Football in the UK: 1986 American Bowl

Football in the UK: 1986 American Bowl

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Part 1 of a series
By Neil Reynolds
Special to Profootballhof.com

Part 2 – Whetting the global appetite | Part 3 – Hall of Famers at Wembley | Part 4 – "Real NFL games" | Part 5 – Regular season games the norm | Part 6 - An NFL team in London?

While British interest in the National Football League was sparked by terrestrial television station Channel 4 showing regular highlights for the first time in 1982, it was the arrival of the Chicago Bears in London in 1986 that catapulted a niche sport into the mainstream.

By the time the Bears hammered the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, viewing figures for the NFL’s title game were on a par with Match of the Day – the soccer highlights show that had long been a sporting institution in the United Kingdom.

But British fans had no opportunity to touch and feel the sport they were falling in love with. That all changed when the Bears stormed into the U.K. to take on the Dallas Cowboys in the inaugural American Bowl preseason game.

That contest, played before a sellout Wembley crowd of more than 86,000, served as a building block upon which the NFL has created thousands of British fans, resulting in the playing of regular season games in the U.K. more than a quarter of a century later.

The 1986 American Bowl offered British fans the opportunity to see two of the most storied franchises in professional football history. That was a point not lost on the Daily Mirror’s Keith Webster, who was serving as a reporter for British American football publication First Down when the Bears and Cowboys took over London for an exciting seven days.

“You couldn’t have hand-picked two better teams in terms of creating interest in this country,” Webster explained. “As much as the Dallas Cowboys were a big name, they were trumped by the media sensation of the previous season – the Chicago Bears.”

While the 1986 preseason game was merely another step in the road for the Bears and Cowboys, the inaugural American Bowl was vital in terms of creating new fans in the United Kingdom. And it was impossible to avoid the media headlines being written for the NFL’s larger-than-life visitors from the United States.

With five regular season games already in the record books and the possibility of a London NFL franchise regularly featured on the news agenda, the United Kingdom remains one of professional football’s key international markets. NFL games across the pond date back to 1983 and some of the greatest names in the sport’s history have graced the hallowed turf at Wembley Stadium.

“Football in the UK” is a series of articles for Profootballhof.com looking at the growth of professional football in the UK, British NFL journalist and Sky Sports television presenter Neil Reynolds examines the league’s history overseas, recalls some of the great games played in England’s capital city and assesses the chances of a British NFL franchise in the future. The series will run each Wednesday on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website through Week 8 when the New England Patriots and St. Louis Rams play in London.

In his first article, Neil recalls the very first American Bowl preseason game played in London in 1986 and how the star-studded Chicago Bears captured the hearts of the British public and boosted the popularity of a fledgling sport.
“It was an absolute media zoo,” Webster recalled. “Jim McMahon got off the plane in his battle fatigues and went off on his own, the running backs came out and were waiting outside the airport, deliberately not getting on the team bus because Walter Payton had phoned ahead and hired himself a private limousine.

“The media, of course, had turned out in huge numbers to see William “Refrigerator” Perry in the flesh. He would have created enough of a stir if he had come over to play the Cowboys all by himself.

“You had this whole media circus going on before the Bears had even reached their hotel. And it got worse when they arrived at their hotel on Park Lane because the first thing they did was dump their bags and head into Hyde Park for a warm-down from the plane ride. So you had 80 guys jogging through the park – the media circus was off and running and it just snowballed from there.”

NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger played guard for the Cowboys in 1986 and remembers a somewhat business-like start to his overseas trip in London.

“We flew 12 hours non-stop from Los Angeles to London one day after our intra-squad scrimmage,” Baldinger explained. “Tom Landry had worked us longer and harder than usual and everybody was hurting on that flight.

“But upon landing we went straight to Crystal Palace athletics stadium to get the jetlag, stiffness and soreness out of the body. That practice field was most definitely not up to NFL standards and I can remember having to dodge shot putt holes in the ground.”

It was not a case of all work and no play, however, as players from both teams ended up enjoying a memorable week in England before clashing under Wembley Stadium’s famous Twin Towers.

“Everybody was loving ‘The Fridge’ and Jim McMahon,” admitted Bears Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent. “We were a great character team. I remember us getting out in the city and taking some great pictures.

“It was fun. I really loved going to another country and entertaining the people. The British fans were very receptive and they loved seeing one of the greatest teams in NFL history.”

Baldinger added: “There was a really good buzz in the city with two NFL teams in town during the week. There was a high level of curiosity about the NFL and there were lots of fans wanting their pictures taken with the players.

“We met Run DMC at the Hippodrome and I met Phil Collins after practice. This was when he still had hair! He was just gaining worldwide fame and he was there with his two young boys. I still have the picture at home of me signing a football for his kids.”

After a memorable week that featured Landry in a photo call wearing a traditional policeman’s hat and Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones posing outside the gates of Buckingham Palace with Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, it was time to play a football game.

And having enjoyed several days of uncharacteristically balmy summer weather, British NFL fans woke to a somewhat soggier scene on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 3.

“It was just biblical rain from start to finish,” Webster laughed. “It was like the kind of storm you might see in Florida – but it wasn’t a freak storm that lasted half an hour. This lasted the whole day.

“I remember arriving at Wembley and people were just cowering in any corner they could find for shelter. The rain just wouldn’t relent – it was some of the most torrential rain I had ever seen in my life. But it didn’t stop the fans enjoying what they came to enjoy. There was a stage in the day when they collectively seemed to say, ‘We’re wet so what the hell.’”

“It was miserable and it rained from start to finish,” Baldinger added. “But the British people showed up in the worst weather. And it was not your usual English-variety rain. This was a heavy downpour.”

It may have been the abysmal weather or it might have been down to the fact the game was played very early in the preseason – either way, the 1986 American Bowl was by no means a classic and the appearances from established starters such as McMahon and Payton were unsurprisingly brief.

The sell-out British crowd could not have cared less – they had an absolute blast as the Chicago Bears ran out 17-6 winners courtesy of touchdowns from two defenders.

The late Dave Duerson scored the game’s first touchdown on a fumble recovery before Perry secured the biggest cheer of the night by plowing into the end zone from a yard out, continuing his high-profile offensive success of the previous season.

Dallas could only manage a pair of field goals in reply but Baldinger – who endured a tough night against a Bears defense featuring Hall of Famers such as Dent, Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary - still enjoyed his Wembley Stadium experience as he revealed: “I played a lot in that game and as a backup at that stage of my career, that was very valuable to me.

“The locker rooms at Wembley Stadium were dungeon-like. They were crusty, dark and cold. It felt good to pull the wet uniforms off and there was a sense of relief that the game was over. But it was great to play in such a legendary stadium and it was a legendary day.

“It was a very memorable trip. I still have many pictures from that visit to London at home and I often take a look at them. I really enjoyed spending a week in London and playing in front of such great fans.”

That was a sentiment shared by most involved in the game. McMahon was honest enough to say he would return for a vacation but not another game, but his demanding head coach was won over by the Brits.

Mike Ditka stressed: “I really enjoyed our trip to Great Britain. I thought the fans were knowledgeable and terrific. We played three games overseas in the U.K., Germany and Sweden. The trip to Great Britain was, by far, the most enjoyable one.”

As the Bears and Cowboys jetted back across the Atlantic to fine-tune preparations for the 1986 campaign, they put London and the United Kingdom firmly in the back of their minds.

The same cannot be said for the NFL’s head office in New York. League officials had been blown away by the British support in the U.K. and that early preseason showdown paved the way for more exhibition games to run until 1993. Of course, that process has since evolved to the point where five regular season games have been played in London since 2007.

“There has been a natural progression over the years,” Webster concluded. “But if you were to look at that chain of progression, you would point to that day at Wembley in 1986 and say, ‘That’s your critical event.’ That was the one that convinced New York that something was going on in the UK that was worth getting involved in.”

Neil Reynolds has covered the NFL as a journalist and broadcaster since 1991. He is currently serving as co-presenter of NFL coverage in the United Kingdom on Sky Sports and also has experience presenting BBC Radio’s NFL coverage in 2009 and 2010. The author of “Pain Gang: Pro Football’s 50 Toughest Players,” Reynolds has worked for British football magazines First Down and Gridiron and has also written for American publications and websites such as NFL.com, the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Pittsburgh Post-Press Gazette. He currently writes for nfluk.com, SkySports.com and Sky.com and has interviewed some of the biggest names in football, including Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Ray Lewis and Tom Brady.
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