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The passing of NFL Europa shouldn't be taken lightly

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  • By Brian Baldinger NFL Network
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The news blurb passed quickly. After a 15-year run, the NFL finally pulled the plug on its spring developmental league in Europe, NFL Europa.

It had been rumored for years, but somehow the negotiating prowess of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue would always intercede and save the league.

No such luck this year. Most football fans read the blurb, shrugged their shoulders and said, "Too bad." Most didn't even register a hint of emotion.

That is, unless you were somehow affiliated with the league, possibly one of the 226 alumni of the league who played in the NFL in 2006. There was a deep sense of loss if you were one of the 110 NFL referees that have officiated games in NFL Europa over the past decade and a half.

John Gichigi/Allsport / Getty Images
Brad Johnson calls signals as a member of the London Monarchs in 1995.

Eulogies were exchanged via the phone lines and the Internet if you were one of dozens of FOX announcers or production people who honed their craft in the little football league in Europe.

The super success stories of NFL Europa will never die. Kurt Warner and his accomplishments are forever part of the league's folklore. Jake Delhomme and Brad Johnson are other popular examples of what this league could produce that NFL teams struggled to provide.

But after covering this spring developmental league for the past 11 years, I have a few more shining examples, stories you may not have followed.

Brian Waters from the Kansas City Chiefs went to play for the Berlin Thunder in 2001 as an unheralded center, a position he never played before. A fullback and linebacker for North Texas State, he signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted free agent.

Chiefs president Carl Petersen saw some athletic ability and high character in Waters and signed him and sent him to Europe. Waters started 10 games that spring at center and got a feel for the offensive line. He showed up at practice every day with a thousand-watt smile and worked his butt off.

Waters went back to Kansas City with more confidence than ever, earned a spot on the team and went on to become a Pro Bowl guard.

LaRoi Glover was a fifth-round draft pick of the Oakland Raiders in 1996 from San Diego State. He was measured at just under the 6-foot barrier and barely 280 pounds. The Raiders released him, saying he was too small. The New Orleans Saints picked him up off the scrap heap and allocated him to the World League of American football in 1997.

I first encountered Glover as a member of the Barcelona Dragons in a small seaside hotel in Sitges, Spain. His look was workmanlike, steadfast, focused. In fact when he spoke, it had none of the relaxation of his Mediterranean surroundings. He was downright serious. After several Pro Bowl appearances over the last decade, his appearance and approach is just as serious. That "too short" label didn't hold him back.

Then there was my visit to the film room of the London Monarchs in the spring of 1998. In the middle of the dark, dank, leaky, mildewed, cold room sat a cranky projector on a card table with an operator that was just as cranky.

Coach Jim Tomsula's defensive line had had a bad practice, and he was ripping them apart in between spits to his spittoon. Out of the side of his mouth, in his unmistaken Pittsburgh accent, came the knurled question, "Whaddya think about Big Brit?"

Tom "Big Brit" Tovo was a 6-foot-5, 310-pound, 20-year-old English kid, raw on football experience, trying to have a go at America's game. He was Tomsula's project that spring, and the coach was determined to take the 25-stone stud with a quick twitch and turn him into a serviceable defensive tackle.

After coaching stops that dotted NFL Europa and eventually included a head coaching stop in Dusseldorf with the Rhein Fire, Tomsula is still in a film room and spitting into a spittoon and developing projects, now for Mike Nolan as the defensive line coach of the San Francisco 49ers.

Then there is referee Scott Green, one of only 17 referees in the NFL. Green was a back judge for years in the NFL, but director of NFL officiating Mike Perreira had targeted him as a potential referee, so Green came to the little spring league and worked as a referee for five years. He gained experience and learned how to handle the difficult position and how to coach a crew. Today he is one of the most respected officials in the NFL.

These are just a few examples of the benefits of NFLE that I have witnessed. I could list another 100 before I would have to even think.

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Football is a different sport than others. Nothing can replace the skills learned from playing in real games. Minicamps and OTAs will never develop a player. Every coach holds his breath when the spring workout warriors march onto the field for the first time come fall. Coaches never know what a player can do until there is live action. NFL Europa was that live action.

I believe the owners made a very short-sighted decision to terminate NFL Europa. They need the league now more than ever. First of all, when a player is sent to Europe, it is a sign his NFL career is in jeopardy, if not in the crypt. So when those players survive and go back to the NFL, they are less inclined to expect entitlements. They know they can be sent back to the scrapheap at any moment, and that is how they approach their job every day.

I would bet that of the 226 NFL Europa veterans in the NFL last year nary a one has appeared on a police blotter since returning from Europe.

The second reason this league should continue is player development. The lifeblood of any successful team is its ability to continue to train and develop young players. The salary cap demands that.

Many leagues have risen, but few have survived. When leagues fail or go under, it's usually not a shock. Empty seats and bouncing checks go hand in hand. But that was not the case with NFL Europa, as World Bowl XV on June 2 in Frankfurt, Germany, had more than 48,000 fans in attendance.

They showed up in their Frankfurt Galaxy hats and shirts, accompanied with whistles and drums and ready to celebrate a championship game.

The game, won by a large underdog in the Hamburg Sea Devils, was played at an exceptional level. Both offenses went up and down the field, the crisp play the result of excellent coaching and concentration. The crowd, savvy after years of watching closely, applauded both teams' efforts.

The conclusion is that fans show up, players, coaches, and officials develop, and the popularity is on the rise. There is nothing not to like. The NFL owners forced NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to pull the plug, because all they paid attention to was the bottom line: Too costly!

I say hogwash. It was the best investment they ever made, and now that it's gone, they will see the results. Where will players and others go to realize the American dream of playing in the NFL?

Sadly it won't be in Europe.

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