Playing the Other Football in Germany

It is a cloudy day, and the temperature is a brisk 65 degrees—a perfect summer evening in Germany. The stadium starts to fill up, with nearly 1,700 people filing in to find their seats. The smell of sausage fills the air, everyone seems to be having a good time, and the crowd is getting anxious for the start of the game.

Flags wave, horns blare, and the constant sound of cheering is almost deafening. Suddenly, the speakers erupt with noise as the away team, the Allgäu Comets, runs out of the tunnel, to limited cheers from the small pockets of fans who traveled upwards of 120 miles to see their team. Then, with the stadium growing antsier by the second, the music blares once more and the Stuttgart Scorpions run out, pumping up the rest of the fans to cheer even louder.

Yes, this is football—the other football—in Germany. The stage is set: two teams, eleven players per side, and the will to win.

The whistle blows, and it’s time for the kickoff. The teams line up, and the ball is spotted and kicked high into the air, into the awaiting arms of the returner.

The German Football League was established in 1979 and began with only six teams. It has grown to 16, with a second-tier league as well. The game is played under NCAA rules (i.e. one foot in bounds to make a catch, and as soon as a player hits the ground he is considered down). The Stuttgart Scorpions were founded in 1987 and have yet to win a GFL championship, however they played for the title in 2007, losing to the New Yorker Lions. Their stadium, called GAZi Stadion, holds 11,410 spectators and also hosts soccer games played by the Stuttgarter Kickers.

“The GFL is one of the top leagues [in the world] outside of the US, which is why I came here,” says Conner Sullivan, Stuttgart’s quarterback. Sullivan started his career as a walk-on at USC, where he was initially awarded a baseball scholarship. In his sophomore year, he decided to quit baseball and stick with football, earning a scholarship from then coach Steve Sarkisian that same year. He comes from quite the athletic family: His older brother played tight end at USC and his sister is on the crew team and throws the javelin there as well.

After graduating in 2016, Sullivan signed a contract with the Scorpions and flew to Germany. This had no effect on the quality of his YouTube channel, which has more than 135,000 subscribers—the video of him at his first Bundesliga soccer game has almost 1.2 million views. When asked if he thinks he will make the NFL one day, he responds, “I’m one of the guys [who thinks] that if you believe in yourself, you can make it; you’ll always have a shot.”

It is halftime. The action didn’t start until the second quarter, but the score stands 16–14 in favor of Allgäu. The Scorpions may be down, but they certainly light up the statistics defensively, with two forced fumbles in the first half, one of which comes from Corey Chapman. This season Chapman has been showcasing his ability to push through—opponents’ offensive lines that is. Through eight games this season he has 25 tackles, including 13 for loss, and six sacks.

After graduating from Purdue in 2006, Chapman arrived in Stuttgart in the summer of 2013 and brought his American style of play with him. “I learned how to be a student of the game [at Purdue] and basically how to push through, since you’re dealing with a lot of adversity.”

He not only gives opposing quarterbacks a hard time, but he also challenges the next generation of players at his weeklong football camp that he has held every summer since he got here. “The challenge is only having such a small amount of time, but the rewarding part is seeing [the difference in] the guys when they come into the camp, and how they [have progressed] in four or five days after leaving the camp,” he says.

Chapman is not the only Scorpion to give back to youth players. Pablo Börsch is an offensive guard for the team, and he is also the coach of the Under-13 and Under-15 flag football teams and has been coaching the youth program for the last three years. (Author’s note: I am on the U15 team.)

Börsch’s goal with coaching kids is to “teach them how to get better and at least give them some advice for their life.” He teaches the motto of the Scorpions’ offensive line to the team as well: Trust each other. He says that he “likes working with the kids,” and is trying to get the best out of them each practice and game so that they can continue their football careers.

We jump to midway through the fourth quarter. After a Scorpions fumble recovery on the Comets’ 35-yard line, the offense has gone all the way to the end zone for what seems to be the game-winning touchdown. With only a few minutes left on the clock, Sullivan hits Robin Balschun for a 13-yard touchdown, causing fans to erupt and leaving his coach very happy on the sideline.

Fabian Birkholz is the offensive coordinator for the Scorpions and head coach since he took over the job last year. He began coaching in 1994, when he was 15 years old! He started his career in the southern German town of Biberach, coaching the seventh-division Biberach Beavers, then went to the Munich Cowboys to coach their linebackers. Now he is in Stuttgart.

“The hardest part about [coaching in the GFL] is that everybody is just doing it in their free time,” says Birkholz. “Football is all about preparation, and if you don’t have time to [prepare] it’s going to be hard to get the best out of [the players and staff] every weekend.” His players do stick with him though, and that may be because of his coaching philosophy, which is that a coach must always adapt to his/her players, and of course teach hard work and persistence. This message has guided him throughout his 23 years in coaching.

With less than 30 seconds left in the game, Allgäu has scored a touchdown, seemingly sealing the game. There is hope for the home team after the Comets fail to convert their two-point conversion, but the outlook seems bleak. Then, everything changes. Ronnie Hicks returns the subsequent kickoff 51 yards to the Comets’ 28-yard line, within striking distance of the end zone. Sullivan takes his first shot at a touchdown with a pass to  Balschun that bounces off of Balschun’s hands and out of bounds with one second left on the clock. It’s now or never: time for the Hail Mary. Sullivan takes the snap, drops back, scrambles around in the backfield to give his receivers time, and heaves the ball to the end zone. His target? Triple-covered Makoa Camanse-Stevens, who is playing his first game as a Scorpion.

Camanse-Stevens came from the University of Hawaii after four years of successful football, including a victory in the 2016 Hawaii Bowl over Middle Tennessee. He then ventured to Canada to go to a Saskatchewan Roughriders minicamp, where he performed very well.

“Their roster was full of Americans, so they just told me to keep working out and ‘we’ll look at you next year,’” he recalls. After Camanse-Stevens made a few calls and connections, the Scorpions offered him a contract, and he was on his was to Germany. When asked about what he wants to do after this season is over, he says, “I’m hoping to get some good film and send it to the CFL, and if not I’ll be looking forward to come back next year!”

The ball is in the air for what seems like forever, all the fans tracking it with their eyes. The football starts to fall, with Camanse-Stevens underneath the spot where it will land. He times his jump perfectly, snagging the ball from the air with three defenders surrounding him. Touchdown! The stadium goes wild; the videos on people’s phones start to shake while they are all jumping for joy.

After every home win, the Scorpions line up, and one player runs up and down the field with a massive team flag. Who better to do it tonight than Camanse-Stevens, who sparks cheers from the crowd and his teammates.

The VIP after-party has a very positive buzz to it, with players and fans alike talking about what had just happened. The season is definitely not over, but one thing can be assured: This is a great way to earn their second win halfway through a grueling 14-game season.

Photographs by (from top): Sarah Philipp; Noah Shubert

 

 

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