Wet Wembley can't dampen Brits' enthusiam for American football

LONDON -- When a reporter commented to Jason Taylor that the Giants' 13-10 win over Miami at Wembley Stadium was "hardly a typical NFL game," Taylor's response was swift.

"It was a typical NFL game in the rain," the Dolphins defensive end said. "It didn't feel any different from Green Bay, in that sense. There was nothing we could do about the pitch ... I mean field. Gee, I must've been here too (long)!"

Taylor spent time in the offseason in London while the NFL promoted the game with a flair that made it the top sporting story in Britain this weekend. The league brought the teams over and made the journey seem easy. Hotels, practice facilities and Wembley Stadium were all first-rate.

But not even the NFL could provide good weather. And in the end, the big story was the rain, a non-stop sheeting fall that rendered the ball slippery and the field -- cropped short, as it would be for soccer -- slick, rather than muddy. The weather turned the game into a battle of runners, a game of scramble-for-the-ball, where the biggest play was a 10-yard TD scramble by New York's Eli Manning, whose passing never got on track. Manning did achieve one milestone, however: He is now the only member of his family with a winning record against the Dolphins (brother Peyton is 4-8 vs. Miami, including a playoff loss in 2000; dad Archie was 0-2).

The slippery ground meant a career day rushing for the Giants' 265-pound Brandon Jacobs (23 carries for 131 yards), but also marked a successful NFL starting debut for Miami running back Jesse Chatman.

"Just to be here is a blessing," said Chatman, who replaced the injured Ronnie Brown and rushed for 79 yards on 16 carries. "It's a lifetime opportunity to play hard and have fun."

While the chill and rain -- and at least one cheesehead was spotted in the crowd getting his cheddar soaked -- might have reminded some of Green Bay, it sure looked different. There were jerseys representing all of the NFL teams and most of the old NFL Europa clubs, as well. A number of fans, perhaps gluttons for punishment, wore Dolphins jerseys with the name and number of Daunte Culpepper, now with the Raiders.

Fans showed up four hours early, though with parking restrictions being what they were at Wembley, the only tailgating was at the official NFL pregame party, where the rain drove many of the fans into Wembley Arena to eat British hot dogs served from stands rather than Brats fresh off the grill.

Although the crowd appeared to be neutral, when the teams ran onto the field, you might have thought the Dolphins would indeed have homefield advantage. But once the game started, the crowd seemed to be cheering primarily for good plays, like Chatman's 22-yard run -- the longest from scrimmage on the day -- in the third quarter.



Their booing was reserved for John Terry, the injured captain for the struggling Chelsea FC soccer club. Terry came out for the coin toss, with England's World Cup-winning rugby captain, Martin Johnson -- who played American football as a teenager in Lesicester -- and Formula One sensation Lewis Hamilton. In between cheers for the other two, Terry was booed so loudly that players on the sidelines were looking around to see if something had happened.

Likewise, at the start of the second half, booing came when a streaker was dragged off the field. The man ran onto the field disguised as a referee and stripped to reveal a strategically placed football. Dolphins kicker Jay Feeley turned away in disgust, but the second half kicked off on schedule.

There were subtle moments the crowd understood immediately: The Giants' Sam Madison wrestling a potential touchdown pass from Cleo Lemon away from receiver Derek Hagan, a play that might've been the most crucial of the game. Or the remarkable sight of the Giants, after two holding calls, one block in the back and an illegal substitution call, facing a second-and-37.

"We didn't have any plays for that situation," Giants WR Amani Toomer said after the game.

Some of the players loved the weather conditions. Giants guard Rich Seubert, who made a leaping, mid-air recovery of a Jacobs fumble, said: "I'm a lineman, not a finesse player. We love to play in those conditions."

And the fans who virtually filled the 90,000-seat stadium seemingly loved it, too.

And of those in attendance, Jaume Escola might have come the farthest. Escola and his wife led a family procession of six up Wembley Way wearing windbreakers from the 1991 Barcelona Dragons, from the first season of the World League of American Football. The family had travelled from Spain to see their first NFL game.

"But we have been to Wembley before. In 1991, for the first World Bowl," Escola said.

They had been among the 61,000 who had seen the London Monarchs defeat the Dragons in the old Wembley Stadium. What did he think now?

"Magnifico!" he said.

It wasn't just Escola who had come a long way since 1991. Both Wembley and the NFL had, too.

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