Summer Days Brought NFL Europe Praise

Summer Days Brought NFL Europe Praise
Aaron Stecker (27) of WIU in action during the 2000 NFL Europe season.

For those who played football in NFL Europe, summer memories don't necessarily include trips to the beach, backyard cookouts or fireworks on Independence Day.

"The travel was great. I loved a few cities, but Amsterdam and Berlin were amazing," said former Northern Illinois Huskie Randee Drew, who played in NFL Europe for the Cologne Centurions in the summer of 2005.

"Amsterdam has the famous Red Light District and (the) Berlin stadium had so much history. We saw the Berlin Wall while (I was) there," said Drew, a Milwaukee native.

The league began its operations in 1991 as the World League of American Football (WLAF). Under that format, the league played a spring schedule with seven of its 10 teams based in North America. Three teams called Europe home. The WLAF lasted for two seasons.

After a one-year hiatus, the WLAF returned for the 1995 season. This time around, however, all six of the franchises resided in Europe. Three seasons later, the league officially changed its name to NFL Europe.

The league, which lasted through the 2007 season, received financial backing from the NFL. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the NFL owners viewed it as a developmental league. Each season the top two teams met in the World Bowl, the league's version of the Super Bowl. The game was often broadcast back to the States. For players and coaches alike, NFL Europe was a means of getting noticed by the "big league" NFL.

"A lot of guys have gotten that second chance at the National Football League through NFL Europe," said Northern Illinois head coach Joe Novak in a 2006 press release. "The last five or six years, we've had several players in NFL Europe. It's a great experience for them--personally and professionally."

In all, 14 former NIU Huskies played in WLAF/NFL Europe.

"At first I wasn't sure this was something I wanted to do," said ex-NIU offensive lineman Matt McGhghy, who signed with the Frankfurt Galaxy. "I had been cut by the Chicago Bears and didn't know what my future had in store for me. I had never been out of the country before and my only knowledge or memories of Germany was (of) that during World War II."

In McGhghy's case, perception wasn't reality.

"I expected to see rubble and old demolished buildings, kind of like a Third World country," he said. "However when the plane touched down, it was a very beautiful and modern country."

McGhghy, who had been picked up by the Detroit Lions and allocated to NFL Europe, stayed in Frankfurt, the business and industrial capital of Germany.

"It reminded me of a big city in the United States," McGhghy said. "German people loved American football. The stadiums we played in were very historical and packed with people making all kinds of noise.

"We were only there for a few months, but I would not trade my experience for anything in the world. The new friends I made, the culture I observed; it all seemed so unreal."

McGhghy also had former NIU teammate Rob Lee on the Frankfurt roster.

"We were teammates for four years at NIU and he was somebody I knew I could lean on," McGhghy said.

The former Huskies were part of the Galaxy team that played in the 2006 World Bowl.

"It was intense, a lot of people and a chance to claim the top team in Europe and we did it," McGhghy said. "I still wear my championship ring to this day on special occasions."

McGhghy enjoyed the culture and history of every city he visited. In addition, the Keokuk, Iowa native and some of his teammates took a flight to Rome, where they spent four days sightseeing.

"We toured the likes of Vatican City and the Colosseum, as well as other museums and places of interest," he said.

For all their successes, American players did face some challenges playing in NFL Europe. Many teams were housed in second-rate hotels and encountered grinding travel accommodations. Most players became homesick at some point.

"My family and friends got to come over a couple of times to see me, but I was very thankful for calling cards and Skype to keep in touch with my loved ones," McGhghy said.

Some teams (especially losing teams) suffered from selfish players out to make themselves look good above all else. Locker rooms were often cramped quarters that caused teams to take extreme measures.

"One funny moment came when we played in Cologne," McGhghy said. "The locker room was rather small and not every player had a locker. When I say not every player had a locker, I mean one player didn't have a locker and that was our punter, Mike Barr.

"Our equipment staff set his locker up in the bathroom stall, which was conveniently located in the middle of the room and contained no door. At halftime we were winning pretty handily and Mike Barr assumed his position at this locker (on the toilet) waiting like the rest of us for the coaches to come in and address us."

Frankfurt coach Mike Jones stormed into the locker room, ready to deliver his halftime speech.

"It was at that moment he noticed Mike Barr sitting on the toilet," McGhghy said. "So the halftime speech quickly became associated with what looked like Mike Barr taking a number two while the coaches proceeded with halftime adjustments. It was very funny and much explaining had to be done afterwards."

Despite the hardships, those in NFL Europe were getting to play. They were getting a chance to show their skills to the powers that be in the NFL.

"Just knowing that players have gone on from Europe to become stars in the NFL gives you a lot of motivation," former Western Illinois star running back Aaron Stecker told Lars Anderson in the book The Proving Ground:  A Season on the Fringe in NFL Europe. "That's why I came, to help my career and make people know my name."

Stecker earned the NFL Europe Offensive Most Valuable Player award in 2000. He played 10 years in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Yet, McGhghy saw benefits beyond football.

"At first the biggest challenge I thought I would face would be the language barrier," McGhghy said. "I didn't know how I would be able to communicate with the Germans. Come to find out, many of them knew the English language. It was a requirement for them in school. Most Germans were nervous to use English around us, but once you get over the initial hello, you could hold a great conversation."

Today, McGhghy lives in his native Iowa, where he coaches high school football. He considers himself better for this time in NFL Europe.

"Some of the biggest positives I took from the experience would have to be the people I met," McGhghy said. "Whether it had been a new teammate or a Galaxy fan, it was always fun when you can expand your network of friends. Some of the people I met I still keep in touch with through social media. Another positive experience was playing football at a high level. There were a lot of good, talented football players over there, some of which are still playing in the NFL today."

By the Numbers:

NIU Huskies who played in WLAF/NFL Europe (14):  Brian Atkinson, McAlister Collins, Randee Drew, Chris Finlen, Dan Graham, A.J. Harris, Duane Hawthorne, Rob Lee, Matt McGhghy, Deon Mitchell, Todd Peat, Jon Pendergrass*, Dan Sheldon, Charles Talley

ISU Redbirds who played in WLAF/NFL Europe (10):  Duane Butler, Sha-ron Edwards, Devon Finn, Larry Fitzpatrick, Damian Gregory, Walter James, James Johnson, Andy King, Peter Shorts, Sam Young

WIU Leathernecks who played in WLAF/NFL Europe (9):  Phil Archer, Donnie Caldwell, Shannon Fitzhugh, Harvie Herrington, Jason McWilliams, JR Niklos, Jimmy Robinson, Paul Singer, Aaron Stecker

SIU Salukis who played in WLAF/NFL Europe (4):  Fabray Collins, Ron Moran, Jon Pendergrass*, Tom Roth

EIU Panthers who played in WLAF/NFL Europe (3):  Pascal Matla, Robert Rosenstiel, Dave Thomas

*played at NIU and SIU




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