Coaching American Football in Germany

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Coaching American Football in Germany
(Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

American football is starting in gain ground around the world. Though in some countries it's known as Gridiron football, most Americans don't know the game has been gaining ground in popularity for more than 50 years.

In 1984, my father was a member of the Air Force. While coaching a youth football game, he was approached by a German national to check out his team. Surprised at the fact American football was being played by Germans, he chose to take a look at the team.  At his first meeting with the team, he was asked to become their coach. Dad became the first American coach of the Wuppertal Greyhounds (of Wuppertal, Germany near Dusseldorf).

Being a knowledgeable man, Coach Gene Johnson chose to recruit a few other Americans to assist him in the coaching duties. Among his coaching staff he chose Steve Womack (coaching the defense) and Tony Williams (conditioning coach). The other coaches came from the team members themselves.

In the beginning of his coaching duties, he had 30 players to work with. These players paid for their own equipment ( approximately 1,000 US dollars), team dues (20 German marks), and transportation to and from games (15 German marks each). If they were the "home team" they paid 350 German marks for the officials of the game. With this in mind, the players showed an interest in the game. Most of the players worked or were university students. 

During his first game (against Essen, Germany), he really didn't have a feel for what his players could do. The game itself was more of a sand lot game. He just looked at the players and chose what position they would play. One player was a middle linebacker, and Gene put him in as a full back, never having played on the offence before. Using four or five basic plays, the Wuppertal Greyhounds beat the Essen Steelers, 33-13.

The first year he coached the team his record was 14-2. After that first year, his team was asked to move up to the next level league play.

In that first year, America's Heart of America All-Stars (from seven colleges from the Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas area) came to Germany. Since they had a game in France and another in Geneva (Switzerland), they needed a filler game.

The Heart of America team called the Greyhounds for a exhibition game. Not wanting to be just a Greyhound/Heart of America game, the decision was made to chose some players from other teams, to join the Greyhounds for this game. During the last quarter of the game, there were only Greyhounds on the field (for the German team). The Heart of America All-Stars won the game 50-0.

After the game, the Heart of America coaches talked with Gene and said, "We were worried, because when you put the Greyhounds out there, you started moving the ball on us."

As a result of the game, Gene was offered jobs from two of the colleges (William Jewel and Missouri Methodist), to be on their coaching staff. During Gene's tenure with the Wuppertal Greyhounds, he never kept track of his win/loss record.

"When we lost, we lost by a little bit. When we won, we won big!" is Gene's comment about his record. Though retired for the Air Force, Gene has fondness for his former players, like all good coaches. "I wouldn't have traded my time with the Greyhounds for anything. They were great to work with and they loved the game."

Asked if he would coach again, in Germany, Gene's response was, "In a heart beat!"

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