Updated Thu, Jul 19, 2012 12:15 pm
When sports fans in the United States think of football, storied franchises like the Pittsburgh Steelers or Dallas Cowboys come to mind. Memories of Sunday afternoons lounging in front of the TV or meeting with friends to watch Monday Night Football, Friday nights spent under bright lights watching local high school students play for the pride of the school and Thanksgiving backyard brawls all surface.
When the rest of the world thinks of football, they think of the game sports fans in the States know as soccer. Like American football fans in the States, countless German children grow up idolizing professional athletes, but on the national soccer team. Instead of hoping to grow up to be the next Tom Brady or Troy Polamalu, many children in Germany dream of growing up to be the next Bastian Schweinsteiger or Miroslav Klose of the Deutscher Fussball Bund.
For a group of men called the Leipzig Lions, the fact that American football pales in comparison to soccer in terms of popularity doesn’t matter. The players simply want to play the game they love.
Frankfurter Löwen, the first team to play American football in Germany formed in 1977, playing against teams formed by United States soldiers stationed in western Germany. Six teams comprised the American Football Association of Germany in 1982. Originally, the league allowed only five non-Germans on a team. Today’s rule permits 10 non-European players to sign with any team but allows only two on the field for either side at any given time.
In 1999, the German Football League formed out of the ashes of the American Football Bundesliga. The league adopted a set of rules almost identical to the NCAA football rulebook. The teams separated into two conferences with seven teams in each. The league hopes to add two more teams after the 2012 season.
The Leipzig Lions formed in 1992 and joined the Eastern Division of the German Football League after the league formation in 1999. Along with the Lions, the Neuruppin White Tigers, Rostock Griffins, Magdeburg Virgin Guards, Frankfurt Red Cocks, Berlin Bears and Tollense Sharks form the Eastern Division of the German Football League. The team fell one game short of a championship in both 2005 and 2006 but started the 2012 season with a rough start, playing to a 1-3 record.
Head Coach Carsten Kunz played for the Lions from 1994 until 2006 when a knee injury forced him into retire- ment. He fell in love with American football when his brother-in-law took him to Frankfurt Galaxy, formerly of the NFL Europe game as a child. The former strong safety and wide receiver started playing American football when he turned 18 and moved out of his parents’ house. He transitioned into coaching after familiar- izing himself with so much strategy from his playing days.
“It’s chess on grass,” said Kunz. “It’s full of tactics, it’s tough, it’s a team sport.”
The Lions play just outside the heart of Leipzig in the Grünau district of the city. Players of many different professions from all over eastern Germany comprise the Lions roster. Ages of the players range from 18 to 45 years old.
Defensive lineman Robert Berthold started playing American football in a very untraditional way, at least by American standards. The giant lineman tried out for and made the team at the age of 40. The president of the Lions convinced the big man to try out, hoping to add more size to his line. On pure strength and speed, Berthold tried out for the team on a Tuesday and started his first game five short days later against Berlin.
“A friend told me to try out for the team,” explained Berthold. “He said, ‘If you survive, you are the man. Football is for big, strong guys.’”
Several Lions players live in nearby cities like Berlin or Dresden and often miss practices, showing up only on game days, but one young Lion takes advantage of every opportunity to step on the gridiron with the team, practice or game.
Wide receiver Lennart Lüttgau fell in love with American football in his hometown of Oldenburg, a city in northern Germany near Bremen. After watching the Oldenburg Knights play a few games, he decided to strap on the pads, loving every second of on the field.
“It’s the love of my life,” said Lüttgau. “Football is the greatest sport on earth.”
Lüttgau played quarterback in Oldenburg before moving to Leipzig a few months ago and switching to wide receiver. He prefers the quarterback position, but enjoys the greater possibility of scoring a touchdown as a receiver. He watched New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to help with his game, but after a poor season by Sanchez and a position change, decided to model his game after Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals instead.
Most of the Lions follow the NFL to some extent. Games that start in the afternoon in the United States air in the evening in Germany, the perfect time to watch some American football at the highest level. Coach Kunz follows the Dallas Cowboys, arguably the most successful team in the NFL during his playing years, and follows older defensive players still dominating in the NFL like Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens and Ronde Barber in Tampa Bay. Lüttgau believes American football is growing in the country as more and more Germans tune into NFL games every Sunday.
“In Germany, I think it’s spreading,” said Lüttgau. “I don’t know why, maybe German people just realized how great football is.”
Aside from the games and the practices and the Lions spend a lot of time together. Berthold’s favorite part of the game revolves around the camaraderie and friendship among the players.
“We’re a big family,” said Berthold. “On and off the field, we’re always a team.”
While American football gains more popularity throughout the world, players on the Leipzig Lions continue to play for fun, pride and for the Lion family.
by Borderless Bobcats Sports Group: C.J. Buskey, Jacob Betzner, Carrie Rider