Football in the UK: Hall of Famers at Wembley

Football in the UK: Hall of Famers at Wembley

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Part 3 of a series
By Neil Reynolds
Special to Profootballhof.com

While their preseason appearances may have been fleeting and all too brief, the history books don’t lie and British fans can always lay claim to having seen some of the best to ever play the game in their own backyard.

Three dozen members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame took part in the nine National Football League preseason contests played in London between 1983 and 1993.

The inaugural and one-time Global Cup kicked off the NFL’s international adventure as the Minnesota Vikings took on the St. Louis Cardinals at Wembley Stadium in 1983. The remaining preseason games from 1986 to 1993 were part of the official American Bowl series.

That initial preseason game in 1983 saw the first of many Hall of Fame head coaches roam the sidelines in London as Bud Grant took charge of the Vikings. Others to follow suit included giants of the game in Tom Landry, Don Shula, Bill Walsh, Marv Levy, and Joe Gibbs. Mike Ditka, who is enshrined in Canton as a tight end, also coached at Wembley as the head coach of the Chicago Bears.

Between them, those legends won 1,540 games and 11 of the first 26 Super Bowls – the Brits may have complained at times about the brief glimpses of stars such as Dan Marino and Joe Montana, but they could never moan about the quality of coaching on display during those memorable summer evenings in London.

One all-time great who coached in London but never won a Super Bowl was Levy. He led his Buffalo Bills to Wembley in the midst of a wonderful run of four straight AFC championships.  Buffalo faced the Philadelphia Eagles at Wembley Stadium in 1991.

The Bills were 17-13 winners over the Eagles and Levy has fond memories of the UK.

“It was wonderful,” Levy recalled. “It was a great experience for players, coaches and everyone involved in our organization. It also expanded the educational background for many people, including our millions of NFL fans in the UK.

“I think it was a good experience for my players to go over and play in the U.K. I think it was uplifting and energizing. My players benefited immensely from playing in London, both emotionally and educationally.”

Another head coach who felt his trip to London was a positive experience was Ditka, whose Bears defeated the Dallas Cowboys 17-6 in 1986.

“We were the Super Bowl champions and one of the greatest teams in the history of the league,” “Iron Mike” stressed. “They were a group of characters who had character.

“We had no idea how popular we were becoming around the world. We were just a football team trying to win more games than we did the year before and win a championship. We managed to put it all together and we ended up having fans from all over the world and from other cities in the United States – they really liked the way our guys played football. Our players didn’t take any prisoners – they came to play, they played hard and they played to the final whistle. That was the exciting part for me as their head coach – I just loved the way they played.

“I really enjoyed our trip to Great Britain. The fans were knowledgeable to a point at that time – they knew about “The Fridge” (defensive tackle William Perry) but they didn’t all know how great (Walter) Payton was. But that was okay because the NFL built up “The Fridge.” The fans were terrific. We played three games overseas in the U.K., Germany and Sweden and by far the trip to Great Britain was the most enjoyable one.”

At the quarterback position, the glamour boys of the 1980s were star attractions at Wembley Stadium. Denver’s two-time Super Bowl winner John Elway was the first Hall of Fame passer to play in London but he came out on the losing side against the Los Angeles Rams, falling in a thrilling 28-27 defeat.

Despite that loss, Elway loved his London experience as he admitted when returning to watch his beloved Broncos in regular season action against San Francisco in 2010.

“I certainly had a great time in London,” stated Elway, now the Executive Vice President of Football Operations for the Broncos. “It’s great for the NFL to get the exposure in Europe with regular season games and have the British fans experience our league live and in a contest that really means something with a lot on the line with it being a regular season game as opposed to a preseason game.

“There is a big difference between the regular season and preseason in terms of intensity. I think the fans really enjoy those regular season games at Wembley Stadium but they also had a blast when we played exhibition games over there.”

The 1988 American Bowl proved to be a real treat for lovers of the quarterback position. Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins took on a San Francisco 49ers club first led by Joe Montana before fellow Hall of Famer Steve Young took charge of the attack.

Back-up passer David Archer may have scored the winning points late in a 27-21 Miami win, but the British fans went away buzzing at seeing Marino, Montana and Young in the flesh.

One of the quarterbacks left the stadium that night equally excited about the week he had spent in London.

“Those American Bowl games were a lot of fun,” insisted four-time Super Bowl winner Montana. “We had a great time in that game against the Dolphins – the fans were wonderful and it was good to get out in front of a full crowd. They were very passionate and you could tell they loved sports. You could feel the passion and excitement when you got into the game.

“Even in the week leading up to the game you could feel the excitement because there were a lot of people around at practice. And when we were walking about town people knew who we were, so there was a lot of excitement about the games being played in the U.K.”

On the receiving end of passes for the 49ers against Miami in 1988 and during a 1992 win over the Washington Redskins was a wideout known simply as GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) in Jerry Rice. The 11-time All-Pro with 1,549 career receptions to his name enjoyed his two Wembley experiences so much that he, like Elway returned to watch the Broncos-49ers regular season game in 2010.

Casting his mind back to the American Bowls, Rice said, “It was a great experience. I felt very special when I came to London. The people treated me great and were walking up to me in the street and recognizing me.

“A lot of that is to do with the dynasty we built at the 49ers and me being part of a team with so many great players in the 1980s.”

While other offensive greats such as Eric Dickerson, Payton and Barry Sanders have strutted their stuff at Wembley, the Brits have also been treated some dominant defenders, including a pair of Bears from Buddy Ryan’s famed 46 defense in Richard Dent and Mike Singletary.

Singletary played for the Bears in London in the summer of 1986 and later returned in 2010 as head coach of the 49ers, who beat Denver 24-16 in the fourth International Series regular season showdown.

Casting his mind back to his playing experience in 1986, Singletary said, “The biggest thing I remember was the anticipation. You felt like the entire world was watching you. I remember being in practice and some celebrities like Phil Collins stopped by, which we thought was a big deal. It was great to be part of something like that.”

“Everybody was loving ‘The Fridge’ and Jim McMahon,” Dent concluded. “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 it’s great to see the NFL still playing games in the United Kingdom today, albeit regular season contests instead of exhibition games.”


1983 - Bud Grant (Vikings); 1986 - Tom Landry (Cowboys); 1988 - Bill Walsh (49ers), Don Shula (Dolphins); 1991 - Marv Levy (Bills); 1992 - Joe Gibbs (Redskins).

*Mike Ditka was enshrined into the Hall of Fame as a player but was head coach of the Bears in the when the team played at Wembley in 1986.

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 third article, Reynolds takes a look back as the vast number of future Pro Football Hall of Famers who graced the hallowed turf of London’s Wembley Stadium. These legends share their experiences of playing in the United Kingdom.

Part 2 Whetting the global appetite
Part 1 – 1986 American Bowl

1987 - John Elway (Broncos); 1988 - Dan Marino (Dolphins), Joe Montana, Steve Young (49ers); 1992 – Joe Montana, Steve Young (49ers).

*Two other Hall of Fame quarterbacks were inactive for games at Wembley. Jim Kelly was nursing a tweaked hamstring and, although he travelled to London, he did not suit up for Buffalo in 1991. Troy Aikman was recovering from surgery on a herniated disk and therefore did not play for Dallas in 1993.

Running Backs
1986 - Walter Payton (Bears), Tony Dorsett (Cowboys); 1987 - Eric Dickerson (Rams); 1990 - 
Marcus Allen (Raiders); 1991 - Thurman Thomas (Bills); 1993 - Barry Sanders (Lions).

*Emmitt Smith was a holdout with Dallas in the 1993 preseason and did not accompany the team to London.

Wide Receivers
1988 - Jerry Rice (49ers); 1991 - James Lofton (Bills); 1992 - Jerry Rice (49ers), Art Monk (Redskins); 1993 - Michael Irvin (Cowboys)

Tight Ends
1983 - Dave Casper (Vikings); 1989 - Ozzie Newsome (Browns)

Offensive Linemen
1983 - Dan Dierdorf (Cardinals); 1987 - Jackie Slater (Rams)

Defensive Linemen
1986 - Richard Dent, Dan Hampton (Bears), Randy White (Cowboys); 1990 - Howie Long (Raiders); 1991 - Reggie White (Eagles)

*Bruce Smith did not play for Buffalo in 1991 due to a knee injury.

1986 - Mike Singletary (Bears); 1990 - Rickey Jackson (Saints)

Defensive Backs
1988 - Ronnie Lott (49ers); 1992 - Darrell Green (Redskins)

1990 - Jim Finks (Saints); 1991 - Ralph Wilson, Jr. (Bills)

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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