Former Denver Bronco Coach John Ralston was doing his best Mr. Rogers impersonation while giving a dozen European athletes their first chalkboard session on American football. "O.K.," Ralston said as he turned to face husky Gerald Weiss of Germany and gestured with powerful arm motions. "Fullback. Big. Physical. Blocker. Tough. Understand?"
Ralston's multilingual assistant, John Workman, interpreted: "Fullback. Gross. Aggressiv. Blocken. Hart. Verstehst du das?"
The 6'2", 235-pound Weiss listened intently and nodded. A few hours later he was being fitted with his first football uniform—his shoes were too small, and he put his hip pads in upside down—and participating in calisthenics. "Ein, zwei, drei, vier!" Weiss and the nine other Germans chanted with vigor. Ninety minutes into his first practice, Weiss had blisters on both heels. He took his shoes off and continued in stocking feet. His first attempts at throwing a football resembled the motion of a shot-putter, with the ball traveling like a knuckler.
For Weiss, 30, who finished sixth in the javelin for East Germany at the Seoul Olympics, this was quite a day. Here he was in America, in Orlando, Fla., to be exact, taking part in the formation of the World League of American Football. The 10-team league, which will open play on March 23 with franchises in Barcelona, Frankfurt, London, Montreal and six U.S. cities, conducted its inaugural administrative meetings, scouting combine, player drafts and workouts from Feb. 8 through Feb. 24 in Orlando. Weiss was one of 42 foreign athletes there whom Ralston had unearthed last fall as head of the WLAF's worldwide scouting network, dubbed Operation Discover by the league. Ralston & Co. turned up potential players in Australia, Canada, Mexico and all over Europe, including the U.S.S.R.
Back home in Schwerin, opportunity hadn't come rushing in for Weiss after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in November 1989. Once regarded as a national hero in East Germany, Weiss makes 512,000 a year as a trainer at a sports club, but with the dismantling of the East German sports machine, there's no guarantee the job will exist after this year. The chance to earn at least $20,000 in four months—the WLAF's base salary for most of its players—and the chance to master a new sport drew him to Orlando, even though it meant leaving his girlfriend and their four-year-old daughter.
After dinner and another meeting with Ralston and Workman, which ended at 8:45 p.m., the Germans—five from East and five from West—headed for J.J. Whispers, an upscale singles' bar. Lots of hostesses with lots of leg. Lots of light beer. Lots of central Florida women staring at the handsome Weiss. Lots of Janet Jackson and INXS on the disco side of Whispers and lots of oldies from the band on the live-music side. First singles' bar of Weiss's life. First light beer of Weiss's life. One more first: Weiss had traveled extensively as a track athlete, but this was the first time he'd been out at night in a foreign country without being tailed by East German authorities.
At 11:45 p.m. Workman rounded up the players to return to the hotel. Weiss looked pained. "The party has just begun," he said. But Weiss departed willingly, because two workouts were scheduled for the next day, and, he said, "My motivation is 110 percent football."
Weiss is typical of the athletes found by Ralston, who during a recruiting visit to Germany timed Weiss at 4.51 seconds in the 40 and projected him as a fullback or linebacker in the WLAF. The league plans to randomly assign four non-U.S. players to each 40-man roster. Said Frank Emmelman, a former world-class sprinter for East Germany who was trying to make it as a wide receiver, "This is such an opportunity. We feel like we've been let out of the cage." Nine days later, Emmelman became discouraged in trying to adjust to the game and decided to go home.
If Weiss can stick it out, he probably won't contribute much the first year, but he and his fellow football neophytes are almost certain to see action as special-team players because of the WLAF's small rosters. For now, Weiss loves the game and the contact. In his fifth practice he took a handoff, cradled it and burst into a blocking dummy. Whap! "You can't be 6'2" and 235 and run like he does and not be a player," Ralston said.
"I'm like a child crawling in football, about to take my first steps," said Weiss through Workman. "My muscles aren't sore. I'm not afraid to dish out punishment. The only thing that bothers me is that the ball is shaped like an egg."