You can teach a German to pass like a quarterback, run like an end and tackle like a linebacker. But getting him to understand the Byzantine rules of football is where the comedy and frustration begin.
Take, for instance, the case of Thomas Weigel, hard-charging center for the Berlin Bears, one of the handful of German-American teams recently organized to introduce American football into West Germany.
Weigel's nickname is "Bowling Ball" because of the way he rolls down the field. After every center snap, Weigel lunges forward and, sometimes finding no one directly in his path to block, he tends to keep on moving.
In a game not long ago against the Frankfrut Lions, Weigel rolled clear down the field and into the end zone, whereupon, to his own amazement and that of the crowd, a long pass intended for a teammate fell into his arms. For a moment, weigel felt triumphant. But the jubilation vanished when a referee, disallowing the score, explained to Weigel the rules about ineligible receivers.
Such acts are apt to be less and less in evidence as Germans become more acquainted with the game. Going on the assumption that there is a latent talent for and interest in American football in West Germany, a ragtag, often quarreling corps of Germans and Americans is trying to build a league here, advertised as the only championship football competition outside the United States and Japan.
After two seasons of play, the German-American Football League (as it is formally called) can boast eight complete teams and several more in the formative stage. Betting that the best way to train German footballers is to have them play alongside Americans, all teams have some Americans, usually in key positions and usually coming from the U.S. military bases.
The names of the German teams harken to some obvious U.S. favorites. Ever hear of the Mannheim Redskins, or the Munich Cowboys?
Games are played on soccer fields around the country. Posts are lashed above the soccer goals to produce instant football goal posts. A good match on a sunny weekend might draw around 1,000 spectators -- small, of course, compared with the tens of thousands who scramble to see soccer games. And football league results still hardly rate more than a few paragraphs in the local sports pages.
But for Alexander Sperber -- a 28-year-old American-born, German-educated, sometime engineering student -- and Wolfgang Lehneis -- a German judo expert who now owns a pub in Frankfurt -- it has all amounted to more than either had imagined before they founded the league.
"We sort of fell into it," said Sperber, recalling a night in 1976 at a Frankfurt disco when he made friends with Lehneis.
"I cruised in there wearing my letter jacket from the U.S. military high school in Frankfurt where I had played all-European defensive linebacker. Woolfgang started asking me what all the gold symbols on my jackets stood for. I told him about football. That was just after he had watched the Vikings-Raiders Super Bowl which was televised in Germany, and he got interested in the game."
After that, Sperber and Lehneis started tossing a football in a Frankfurt park on weekends. Eventually, they got some games going and, in 1977, founded a club called the Frankfurt Hot Dogs. In 1978, a second team was formed in Dusseldorf. But the big break didn't come until January, 1979, with Sperber's appearance on a German television interview program.
He bluffed -- and won. Asked whether Germans had expressed much interest in forming a football league, Sperber said teams were being formed in half a dozen German cities. This was not true. But Sperber invited interested viewers to phone him and, after the show, he received enough calls to set up the teams, after all. The league was founded in March 1979.
"The German athlete is probably more easily trained for football than the American," Sperber said. "If you look back at the history of Germany, they have a history of doing battle and of teamwork."
In fact, though, the violence of football seems to be scaring some Germans off at first. "We have had some real strong guys, body builders, who came out to learn, but they didn't have the heart to hit hard and get hit," said Lehneis, adding 'some do learn very quickly."
Arik Kins, the coach of the Frankfurt Lions, recalled the time one of his players was tripped by another, who then apologized for the incident. "I had to correct him for being too polite," said the coach.
Still, accustomed to the fast and constant pace of soccer, Germans tend to find American football boring. To speed things up a bit, the league has decided to bend one American rule and keep the clock running through penalty calls and out-of-bounds play.