saw an all German final held in Germany and the result was a success as Rhein defeated Frankfurt in a rain soaked final. American football was booming in Germany with both german teams having great crowd support, another reason why the Monarchs were dropped and the Berlin Thunder added for the following season.

Yet again, more players were allocated from NFL teams as nearly every team had a young NFL player at every position allocated to them. Even teams such as Chicago and Cincinnati, who in recent years hardly allocated anyone, started to send young players over. In 1999, the big news was that former Rams #1 pick HB Lawrence Phillips would play for the Barcelona Dragons. Phillips took with him a lot of baggage but felt more relaxed over in Europe, played very well and was controversy free. Phillips became the first rusher in NFL Europe history to gain over 1000 yards (in just 10 games) and helped the Barcelona Dragons return to the World Bowl. Frankfurt was playing in its second consecutive World Bowl and third in four years thanks to QBs Pat Barnes and Jake Delhomme, who were sharing time at QB, and WR Andy McCullough who was allocated from the Arizona Cardinals.

Phillips had to leave World Bowl VII early due to a hamstring injury and the Galaxy ran out winners. After the 1999 season ex-NFLE stars shone in the following NFL season. QB Kurt Warner became the success story of the decade as he took the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory, and fans from all over the world had now heard of the Arena League's Iowa Barnstormers and the Amsterdam Admirals.

Ex-Monarch QB Brad Johnson was now the Redskins QB and threw for over 4,000 yards as he led Washington to the 1999 playoffs. Bears WR Marcus Robinson had an All-Pro year with over 80 catches and well over 1,000 yards as he became one of the top receivers. The Dallas Cowboys had a new blocker in FB Robert Thomas (ex-Rhein Fire), Seattle found an All-Pro DE in Michael Sinclair (ex-Sacramento) and a QB in Jon Kitna and the Miami Dolphins had a future young star at QB with Damon Huard (ex-Frankfurt). NFLE stars were present all over the league, and NFL Europe had at last proved to be a great training ground for young talent.

The current NFL Europe season is heading to its fourth week and in the next few days I will preview the upcoming NFL Europe matches, reviews and a look at former NFLE players playing in the NFL. Any questions you may have about the league please email me at pjhons@easynet.co.uk.

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National Football League Europa Stories from May 3, 2000


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