Behind the scenes of NFL’s debut in Germany

MUNICH—Tom Brady, for at least once this autumn, could smile and mean it.

“That was spectacular,” he told me of the NFL’s first regular-season game on German soil. “I mean, that stadium was rocking. The crowd singing ‘Country Roads’ and ‘Sweet Caroline,’ it felt like it was a Red Sox game out there. It was amazing, the whole experience.”

Forget the Tampa 21, Seattle 16 aspect of the day, and even the season-altering 88-, 86- and 87-yard drives by Brady and the formerly offensively somnambulant Bucs. Think of the day this way: This was a good game—not an all-timer. If it’d been played in Tampa as a Bucs’ home game, people would have left the stadium happy that the Bucs were 5-5, but the fans and the quarterback wouldn’t have had a special feeling about the day, and there wouldn’t have been thousands celebrating a regular-season game for five days here—and I mean celebrating.

Instead, after this city and the NFL put on one of the great shows for a regular-season game ever, Brady walked to the postgame podium and said, “This was one of the great football experiences I’ve ever had.”

Seattle coach Pete Carroll said: “The fans were extraordinary. Everything about this whole trip has been great. What a spectacle. This has been an unforgettable occurrence.”

And Carroll lost!

The thing is, the 69,811 at Allianz Arena didn’t leave the stadium. They stayed, singing and cheering the players as they left the field, then just hanging out watching RedZone on the big screens and watching a live postgame show on the field. It’s like the fans were really unhappy the game was played in a tidy 2 hours, 48 minutes. “I stayed for an hour after the game,” said Max Lange, the founder of the German Seahawkers fan club. “No one wanted to leave. No matter who won today, it was such a celebration of football. We lost, but I’m so happy. We showed today we can support the NFL at a very high level.”

What a day. This city, and this country, deserve many more.

Now for the story of football, Munich, history and why so many people got emotional about this game.

I took a Munich City Walk Tour Friday morning, listening to a podcast directing me where to walk, when I got to Odeonsplatz, one of the historic squares in the city. This is where Adolf Hitler’s Nazi movement had one of its first seminal moments 99 years ago this week, when 2,000 followers marched to the square hoping to overthrow the government; 20 died in a gun battle with government police who held off Hitler from taking power. By 1933, Hitler had that power, and that year he spoke from the steps of Feldherrnhalle, at the far end of Odeonsplatz, to thousands of enthusiastic Germans.

Now, I heard chanting from those Feldherrnhalle steps, with fans wearing D.K. Metcalf and Geno Smith jerseys.

“Sea-HAWKS! Sea-HAWKS!”

Football fans flooded this area all week, because Odeonsplatz was the site of a big NFL Shop, and on the square, 32 oversized NFL helmets dotted the cobblestones. Kids and families took photos and communed with new friends wearing jerseys of every team in the NFL.

Talk about a juxtaposition. What a difference 89 years makes.

American football, regular-season football, took its latest step in trying to own the world Sunday. The NFL debuted in Germany with Tampa Bay’s win on a pristine, 51-degree afternoon, the first non-soccer event staged in Allianz Arena in the venue’s 17-year history. It took Roger Goodell and Tom Brady to make the Munich city government waive its soccer-only dictum for the famous stadium of FC Bayern Munich, the biggest soccer team in Germany. The city leaders, and the seven FC Bayern players who waited for 40 minutes after the game to meet Brady, are damn glad Brady and the Bucs took their turf for one day.

A few days before the game, Jim Tomsula was educating me on the importance of football in the country. You remember Tomsula. He coached the Niners in 2015, between Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly. Before that, he coached in the old NFL Europe league. Now he’s back coaching the Rhein Fire in Dusseldorf, a northern German city, in the 18-team European League of Football. It’s the Patriot League to the NFL.

“It is pure, and it is awesome,” Tomsula said. “It’s a part of America that people here just love. To people in Germany, football represents the dream of America, and America is still the sparkling star that intrigues the hell out of everybody. With our team, the pageantry just grabs fans. They drink, they dress up, they sing, they chant. It’s a rockin’-ass party for three hours.”

He said people in Germany were blown away that the NFL would send Tom Brady to play a real game over here. I told him that Chicago-based sports consultant Marc Ganis said Brady playing in Germany would be like the Beatles playing in New York in the sixties.

“The comparison to the Beatles is spot on,” Tomsula said. “Sunday will be unbelievable. I’m telling you, people in Germany will cry, they’ll be so happy.”

It was nutty in Munich all week. On Thursday night, ex-Niners and -Lions coach Steve Mariucci, in town with NFL Network, dressed in lederhosen just for fun and drank at the renowned Hofbrau Haus. “I wanna be a part of it!” he said, trying to be heard over the German oom-pah band. The Seahawks bar was overrun with Seattle fans from across the globe, as far away as Australia; many came 5,500 miles from western Washington.

But mostly, this was a national holiday for the fans here, like 38-year-old journalist and Ravens fan Tobias Zervos of Bad Homburg, near Frankfurt. “I like soccer too,” Zervos said. “But in football, the salary cap makes the game more fair. In our Bundesliga, the difference between the top-spending teams and the teams on the bottom is about 250 million euros. I like the fact that in football, more teams have a chance to win the championship.”

Zervos and the German Seahawker fan I referenced earlier, Max Lange, also said putting two games per Sunday on free TV was important; that started in 2015. But the Germans are still struggling to produce a consistent pool of talent. “We need to find our Dirk Nowitski,” Tomsula said.

Germany has produced some big linemen, including former Patriots tackle Sebastian Vollmer and ex-Giants defensive tackle Markus Kuhn. Both work as ambassadors for the league here, and as TV commentators on the game. Their origin stories are long shots, which is why the NFL wants to see more club football and flag football programs—both of which are growing here.

Kuhn, by age 14, hadn’t found a sport to his liking until he was prompted to try out for a club football team near his home in Weinheim. As a linebacker and defensive tackle on his club team, he was an all-league player. But then what?

“I wanted to try to play college football,” Kuhn said Saturday. “I thought I might be good enough, but I didn’t know. So my dad and I flew to Washington D.C., rented a car. We didn’t know how the recruiting process worked. I had a recruiting tape, and for two months we just drove down the coast—Liberty, Richmond, William & Mary, North Carolina State. Just showed up at the front door of the schools and said, ‘I’m Markus, I’m from Germany, I play football.’ They looked at me like I was crazy. But I got offered some scholarships. (He took one from N.C. State and played there.)

“Four-and-a-half years later, I’m the first German ever invited to the Scouting Combine. I got drafted by the Giants and played in the league for four years. I accomplished way more in football than I ever thought I would. Now, seeing the growth of the game back home, so many kids playing flag football and loving the game, seeing the growth of the game on TV Now the NFL sending its biggest star to play a game here.

“Goosebumps,” Kuhn said. “I’ve got goosebumps thinking about it.”

It used to be, until recently, when teams began making marketing agreements with countries around the world, that it was hard to convince teams to play in Europe. No more. After Sunday’s game, Pete Carroll said he hoped the Seahawks got invited back to Germany soon. Carroll is bullish on making football a world game. He told me Thursday he’d love to see each country have a national team, with world tournaments pitting country teams against each other the way soccer and basketball do.

“The world is watching,” Carroll said. “They’ve known about our sport for such a long time. I’ve always imagined someday that American football would be everywhere and there would be people coaching their football team for their country. It’s always been a great spectacle and I love that we’re sharing it with the world now—the stories, the color, the music, the speed, the ferocity. It captures people.”

By noon Sunday, one estimate had 40,000 people tailgating—another thing that isn’t done as enthusiastically in soccer—in the parking lots around Allianz. A Jacksonville-Houston game would have packed in a crowd here, but it was huge that Seattle, appealing because the Legion of Boom at the height of its popularity got lots of these fans to love the game, and Tampa Bay, with the great Brady, were the competitors.

It seemed about a 55-45 Seattle crowd. With a revived Tampa offense giving Brady time to throw—the Bucs finally got Brady some help with a run game that managed a season-high 161 yards on the ground, led by rookie back Rachaad White’s 105—the Bucs broke to a 14-0 halftime lead and held on.

In the fourth quarter, during a break, from out of nowhere, the stadium was filled with John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Many of the Americans in the stadium looked around like, John Denver in Germany? Why? Incredibly, as the song reverberated through the place, the fans started singing it. “WEST VIRGINIA, MOUNTAIN MAMA!” Loudly. In tune. The fans knew every word. Down on the field, Seattle linebacker Bruce Irvin—a West Virginia Mountaineer himself—began bouncing and dancing to the song, even though the Bucs were in the process of sending Irvin home with a loss.

“Why ‘Country Roads?’” I asked Max Lange afterward.

“We play it at parties all the time,” he said. “We love it. All those songs they played—‘Sweet Caroline,’ ‘Hey Baby.’ Those are party classics in Germany.”

A stadium in Munich, reverberating with 69,000 singing a song extolling the virtues of West Virginia. You learn a lot at the first NFL game in Germany.

The Future

            The NFL agreed last spring to stage four games between 2022 and ’25 in Germany—two in Munich, two in Frankfurt. “I wouldn’t be surprised to expand beyond that,” Roger Goodell said Saturday at a fan event. There are growing indications that two prime fan favorites in Germany—Kansas City and New England—both could serve as home teams for games in 2023. The league is working with the Bundesliga, the German soccer league, on dates because the games come in the middle of the Bundesliga season. But I heard at least one of the games and perhaps both would be held in Frankfurt.

Interesting to see the cooperation between the NFL and the Bundesliga. What’s in it for the German league? A couple of things—help for some German teams’ American “friendlies” in the off-season (such as Bayern Munich’s August game in Green Bay) and technical support in advanced analytics. The NFL has shared Next Gen Stats technical support and player-tracking data with the Bundesliga.

Next year is the AFC’s turn for teams to have nine home games, so the NFL will use AFC teams to be home teams for international games. The NFL has raised the prospect of a team or teams in Europe permanently—Goodell said a four-team division one day is possible—but that’s very unlikely in the near term. The NFL doesn’t want to expand from 32 teams, and there’s not a single team that appears close to wanting to move. “The more likely outcome is having more games over here,” said Vollmer, who lives in Florida but commutes here for football.

Sunday’s game, Vollmer said during the week, “is the next big step. It won’t be the last.”

The NFL will play games outside of England and Germany at some point; Miami could play a game in Brazil or Spain in the next three or four years. The Rams are bullish about playing in Australia one day. But clearly the horizon with the biggest upside is Europe. There were journalists from 22 countries credentialed for Sunday’s game, including 18 in Europe (Croatia, Serbia, Portugal), with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Denmark was here. Danish reporter Kasper Skipper from TV2, the NFL rights-holder there, covered the game. I asked him about football in his country.

“It has a following in Denmark,” Skipper said, “but it’s not quite [team] handball or badminton.”

Well then. The NFL has some work to do in Scandinavia. But they’re in pretty good shape in Germany.

“Thank you for hosting us,” Brady told the German media after the game. “Everybody who was a part of that experience has a pretty amazing memory for their life.”

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Behind the scenes of NFL’s debut in Germany originally appeared on NBCSports.com