MONTREAL -- Richard Tardits was a rugby player in southwest France who decided to come to the United States and the University of Georgia to play his sport for a couple of months.

"What was supposed to be a two-month vacation ended up being a six-year journey," Tardits said the other day.

During those six years, then-Georgia coach Vince Dooley spotted him and turned him into a football player. He now is in his second season as a New England Patriot. He's a linebacker, though last week he was a secondeur.

They are one and the same thing in today's National Football League, where passports are almost as important as playbooks. It was purely coincidental that Tardits was playing a preseason game with the Patriots against the Pittsburgh Steelers last week in Montreal. As a child in France, he "didn't know anything about American football.

"But we got excited about it when we heard," he said. "It was American. It was a crazed thing. Anything from America was great. We wanted to know more."

Because of statements like this, the NFL has turned into one of the world's largest travel agencies. In seven days last week, the league played four preseason games on three continents: Denver and Seattle in Tokyo; New Orleans and the Los Angeles Raiders in London; Pittsburgh and New England in Montreal; and the Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City in Berlin. Nearly 200,000 people attended.

In addition to drawing those fans, the NFL ran clinics, visited local newspaper editors and sold T-shirts, lots of T-shirts. If it sounds as if the league is laying the groundwork for something, well, just remember, this is the organization that has led all pro sports leagues in innovation, merchandising and making money.

It certainly was no coincidence that while he was in Berlin for the game there, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that by the end of the century, there could be NFL franchises outside the United States.

"If you include Canada, obviously, I think it's realistic," he said. "If you include London, I think it's clearly realistic. Once you go beyond that, I think you get into speculation."

As luck would have it, Tardits found himself as the only French-speaking NFL player in Montreal, a city that is 80 percent French. He was an NFL marketing dream. For two days he was a spectacle, constantly being sought for interviews, and constantly obliging.

What he said foretold the future of the league.

"The way the world is going, it is becoming more worldwide," he said. "Everyone is coming together. The NFL is trying to extend itself worldwide too. Look at how fast history is moving. The NFL wants to reach out to new areas. There is interest. In Europe, I don't think they're ready for a team yet, but they are ready to learn. I don't think it will take even 10 years for them to understand. Then they will be ready."

This all began just four years ago, when the league exported the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys to London's Wembley Stadium for the first American Bowl. The Brits asked to have Dallas because of J.R. Ewing. But the NFL knew England already was familiar with the game because NFL highlights saturated the airwaves, and because several slick, four-color magazines devoted to the NFL circulated in the country.

The NFL also is treading on soccer's turf, but the recent performances of some nations in the World Cup suggest that fans might be restless and there may be a slight opening for the NFL.

"It's already clear that in Britain they're going to be open to American football," Tagliabue said. "They had such a bad experience, for one thing, with the hooliganism, and that has turned a lot of people off. Secondly, there's a lot of dissatisfaction with soccer and the way it's being played."

In Montreal, only 26,869 spectators went to 59,000-seat Olympic Stadium to watch L'American Bowl 1990. Ticket prices were as high as $35 ($31 U.S.) and these are knowledgeable NFL fans. With no blackouts, they can watch every NFL game the networks and cable show. And they knew they were seeing football at its worst, in August. Many people stayed home.

"Everybody in this town wants the NFL," said Serge Amyot, a sportswriter for Le Journal de Montreal, the second-largest newspaper in Canada. "Nobody is interested in the CFL {Canadian Football League}. We don't even run stories on the CFL, only the scores."

The CFL left Montreal three years ago, another reason the NFL feels it can play a preseason game here. An NFL official said that as a professional courtesy, the league will not put a game in Toronto because the CFL has a team there.

When word got back to North America that Tagliabue said a Canadian city would be a logical spot for expansion, Gerry Snyder was ecstatic. Snyder, who brought baseball to Montreal in 1969, has been spearheading Montreal's drive for an NFL team for 25 years. Montreal is the only Canadian city in the NFL's World League of American Football, a developmental league that begins plays next spring. Snyder believes this means Montreal has an advantage over all other Canadian cities.

"We're close," he said. "If we don't make it on the first try, we will try again. The interest in the NFL is there. More and more people see it on TV here."

Canada is a logical choice; it's riskier in Europe and the Far East. There, children don't grow up throwing or kicking the oblong ball with the strange bounces; they kick soccer balls or throw baseballs. To truly gain a foothold in these areas, the NFL will have to saturate the market with TV highlights, merchandise and equipment, then wait a generation.

"It's a grass-roots effort," said Roger Goodell, the NFL's director of club administration and international development. "The future fans of the NFL are fans who grow up participating in the sport."

To that end, the NFL has just established an NFL trust in London to put on clinics for children and youths interested in playing football. There have been exchanges involving NFL players and whole teams of football players from Europe, and these will continue, Goodell said. And there will be enough souvenirs for all: A four-story shop called The Official NFL Store opened in the heart of the Tokyo shopping district the week before the preseason game there. Goodell walked in three hours after it opened to find out that 180 people already had signed up for an NFL fan club.

"Merchandising is a part of it," he said. "I was getting on a train in Tokyo and looked over to see a woman with a Los Angeles Raiders pocketbook. I had never seen one before."

Two preseason games have been played in Tokyo. Last year the San Francisco 49ers sold out the stadium in two days, and tickets were more than $100 U.S. This year it took longer to sell out the 49,000-seat stadium, but it happened again.

In that inaugural game, when it was announced that overtime would be played, the fans applauded -- and kept applauding -- as if they were about to see an encore at a show.

"They clapped at all the wrong times," Goodell said. "They didn't know. But this year it was different. In a year, they had learned so much."

Steelers President Dan Rooney was hoping the Patriots-Steelers game would be played in Ireland, where he vacations every year, but it was moved to Montreal.

"We want to expand American football and this is like a test to see how it is," Rooney said. "We need to educate the people first."

Rooney said the most common complaint of fans abroad is that games take too long. They hate the stoppages. The way the American game has been packaged for them on TV, they see just hour-long highlights of certain games, with huddles, timeouts and officials' conferences removed. The real thing throws them.

"It's a game in a time capsule," Rooney said. "They think that's the way our games are all the time, until they see one in person. But once they learn the strategy and the reasons for the breaks, they will think it's great."

There is another aspect to the internationalization of the NFL, and it's the WLAF. This is not to be confused with preseason games or talks of expansion. This is the developmental league formed by the NFL, with former Dallas Cowboys chief Tex Schramm in charge.

Milan, London, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Montreal and Mexico City are the foreign cities with clubs; Orlando, Birmingham, Sacramento, San Antonio and New York have teams too. One more U.S. city, yet to be named, will fill out the league. The first league to span two continents, the WLAF will use U.S. players not quite good enough for the NFL and perhaps a dozen from European clubs.

It's a way for the NFL to gauge interest in football -- the way it's played in the United States -- on a regular, weekly basis. That, combined with the preseason games, makes the NFL as attractive as possible for the foreign fan.

"We are responding to the tremendous interest in American football in these markets," Goodell said. "It's been a unique experience for the clubs and, long term, it helps our plans to develop our game on an international basis. The way the world is changing, it's difficult to tell how fast our game will develop. But we plan to be prepared and ready for whatever happens."