It was early evening when we pulled into Grünau, the sun dimming ever faster behind the plattenbau. All across the green field in front of us, guys were clad in battle gear, as instructions emanated in English from their huddles – the battle for the ball, the battle to win a championship in the third division, the battle to professionalize as an American football team.
The Leipzig Lions were practicing for their new season, which starts today with a game against the Cottbus Crayfish, in Cottbus.* Three Americans are part of the group of coaches for the Leipzig team.
The coaches are determined to finally lead the Lions to victory this season, on to the second division.
“I think it’s gonna be completely different this year,” said 28-year-old Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the assistant coaches from the U.S. “I think we’re gonna help push them over the edge. I’m toward the end of my career, and if I can help the team to the point where we win a championship, it’s satisfaction enough for me to get the guys that experience.”
While Germany is known worldwide for its excellence in the other football, referred to as soccer in the U.S., the nation is not usually associated with American, or “gridiron,” football. However, the same year as its smashing World Cup victory in Brazil, Germany also won the European title for American football, for the third time in a row. The German Football Federation (AFVD) oversees more than 300 teams, including six in Saxony and two in Leipzig itself, the Lions and the Hawks, both non-profit community associations (Vereine).
American football is perhaps more popular in Germany than anywhere else in Europe, although the lengthy games and complex rules have made it difficult for it to gain a mass following – and financial stability – comparable to soccer here. It’s common practice for American football teams in Germany to hire seasoned players from the U.S., but Germans are increasingly getting into the sport and becoming top players in the national team and beyond, with some making the NFL.
For the local Leipzig Lions, it’s a tough climb.
Californian Jeremiah Crouch, 37, has been working with the Leipzig Lions for three years and recently became a full-time coach for the team. He played high school football and continued with the sport as he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, playing semi-pro in Hawaii. He said enthusiasm in town for the Leipzig Lions declined after an initial burst in the early 90s, when the team came to life on the heels of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“They would bring in a lot of Americans,” Crouch said. “Anything new was exciting back then in Germany.”
Crouch is hopeful that, with the current level of talent and more money being invested in the sport side of the Verein, the team will bounce back from a sort of plateau. The other two Americans coaching the Lions – Fitzgerald from North Carolina and Phillip Garcia, 31, from Texas – are both new hires who played college football in the U.S. and have been playing for European teams for some years. Both also play for the Lions and said their German teammates here have been quite open and welcoming to them, and communication in “Danglish” hasn’t been a problem.
“Most players speak English because they watch American TV shows,” Garcia said.
Both Garcia and Fitzgerald sought out a spot on the Leipzig team partly because they were attracted to the city itself.
They praised the nightlife and the tolerance they have encountered from people here compared to other parts of Germany where they lived before.
Fitzgerald said he’d like to settle down in Leipzig and start a family, rather than doing it in the U.S. He likes that the city – and Germany in general – is safer (in terms of access to guns, for example), and that it offers a more laid-back lifestyle from the daily races he experienced in places such as New York.
“I think that America is a little bit overglorified,” he said.
*Update: The Leipzig Lions won their game against Cottbus with a score of 35/31 and one second left on the clock.