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Americans play out their football dreams in Germany

SCHWÄBISCH HALL, Germany — Kyle Horne's football future looked bleak as he neared his graduation from Division I Wofford College in South Carolina two years ago.

NFL scouts weren't calling the Jacksonville native. Teams in Canada gave him the cold shoulder. Even the scaled-down Arena Football League turned up its nose.

There was one team, however, that was thrilled to have him.

In this sleepy central German city of about 40,000, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker found one last chance to keep playing ball with the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns of the German Football League.

Here, Horne is a fan favorite and a starter on this team that hopes to make it to the German Bowl, the low-key German version of the Super Bowl.

"I love it here," Horne said recently while walking the narrow streets of Schwäbisch Hall. "But there are definitely things I had to get used to."

He has to wash his own equipment, something he didn't need to do in college. During home games he plays in front of a thousand fans in a stadium that doesn't have a locker room.

For their services, Horne and his five American teammates get free food, a place to live, health insurance and about $400 a month.

The 12-team GFL has quietly become a way station for dozens of Canadians and Americans each summer, including Floridians like Horne and his teammate, St. Petersburg native Nick Robinson.

Most realize Germany is the final stop in their athletic careers. But others are desperate to catch a scout's eye, jump to a second-tier American league and one day end up in the NFL.

Linebacker Vernon Strickland played for the Berlin Adler before signing with the San Francisco 49ers in 1998 and then spending a season with the New York Giants. But he is the rare story.

More often the fantasies end in frustration.

Pat Julmiste, 27, a former quarterback at the University of South Florida, came to Germany this year to jump-start his career, but was forced home by shaky play and a bout of homesickness.

Horne, 25, says he has no illusions of a career playing football. For him this is a final, fun adventure while he's still young.

"I'm just happy to be playing," he said, recounting how his final year of college football was filled with anxiety and injuries. "I thought football was over for me."

Robinson, 25, graduated from Stetson Law School this year and plans to eventually practice law in St. Petersburg. The GFL was his final chance to see the world, he said. He has traveled the continent, hitting Amsterdam and Paris, all while serving as the Unicorns' kicker.

"I know this is it for me as far as football goes," he said, "so I'm going to enjoy it."

• • •

In Germany, American-style football has long enjoyed a cult following. Introduced to the country by American soldiers after World War II, the game gained popularity in the 1970s when enthusiasts formed the GFL.

NFL Europe, backed by the NFL, folded in 2007 after 16 mediocre years. But at the end, five of the league's six teams were based in Germany.

The league's demise created a gaping hole for Germans wanting to watch or play top-level ball. Today, NFL executives have moved their marketing efforts away from Germany and to emerging football markets like China or the United Kingdom.

"What we haven't cracked in Germany is the right business model that allows us to invest and grow there over time," said Chris Parsons, who handles international marketing for the NFL. "We want to get there eventually, but we're building toward that goal and it takes time."

Julmiste ran out of patience quickly.

He hoped playing for the Stuttgart Scorpions this year would impress American pro teams. But he was frustrated from the start. The American players are so much better than their homegrown teammates that only two are allowed on the field at a time. Julmiste said some of his German teammates struggled to throw or catch a football. He also missed his 4-year-old son and developed a dislike for his German diet that was heavy on meat and potatoes.

"The lifestyle is kind of weird there," he said. "I'm so used to the United States, but in Germany things are too quiet and slow. It was tough, not my thing."

Within a month he headed home to Florida, and still hopes to get a tryout with an American pro team. But as the NFL opens its regular season this week, Julmiste hasn't gotten a call.

• • •

The days for an American in the GFL can be long. Because German players and coaches are volunteers and have to get outside jobs — a tackle is a schoolteacher and a cornerback is a construction company's account manager — the Unicorns only practice twice a week.

That means the squad's American players spend much of their time traveling, working out or playing video games.

On a recent soggy Saturday, the Unicorns battled a troubled team called the Weinheim Longhorns. Earlier this year, financial problems prompted the Longhorns' management to quit, followed shortly by almost all of its American players.

Buoyed by strong passing from quarterback Brian Brunner, a Central Michigan grad, and a one-handed touchdown grab by German receiver Felix Brenner, Schwäbisch Hall won 49-20.

After the game, Horne and Robinson slapped hands with their teammates.

"It was a good win," said Horne, who had five tackles and leads the league in sacks.

But nearby, the Longhorns' James Taylor, a 30-year-old from Ohio and one of the few Americans to stick with Weinheim, sat stone-faced.

After being released by NFL Europe's Frankfurt Galaxy a few years ago, he found himself playing in the GFL. He has a real football pedigree — he also had short stints with the New York Jets and the Green Bay Packers — but Taylor knows his window of opportunity is closing.

"The dream's not over," he said. "I feel I deserve another shot. But it's frustration, it's frustration. It's hard to be noticed here."

This month, when this year's GFL season ends, Taylor will head back home to the United States where he'll work as a personal trainer and hope for a phone call.

Whatever happens, he says, he won't be playing football in Germany again.

Moises Mendoza is based in Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship. He can be reached at moises.d.mendoza@gmail.com.

Americans play out their football dreams in Germany 09/05/10 [Last modified: Sunday, September 5, 2010 11:39pm]
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