Wembley gridiron memories
The first game of American Football to be played at Wembley Stadium wasn't in the mid 1980s as most people think, but was actually all the way back in 1952, the year before the legendary Stanley Matthews F.A.Cup final between Bolton and Blackpool.
The US Air Forces in Europe title game was played at the historic Twin Towers Stadium with the Burtonwood Bullets taking on the Fuerstenfeldbruck Eagles. It is only an unconfirmed rumour that Mike Carlson of Channel 5 was commentating on the game.
Just a few months after the birth of the NFL on British television, an ambitious promoter brought the Minnesota Vikings and St.Louis Cardinals to Wembley for a pre-season game. Only 30,000 were there as the game was still very much in its infancy but Minnesota's 28-10 win did lead to a good friend of mine becoming a purple convert for life.
The explosion of interest in American Football in the UK led to the NFL taking an exhibition game to London in August 1986. The Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears took on the Dallas Cowboys in front of 80,000 devoted fans, many of whom stood getting wet for the whole game in the original terrace layout of the old stadium.
The Bears won 17-6 in constant rain thanks to a fumble recovery by Dave Duerson and a one-yard touchdown run by William "The Refridgerator" Perry. But the undoubted highlight came in the fourth quarter when an inflatable doll started doing a lap of the stands being passed from fan to fan. It even made it in front of the Royal Box and completed its lap to a huge ovation.
One of the best stories from the 1986 game was my idea to have a tail-gate party to which I invited the American Ambassador and his staff. He politely declined but invited myself and Alan Needham from the Bucs UK to his pre-game party at Grosvenor House where we met many of the players and coaches. I still remember Alan trying to convince the late Tom Landry, head coach of the Cowboys, to join the club for $10.
Alan Needham was also editing a hilarious American Football fanzine entitled "Third and Long" in those days and arranged for 200 to be printed that he could sell at the game. Having lugged them all the way to the game from Nottingham, he set off with high hopes of a good financial return and came back some 15 minutes later empty-handed. An over-zealous official had confiscated and binned the lot and Alan spent the rest of the game swearing profously at any Wembley official he could find.
Another sell-out crowd at Wembley Stadium as the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Denver Broncos 28-27 in much better weather. John Elway started for the AFC West team but was soon replaced by current Houston Texans' head coach Gary Kubiak. The Rams' Charles White won the game with a four-yard run with 28 seconds remaining.
80,000 fans got to see Joe Montana and Dan Marino, albeit briefly, as the 49ers took on the Miami Dolphins. Back-up QB David Archer led the Florida team to a 27-21 victory with a four-yard run with 1:28 remaining in a game that featured 723 yards of total offense.
The fourth game brought the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns to London in a game won by the NFC team 17-13 on Henry "Gizmo" Williams' 34-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
Early touchdown runs by Reuben Mayes and Gill Fenerty led the New Orleans Saints to a 17-10 win over the Los Angeles Raiders, the first game that did not feature a complete 80,000 sellout.
This was the first year of the touch football games in the car park at Wembley as the Bucs UK took on the Pittsburgh Steelers' fan club. I threw three interceptions and the Bucs went down 24-12. In the real game, Buffalo defeated Philadelphia 17-13.
This was also the first year of the World League with the London Monarchs playing their five home games at Wembley. Don't believe for a minute the stories of 40 and 50,000 people paying to be there. That many attending yes, paying no. Same with the 61.000 allegedly watching them beat the Barcelona Dragons 21-0 in the World Bowl final.
A much more organised fan club event came in 1992 with Nick Barnes, former head of the Falcons UK club, putting on an event at a local venue. All the different fan clubs took part in a quiz challenge and the Bucs UK (myself, Gareth James, Richard Chester and Gary Botteley) beat the Seahawks, Redskins and then Streatham Olympians teams on the way to victory.
In the touch football, the Bucs UK beat the Redskins 18-6 but then lost 24-18 to the Steelers in the final. But at least I threw three touchdowns passes instead of interceptions this time round.
The pre-season game itself was a 17-15 victory for the San Francisco 49ers over the Washington Redskins but the game was nowhere near a sellout.
The Monarchs again played at Wembley but the novelty had worn off and the ridiculous ticket pricing meant attendance simply fell off the table from the previous year.
Only 40,000 were at the final American Bowl game, a 13-13 tie between the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions. Even I missed that one in favour of a British baseball league game I was playing in.
2007 - Miami v NY Giants
And then came the first regular season game in Europe as the new Wembley Stadium hosted the Giants and Dolphins in a persistent rain. The field tore up and the game itself was a real snooze fest but 86,000 fans didn't care one bit.
One of the highlights for me came pre-game when I was out on the field with the honorary captains, Martin Johnson, John Terry and Lewis Hamilton. Whereas the other two were cheered on being introduced, John Terry was roundly booed and commented that he couldn't understand why. "If you don't know by now, you never will" commented Johnson to the mirth of everyone around.
Pre-game, Mike Carlson of Channel 5 came bounding up really full of himself. Some woman had apparently just yelled out from the stands that "he was much better looking than Nick Halling".
2008 - New Orleans v San Diego
Another total sell-out as an offensive shoot-out between the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints entertained everyone present. Both teams flew in on the Monday morning and had the entire week to spend practising which they admitted afterwards was too long to be away from home.
Actor John Cusack was doing a guest spot on Radio 5Live's commentary and I approached him when he had finished for a quote for the in-game story I was doing for The Tampa Tribune. Cusack thought I was asking for an autograph, leaving commentator Arlo White laughing so hard he had to hand over the microphone for a while.