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 defense think."
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 D�sseldorf. (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, D�sseldorf 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 season.
It returned in 1995 with a leaner, Europe-only format: Charter members London, Barcelona and Frankfurt were joined by Amsterdam, D�sseldorf 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 home early.
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 Burgsm�ller, 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.