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 clich�d 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 D�sseldorf. "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 D�sseldorf 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 D�sseldorf 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.