MUNICH — The enormous square in the center of this German city is called Odeonsplatz, and Friday morning it was awash with visitors snapping photos and weaving through oversized helmets of all 32 NFL teams.
It is bordered to the south by the Feldherrnhalle, a covered outdoor hall built in the 1840s in honor of the Bavarian Army and briefly turned into a Nazi memorial by Adolph Hitler before being restored after World War II. Guests sat on stairs guarded by two gargantuan bronze statues of lions and enjoyed the view below.
Benjamin Langeffeld, 29, and Daniel Prehofer, 28, made the half-hour trip from Clifton to be near history of another sort — the NFL’s first regular-season game in Germany — and get as close as they could to their favorite NFL team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I like Gronk. He had the big talent,” said Langeffeld, who wore the No. 87 jersey of retired tight end Rob Gronkowski. “I always liked what he was doing. Also, yes, I like the Bucs. ... But Gronk was the man and why I go to the Bucs.”
“A funny boy,” added Prehofer. “You think there is a chance that he plays (this season)? A small chance, I think. Maybe he comes back for four games. That’s enough, then party!”
With or without Gronk, the celebration has been on all week in Munich, where the Bucs will play the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Allianz Arena.
The stadium is the largest in the country and seats 75,000. But it’s too small to handle the 3 million ticket requests the league received for the game. The league estimates it has 19 million fans in Deutschland. Viewership has increased by more than 20 percent annually since 2017.
On Saturday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the plan likely is to expand the number of games in Germany. “We’re going to play the next four years, at least, and with at least four games.”
Langeffeld was holding on the phone for only a few minutes the day tickets went on sale when he saw a post on social media saying that the game had been sold out. On the secondary market, a pair of tickets cost about $700 each. A pair near the 50-yard line would set you back $5,000.
Prehofer said he first stumbled upon the NFL on television while searching for an NHL game and has been hooked ever since.
“Wow,” he remembers thinking, “this is a nice game.”
Germany and the NFL
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Markus Kuhn was a Bunyanesque 14-year-old making a trip to Florida with his family from Germany when he discovered American football.
Or rather, the game may have fallen in love with him first. But the relationship was one that would change his life.
“That’s the first time I ever saw football on TV,” Kuhn said. “I’m a big guy, obviously. I was like, ‘You know, this could be a cool sport for me,’ and I started playing football for fun.
“It was still a niche sport In Germany. You practiced twice a week and had a game on the weekends. The bigger and better kids always played multiple positions, so at the end of my German career I was a lineman and quarterback.”
The NFL began the World League of American Football in 1991. The idea was to use it as a developmental league while growing the sport in new markets in Europe. It was successful in furthering the careers of quarterbacks such as ex-Buc Brad Johnson, Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme but lasted only two seasons.
It proved to be too costly for the NFL to operate a transatlantic league with teams in the U.S., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom. After a two-year hiatus, it returned as a six-team European league, NFL Europe (later NFL Europa). The two most successful franchises were in Germany: the Frankfurt Galaxy and Rhein Fire.
When he began receiving interest from NFL Europe, Kuhn figured he must be good enough for someone to take a chance on him playing college football in the U.S.
“My dad and I flew over to the U.S., showed up at some colleges unannounced, and I handed off a highlight DVD and actually walked away with a scholarship from some schools,” Kuhn said. “And I wound up playing at N.C. State for four years and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, as a 21-year-old German kid.”
By then, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, a German-born player, was on his way to winning a couple of Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.
Kuhn, a four-year letterman as a defensive lineman with the Wolfpack, was selected in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL draft by the New York Giants, who had just beaten the Patriots in Super Bowl 46.
“The NFL was never a goal for me personally,” he said. “I worked very hard every day. ... Then, to ultimately be drafted by the Giants in New York City on a team that just won the Super Bowl and beat up the Patriots with their defensive line, that was kind of a shocking moment for me to get in their locker room with NFL legends. You get in that room, and you realize now you’re in the big leagues and you keep grinding and it’s not always a straight line.”
Kuhn played four seasons with the Giants, making 48 tackles, and became the first German-born player to score a touchdown in the NFL when he returned a fumble recovery for a score against the Titans in 2014. Two years later, the 6-foot-4, 303-pounder signed with the Patriots, where he played with Tom Brady.
“I was kind of sitting in the cafeteria and I was there to sign my contract,” Kuhn said. “He immediately knew who I was, introduced himself and his personality kind of shined right away. I was playing with Eli (Manning), and he was a good quarterback and a good leader.
“But Tom Brady, from my first impression, was at a different level. His intensity. His appearance. He’s now not only one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks to ever play the game, he’s probably one of the greatest athletes the world has seen. To actually have that guy come to Germany ... it shows how important this game is for German fans.”
Bucs hit Munich
Brady and the Bucs arrived in Munich on Friday morning, checked into their hotel for a few hours and then boarded buses to practice at the FC Bayern Munich Campus. Sunday, Brady has a chance to become the first quarterback to win an NFL game in four countries, having already done so in the U.S., Mexico and England.
NFL international games are special events, and there is a buzz around them long before the teams take the field. The Seahawks have a large following in Germany, but the Bucs appear to be more represented around the city this week. The split fan base gives the game something of a Super Bowl feel, with cheering on every play.
Bayern Munich fans are known for their fervor, and Kuhn said he believes it will be an electric atmosphere.
“I think people have no idea how electric it will be,” Kuhn said. “It’s the biggest and most modern stadium in Germany. I think people who realize how big it is for Germany, and if you’re a part of the sport and follow it closely, you already kind of know a little bit what to expect.
“But I think people who are not that closely tied into it, they will see for the first time for themselves and realize, ‘Oh wow, we have an unbelievable opportunity in this market.’”
In December, the Bucs were granted home marketing rights in Germany, along with the Panthers, Chiefs and Patriots. It includes digital marketing, corporate partnerships, fan events and activations, merchandise sales, and additional marketing activities similar to what the teams do in their domestic home markets.
This week, the Bucs’ fan base has taken over Hofbräuhaus, a world famous brew house in Munich. All of the rooms except for the historic beer hall were destroyed in bombings during World War II. The reopening of the Festival Hall in 1958 marked the end of the post-war restoration work.
Bucs banners and huge posters of Brady flank the area cordoned off for a traditional German oompah band.
Thursday night, it was a dinner and drinking spot for the “NFL Gameday Morning” crew, which is calling Sunday’s game. Steve Mariucci and Joe Thomas wore lederhosen as they threw back huge steins of beer.
Germany’s introduction to American football actually dates back to 1990, when the NFL sent two teams to Berlin each year for a preseason game as part of its American Bowl series. Bucs head coach Todd Bowles played in one of those games as defensive back with the 49ers.
Brady said he is very familiar with the success of FC Bayern Munich, the professional soccer club whose men’s team plays in the Bundesliga, the top tier of the German soccer system.
Its fans are known for their passion. Add that to Germany’s love affair with American football, and you have a unique event.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of emotion from everybody,” the Bucs quarterback said. “It’s very exciting to be here. I know the fans will be excited. Naturally, there’s going to be more energy for us. Once it’s kicked off, it’s going to feel more normal. But it definitely doesn’t feel like a regular-season game.”
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