The camouflage-suited, porcupine-haired figure sprinted down a crowded concourse at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, his sunglasses glinting, a cigar in his mouth, a precious cargo held gingerly before him. At the gate he was ordered to stop. He paused, considered his options, then chucked his plastic cup of beer into a convenient trash can and dashed onto the waiting airplane.
Fidel Castro? A thirsty Contra? A visitor from Mad Max: Beyond Thunder-dome? No, it was Jim (Mad Mac) McMahon, the world's first rock 'n' roll quarterback. The Man From Punk was kicking off the Chicago Bears' part of the NFL's invasion of Britain, a brilliant bit of corporate and cultural promotion that peaked a week later on Sunday when the Bears beat the Dallas Cowboys 17-6 at sold-out Wembley Stadium in London.
There have been other NFL exhibitions in foreign lands—Japan in 1975, Mexico City in 1978, London in 1983—but no other that was promoted by the league or carried the upbeat possibilities of the '86 extravaganza. International TV rights? Product marketing? European expansion? The possibilities lie there like so many seeds waiting to be tended by the NFL's green thumb.
You want to think really big? Well, how about worldwide expansion of the league? How about the London Rippers versus the Tokyo Kamikazes in Super Bowl MM, played on a spaceship orbiting the moon? According to Ralph Miller, the sales and promotions manager of Wembley Stadium, a quarter of a million tickets could have been sold to Sunday's game alone. Miller wants the NFL back in London for five preseason games next year. "And all this was done naturally," marveled the Cowboys' president, Tex Schramm. "It wasn't forced on the English. For some reason they were just ready for it."
Certainly they were anxiously awaiting McMahon, who, once aboard the 747, joined the other half of America's weirdest sports duet. That could only be William Perry, the almighty Fridge, the Bears' cuddly defensive tackle who reportedly earned $3 million—and another nickname, the Endorser—in the past year for being friendly and large.
It was nice that the Cowboys and all the other Bears came to London, too, but with these two, they weren't really needed. ("Are you as good as the Refrigerator?" an employee at Hyde Park's Intercontinental Hotel asked Walter Payton when the team arrived.) In the combined personae of Mad Mac and Fridge lay every quality the English expected to find in what must now be called "American football"—wealth, talent, controversy, cheekiness, girth and odd clothes.
Check that. The Cowboy cheerleaders were needed as well. They arrived on Thursday and were glowingly described by London's Daily Express as "three dozen lovelies with high IQs plus a formidable knowledge of current affairs." For the Cowboy players, who came all the way from training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif., eight time zones from London, the main souvenir they would take back home with them was jet lag. "I never did get straight," said Tony Dorsett. "I spent most of my days sleeping and went to discos at night." Indeed, such traditional training-camp hardships as curfews scarcely existed for either team in London. "This is a cultural exchange as much as anything. We want the players to get out and meet people," said Bears G.M. Jerry Vainisi. One of the first people Bears tackle Keith Van Home met was a punked-out lad who posed for a photo with him in Piccadilly Circus. "Mind if my friend joins us?" asked the youth, who then fished a spotted rat out from somewhere in his clothes and stuck the live rodent in his mouth.
English culture was alternately confusing and amusing to the players all week. It was as hard for them to fathom pubs closing at three in the afternoon as it was for the Brits to understand the appeal of living in a 20-story high rise without a garden. Some English words also created mild problems, gridiron becoming "pitch" and teams becoming "sides."
"How long does it take to do your hair, luv?" Bears kicker Kevin Butler asked a spike-coiffed girl in Sloane Square one afternoon. The girl, whose studded leather jacket bore a drawing of the late ultrapunker Sid Vicious's coffin, was unwilling, or unable, to answer.
Yet it was obvious to all that the contrast between the cultures was exactly what was at the root of the American football craze in Britain. "This country is too set in its way," said shaved-headed Jerry (the Animal) White, who plays for the Streatham All Powerful Olympians American football club, while watching the Cowboys and Bears practice at Crystal Palace on Tuesday. "England needs a new sport," said the Animal, whose two-year-old son, Eddie, romped at the end of a leash held by dad. White then added the requisite axiom of any discussion about the sudden popularity of American football: It is "refreshing" to soccer-saturated Brits because "the violence is on the field, not in the stands.