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Gary Harrell will spend this spring in Germany as something of an American diplomat, although he would like nothing better while overseas than to see more bombs than Dresden did back in ’45. And he hopes to catch them all.
Locals should remember Harrell as “the Flea,” Howard University’s most prolific pass catcher of all time and the guy who was on the receiving end of so many of Jay “Sky” Walker’s long tosses during the heyday of the school’s football program. In his senior season of 1993, the diminutive Harrell caught 72 Walker passes, seven for TDs, as the Bison went 11-0 and were awarded the mythical Black National Championship.
The on-field heroics got Harrell a free-agent contract with the New York Giants, for whom he’s seen limited active duty during the past two years, mostly as a special teamer. But after the 1995 season, the Giants optioned all 170 pounds of the Howard legend to the Frankfurt Galaxy of the World League of American Football (WLAF).
Last week, the little Giant showed up in Atlanta, where all six teams that now make up Europe’s Gridiron Curtain (Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Edinburgh, and Düsseldorf) convened for training camp. After scrimmaging with the other delegations through the end of the month, the Galaxy will break Kampf and jet across the pond to embark on an inarguably ambitious, if highly dubious, mission: to get the rest of the globe to hold the New World’s most violent team sport in the same esteem we Yanks already do.
The WLAF, which had its inaugural season in 1991, ended a two-year hiatus last year thanks to an infusion of cash from the Fox television network (the league is now jointly owned by the National Football League and Fox). Precious few big names are slated to play in the WLAF this season: The biggest is defensive lineman William “the Refrigerator” Perry, the legendary behemoth who sat out last season after a career with the Bears and Eagles. Perry has signed with the London Monarchs.
League rules now stipulate that seven “national” players indigenous to the host country must be kept on the rosters of each WLAF team and that at least one of the natives must be on the field for every other offensive and defensive series of downs. Failure to abide by the Eurocentric rule will result in a five-yard penalty. No word on whether repeated infractions might inspire economic boycotts and even tactical air strikes.
It’s hoped the new edicts will force foreigners to take up positions other than the obvious ones: “Yes, most of our ‘national’ players are kickers,” concedes David Tossell, a spokesman for the London-based WLAF.
The bulk of the WLAF rosters will consist of young Americans, free agents for whom the NFL has thus far been only a dream. Harrell, of course, has already been to the Big Show. But he realizes that the huge numbers tall, long-armed wideouts like Herman Moore and Michael Irvin have put up in recent years have a lot of offensive coordinators thinking size first when selecting a receiving corps.
At just 5-foot-7 in cleats, Harrell’s a smurf’s smurf. But he’s only 24 years old and thinks his time in the NFL may come yet. His choices right now are fairly limited, though. Giants coach Dan Reeves told him he could relocate to New Jersey to be part of a year-round supervised workout regimen—with no guarantee of a job—or sign on with the World League. (It was unspoken, but Reeves was also offering the player a chance to select Door No. 3: getting cut.) Harrell took the plane ticket.
“Coach said I could do whichever I felt would be more beneficial, and I figured it would be better for me as a football player to go with the World League, where I’d stay in physical and mental shape by actually playing in games,” says Harrell.
Harrell, like the rest of the WLAF, won’t be paid much for his labors. Players’ wages are preset by the WLAF according to position and reflect the league’s status as a feeding trough for the NFL: Quarterbacks get $17,500 for the 10-game season; all other position players on offense and defense rate a $12,500 wage; punters and kickers get $10,000.
“No matter who the player is, World League salaries are not negotiable,” says Tossell.
NFL contracts, of course, are. Harrell’s pact with the Giants expired after last season. But Harrell, who earned a degree in marketing while at Howard, has already instructed his agent to quickly work out a new deal with the team before the European season kicks off. Even though he will be playing for the Frankfurters, he wants to be under contract to the Giants.
“I realize that if I have a great [season] with the World League, and then go get a contract from an NFL team, I’ll get more money, and that’s what a lot of guys are going to do,” he said. “But if I do try to do that, and then get hurt with the Galaxy, I’m out of luck. The NFL season will come and I’ll be without a team. I don’t want to risk that.”
Prior to telling the Giants he’d accept the WLAF option, Harrell called his old batterymate at Howard, Walker who had spent the spring of 1995 on a similar tour of duty. (Walker was cut before the NFL season by the New England Patriots and he’s currently trying to hook onto the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent.) Harrell wanted some reassurance, because he had already viewed the Fatherland through a face mask once, and the experience wasn’t one he wanted to relive.
“The only city I’d ever been to outside the U.S. was Berlin, and that was when the Giants had an exhibition game there my first year,” says Harrell. “All I remembered about that place was that I hated the food. It was like the only thing people eat was sausage. I got really sick from it, and even lost a lot of weight on the trip.
“But Jay had played in Spain, and he told me good things about Barcelona. From what he said, that sounded like the best place to play of all the different cities in Europe. So I told the Giants that’s what I wanted. I wasn’t thinking about playing in Germany.”
Harrell was under the impression he could pick his own port of call. He was wrong. Last month, he found out that, like it or not, he’d be playing in a land where “SS” doesn’t stand for strong safety. On the positive side, the Galaxy won last year’s league championship (“the World Bowl”).
“From what I hear from guys who already played with Frankfurt, you pretty much have to go to the American military base there to get entertained,” he says. “I guess I’ll do that.”
Harrell and his teammates will visit all the league’s other host towns once this season. According to Tossell, all players will get special warnings from WLAF brass before traveling to Amsterdam about which areas of Sin City to stay away from and what behaviors won’t be acceptable. “Regardless of the legal situation over there, drugs will not be tolerated by the league,” said Tossell.
Fox is scheduled to broadcast WLAF games in the U.S. for football-starved fans who can’t make it through the NFL off-season. Harrell says he’ll be reminding himself of that domestic TV exposure all spring, while he’s earning relative peanuts for trying to convince a nation that his sport is every bit as cool as David Hasselhoff. CP