The Proving Ground

A Season on the Fringe in NFL Europe

Lars Anderson

St. Martin's Press

1
The Dream
Glasgow, Scotland. Morning of Game Seven
EVERYTHING WAS SET. The woman was scheduled to arrive at three o’clock. She would enter the stadium, walk through the crowd, and emerge on the field behind the home team’s bench. There she would wait, trying to blend quietly into the shadows. Then, if all went according to plan and she got the signal from a player on the sidelines, she would slip out of her clothes and take off running into the cool spring afternoon—and straight into professional football history.
For a week, whispers of the event had circulated among the Scottish Claymores. The anticipation grew by the hour, the players becoming as agog as seniors on prom night waiting to see what will be exposed by evening’s end. No two Claymores had more at stake in the streak than Matt Finkes and Rob Hart, the brains behind the brave act. They had negotiated the fee, plotted the getaway, and even crafted a few backup plans to ensure that the world’s largest peepshow would go off as smoothly as a Broadway production. “If we do it with class, we can pull it off,” said Hart, the team’s place kicker to Finkes, a linebacker. “We just have to make sure that she doesn’t get caught.”
“If this works,” said Finkes, “it will be our legacy.”
Fans sprint onto professional playing fields all the time in Scotland. But Gillian Stevenson, a twenty-six-year-old with auburncolored hair and a double-D chest, was willing to take it a step further. A waitress in Glasgow, Stevenson had a break-your-heart smile and sparkling green eyes. In those eyes, if you looked closely, was the glimmer of mischief. This partly explained why Stevenson, in all of her model beauty, agreed to gallop across the field naked in the third quarter of the Claymores game against the Barcelona Dragons. Not only that, she consented to rent out space on the curves and swerves of her body on which the players could either write messages to friends back home in the States or print their uniform number. If it all worked out then football, at least for a few moments, would be the sexiest sport on this green earth.
Yet the flesh show would cause more than just heavy breathing. For Finkes and Hart were betting that the $450 they were paying Stevenson would also accomplish something on a grander, worldwide scale. They hoped the stunt would grab the attention of folks back home. Attention—when you’re an NFL Europe player—is the one commodity that’s as precious as a bag of jewels. “When we pull this off, it will be the highlight of my career,” said Finkes, who in 1996 was an All-Big-Ten player at Ohio State.
Orlando, Florida. First Day of Training Camp. March 13, 2000
Three months earlier at the NFL Europe orientation, Finkes and Hart were among the 450 players sitting in the Reflection Ballroom at Orlando’s Harley Hotel. These were the players who would compete for roster spots on the six teams of NFL Europe for the 2000 season. Each of these men—141 of whom had been loaned to the league by NFL teams; all the others were free agents—had his own reason for being here. Some were veterans trying to salvage their waning careers. Others were younger players, green on and off the field, looking to gain experience. Yet others were past-their-prime graybeards, there because they didn’t want their dream of playing professional football to die.
It was 8:30 in the evening. The room was quiet, everyone hushed in expectation. Outside the tall windows of the fourth-floor ballroom, the last blush of sunlight licked the Florida sky. Inside, Bill Peterson, the thirty-five-year-old president of the league, stepped up to the dais. Peterson, who was named president in November 1999 after spending three years as general manager of the Amsterdam Admirals, cleared his throat and then put forth an all-out sales pitch, trying to convince these players that NFL Europe mattered. “Welcome to our league,” Peterson said. “One of the first things you all should know is that videos of every game we play are sent back to every NFL team. If you play well, you’ll get noticed. It’s certainly happened before.”
Peterson then stirred the echoes of past NFL Europe greatness, showing the players a five-minute video. Sitting in the darkness, the players saw on a big screen highlights of quarterback Kurt Warner, Jon Kitna, and Brad Johnson playing in Europe. They saw wide receiver Marcus Robinson, who reeled in 84 receptions for the Chicago Bears in 1999, catching passes for the Rhein Fire. They saw defensive tackle La’Roi Glover, now an All-Pro for the New Orleans Saints, rush the quarterback for the Barcelona Dragons. More than anything, though, what the players really saw on the screen was hope—for their careers, their futures, and their bank accounts.
“Just knowing that players have gone on from Europe to become stars in the NFL gives you a lot of motivation,” said Aaron Stecker, a running back for the Claymores. “That’s why I came, to help my career and make people know my name.”
In the year 2000, NFL Europe would field teams in Amsterdam (the Admirals), Barcelona (the Dragons), Berlin (the Thunder), Düsseldorf (the Rhein Fire), Frankfurt (the Galaxy), and Glasgow (the Scottish Claymores). Each team would play each other twice, which made for a 10-game season between April and June, with a three-week training camp in Orlando. At the end of the season the teams with the two top records would play in the World Bowl, which is NFL Europe’s equivalent to the Super Bowl.
“This isn’t a holiday you’re on,” continued Peterson. “In these next three months, you’ll be expected to act like a professional and play like a professional. If you do that, I promise only good things will happen for you.”



THE NEXT AFTERNOON, at 3 P.M. sharp, the Scottish Claymores officially began their season with a team meeting back in the Reflection Room. Most of the players had never met, so before Coach Jim Criner and his staff spoke to the team the players introduced themselves to each other. There were players from big schools (Nebraska and Ohio State) and small (Murray State and Western Illinois). They were from the North (Michigan), the South (Clemson), the East (University of Massachusetts), and the West (USC). Some even came from outposts as far away as England and Japan to try out for the Claymores, a team named after a large, double-edged broadsword once used by Scottish Highlanders. For all the players, this moment before the coaches marched in the room was rich with meaning. Because there before all of them, dangling like an apple waiting to be plucked from the tree, was something that most people never get: a second chance.
In the room there were sixty-two souls. They were competing for forty-three roster spots. Twenty-one of the players had been allocated to the Claymores by NFL teams; the rest were free agents. Some would eventually make it to the NFL, some would quietly slip back into anonymity, and one would suffer a life-altering injury before the season was done.
Forty-two of the players were black. Eighteen were white. Two were Asian. This team was an ethnic cocktail, and racial tension would eventually flare. Players would segregate themselves—black players would sit in the back of the bus, white players in the front. In the most frustrated moments of the season, whites would accuse blacks of playing dirty on the field, and blacks would resent them for it.
But as players sat in the Reflection Room on that soft afternoon, they were full of optimism. Near the front of the room was linebacker Matt Finkes, who had waved goodbye to his fiancée in Columbus, Ohio, to play for the Claymores. One of the brightest players on the team, Finkes was a voracious reader of fiction, riveted by the soundless song of the printed word. Before practice every morning he would breeze through crossword puzzles and study stock reports. In training camp, he tried to convince players to buy stock in a company that he had heard was on the verge of a most magical discovery: finding a cure for cancer. “It could be the easiest million you ever make,” Finkes told his teammates.
Finkes, who played with the Jets for eight games in 1997, came to NFL Europe because he wasn’t ready to start his real, nine-to-five life just yet. “I pretty much know that my football career is over,” said Finkes. “I really just want to have a good time in Scotland and see if we can win a championship.” Before the season was over, Finkes would have the time of his life—especially when he visited the sumptuous city of Amsterdam. Nowhere in Europe were forbidden fruits more plentiful, as Finkes and a few of his teammates would soon discover.
Sitting close to Finkes was tight end Willy Tate, who had left his job as a cowhand on a ranch in Oregon to give football one last shot. Tate’s father had passed away recently, succumbing to a diseased colon. This had a profound impact on Willy, largely because he had enjoyed a bond with his old man that ran deeper than blood: They shared an unconditional love of football. Tate’s father had played college ball at Cal-Polly and instilled a passion for the sport into Willy when he was a small boy. But, after his father passed away, Tate wasn’t sure if he wanted to return to Scotland again—he had been a Claymore in 1996 and ’98. After spending over one hundred hours driving and thinking as he steered his beat-up pickup across America’s highways and byways, Tate decided that the best way to honor his father would be to keep on playing. “My dad and I loved to talk about football,” said Tate, twenty-eight, who played at the University of Oregon. “The sport really brought us closer. I guess that’s why I didn’t want to give it up just yet.”
Also in the room was cornerback Duane Hawthorne, who played in fourteen games with the Dallas Cowboys in 1999. The twenty-three-year-old Hawthorne had all the tools be a top cover corner in the NFL: speed, agility, and wits. That was why he wished he wasn’t here, that he was back at his home in St. Louis and living the carefree life of a professional athlete in his offseason. But when Cowboys coach Dave Campo told him that he should go to Europe to improve his coverage skills, that he should go and set the first stones in the building of his career, Hawthorne felt he had little choice but to pack his bags. It would turn out to be one of the best decisions of Hawthorne’s young life.
Running back Aaron Stecker was also there. A few years earlier Stecker looked like he was on a path to become a starter in the NFL. Then, at the 1999 scouting combine, his lifelong goal was obliterated in less than five seconds. His time in the forty-yard dash just wasn’t good enough. At the end of this short season, though, Stecker would be named the top offensive player in the league, proving that he belonged in that shining city on the hill, the NFL.
Coach Criner finally entered the Reflection Room and strolled up to the podium. Around the room the players were scattered and silent. “Well, gentleman, we’ve got a great team put together,” said the fifty-nine-year-old Criner. “Everything is in place to win a championship. We’re going to be especially strong on defense. Our offense won’t be as crisp as our defense in the beginning, but we believe in all of our offensive guys. But the only way for us to achieve our goal of winning a championship is for us to play together and go about our business on the field in a professional manner. We run, we hustle, we finish everything we do on the field. I’ll treat everyone the same. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been allocated or drafted. I’ll play the best players. I hope everyone leaves the program a better player, but I also hope you leave with a championship.”
Criner’s season begins in July, when he visits as many as eighteen NFL training camps. On these stop-ins, Criner looks for players who have the talent to play in the NFL but are still works-in-progress. This genre of player usually ends up spending the NFL season on a team’s practice squad, working out with his team but never seeing any game action. To give this kind of player some game experience, NFL coaches will often allocate him to NFL Europe for a season or two. Precisely which NFL Europe team gets that particular player, however, usually depends on what kind of relationship the NFL head coach has with coaches in NFL Europe. This is why Criner’s visits to preseason camps are as much about schmoozing as they were about scouting.
“The only way we can get a player allocated to us that we really want is to have a relationship with an NFL coach,” said Richard Kent, the Claymores’ defensive backs coach, who usually attends ten training camps himself. “Take our best cornerback, Duane Hawthorne of the Cowboys, for example. The only reason we got him was because Coach Criner and Dave Campo, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, worked together at Boise State twenty years ago. If Criner didn’t have that relationship with Campo, there’s no way we get Hawthorne. We could have asked the league to allocate him to us, but it’s much more powerful when the NFL coach asks the league to allocate his player to a certain team. Probably nine times out of ten, the league will honor a request like that.”
Criner and his staff also tour the camps to find the best players who don’t make an NFL roster. The coaches take copious notes at the camps and use these notes to determine whom they should select in the NFL Europe free-agent draft, which is twenty rounds long and is held a few weeks before the start of training camp. The other primary way to acquire a player in NFL Europe is to put him on a protected list. A team can only put a player on this list if he was on their roster the previous season.
“There is a science to putting an NFL Europe team together,” said Kent. “You really need a head coach who knows a lot of people in the league, which is usually why the successful head coaches in NFL Europe tend to be a little older. As in life, sometimes it’s more about who you know than what you know.”
In cobbling together a team, every NFL Europe coach first concentrates on acquiring three things: a good, accurate quarterback; defensive ends who can rush the passer; and cornerbacks who can handle man-to-man coverage. These three positions are the pillars that success—or failure—rests upon in this league. A team needs a talented signal-caller because he’s the most important player on the field, and in a short season in which the teams are theoretically balanced, one player can mean the difference between being a winner or a washout. Pass-rushing defensive ends are also crucial because if a team can apply pressure on the quarterback without blitzing its linebackers, it allows them to drop more players into pass coverage. This is the key to success for every defense in the league because precious few good cornerbacks fall to NFL Europe. So if a team can land one or two cornerbacks who have the skills to blanket wide receivers man-to-man, it enables the team’s defense to plug holes elsewhere.
“Things in this league hinge on such little things,” said Criner. “You just have to hope that your weaknesses aren’t at quarterback or on defense. Then at least you’ll have a chance.”
A team’s success in NFL Europe—more so than in the NFL—also depends on the talent of its head coach. A good coach in this league must be many things: teacher, recruiter, counselor, organizer, cultural liaison, and, in some instances, a discerning map-reader. Criner got his first job in coaching in 1963 as an assistant at Charter Oaks (California) High under Jim Hanifan, the future head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. Since then, the life story of Jim Criner has been filled with a few sweet chapters, a few sad chapters, and one very dangerous chapter.
West Yellowstone, Montana, Jim Criner’s Home
Nestled in a valley of the Rocky Mountains, the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, rests on the border of Yellowstone National Park. With the silvery brooks that wind through the area and the distant mountaintops that rise to kiss the sky, the landscape in West Yellowstone appears lifted from an Ansel Adams photograph. Eight miles outside this picture-perfect town you can find Jim and Ann Criner’s slice of paradise on a six-acre swath of forested land filled with lodgepole pines and firs. Jim likes to call the place his “Golden Pond,” and he seems as natural here as the deer that glide through the trees at dusk.
The Criners acquired the land in an auction held the day after the stock market crashed in 1987. Golfer Johnny Miller had planned to buy the property, but he was hit hard by Blue Monday. His bad luck was the break of a lifetime for the Criners. “We came within a few hundred dollars of all the money that we had saved, but we won the bid,” said Ann. “A trapper built a cabin on the property back in the 1920s and the main structure of it still stands today. The original logs are still there.”
The cabin is also close to the shallows of Duck Creek. This is Jim’s sanctuary, the place he escapes to go fly-fishing. The Criners came to Montana in the mid-1980s after Jim was fired as head coach at Iowa State. Criner enjoyed moderate success as the Cyclones coach from 1983 to ’86, guiding the moribund program to a winning record in 1986. Criner was a no-nonsense coach in Ames, never afraid to speak precisely what was on his mind. In the middle of the 1986 season, for example, Iowa State was beating Missouri 34—14 with five seconds remaining in the game. The Cyclones had the ball on the Tigers’ 8-yard line. Instead of running the clock out—which basic football etiquette demands—Criner called a timeout to allow his team to kick a 25-yard field goal. After the 37—14 win, Criner defended the excess, saying he was upset that Missouri coach Woody Widenhofer had accused him of sending spies to Missouri’s practices the previous year. “I wanted to make sure that Woody had it in his mind who won the game,” Criner explained afterward.
That controversial win marked the high point of Criner’s 1986 season. The low point would come soon after, as a couple of major twisters blew through the Cyclones’ coaching office that year and tore the program apart. For starters, a few players got arrested and then one player, who had grown depressed after he was told that he would lose his scholarship for academic reasons, committed suicide. And a handful of more players were kicked off the team for various violations. “If I knew we were going to have those kinds of problems,” Criner said. “I don’t think I’d have gone into coaching.”
It didn’t take long for the NCAA to investigate these brushfires. Eventually the NCAA, largely based on the testimony of four players, charged the school with thirty-four different violations, ranging from giving cash to players to coaches paying for players’ meals. Three days before Iowa State met with NCAA officials in Mission, Kansas, school president Gordon Eaton asked Criner to resign. Criner refused, so the next day Eaton fired him, with two games remaining in the ’86 season. The NCAA investigation didn’t accuse Criner of any major wrongdoing, but he was the coach, the one in charge. He’d recruited the players and he’d hired the assistants. He was, ultimately, responsible.
The NCAA hit Iowa State hard: the school got two years probation and lost four football scholarships. Criner claimed that an overzealous assistant coach was to blame for most of the violations. “They should have hung him by his toes,” Criner said. “But I am the only one they let go.” In the aftermath of his firing, Criner took numerous lie-detector tests, and he maintains that they all vindicated him. But regardless of Criner’s culpability in the matter, a scarlet letter was branded on his chest by this incident. He was, in effect, banished from college football.
So the Criners moved to the beautiful big-sky country of Montana, to a quieter life. Jim opened a store called Bud Lilly’s Trout Shop and became one of the premier fly fishermen in the country. He made fishing videos. He led guided tours of the area. And he watched the movie A River Runs Through It a hundred times, entranced by the notion of a river being the main character of a film. “It’s one of the few videos I’ve ever bought,” said Jim.
Yet during these days, Criner still pined for football, for its fellowship, its competition. So in 1992, six years after he was fired from Iowa State, he found what he thought was the perfect job when he landed a position as an assistant coach with the Sacramento Surge of the fledgling World League of American Football. This new line of football work allowed Criner to coach and still enjoy the fruits of West Yellowstone, since he’d only have to coach a few months each year. He loved it, being back in the action. Three years later, Criner was hired to coach the offensive line of the Scottish Claymores, a team that was entering its first season in the WLAF. He couldn’t have been happier.
But trouble was brewing in Scotland, too. The Claymores’ head coach in the franchise’s first year was Larry Kuharic, who had most recently been the head man of the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena League. Almost immediately after taking the job, Kuharic ran into problems. In training camp, which was held in Atlanta in 1995, Kuharic worked the players so hard that a NFL scout who attended a few practices told a Claymores’ front-office staffer, “They don’t work players anywhere near this hard in the hardest of all the camps in the NFL. What the hell is he doing?”
What Kuharic was doing was running his players into the ground. He had his players sprint up and down hills until a few of them vomited. He had them do pushups throughout practice. He had players jog in place, then when a whistle blew, they went down on their bellies, then jumped back up—for twenty-five minutes at a time. Quartererbacks coach Doug Williams, now the head coach at Grambling, was privately critical of Kuharic’s intensive, militaristic style. And Kuharic didn’t make many friends in the Scottish press, either. On the first day of practice in Scotland, he told a few members of the media who had showed up to watch, “It’s a beautiful day, so go enjoy your time at the pool.”
“We want to watch practice,” replied one member of the press. “We want to learn more about this game of American football.”
“I said go enjoy your time at the pool,” said Kuharic.
But what really caught the attention of the league was that players were getting sick. One player suffered from dehydration and Kuharic, according to several sources, told the trainers not to help him, to let him recover by himself in his room. Finally, with the players on the verge of a mass walkout, the league intervened and fired Kuharic five days before the Claymores’ first-ever game. At a meeting held in Edinburgh, World League President Marc Lory, a Frenchman, told Kuharic and the Claymores’ front office that it was in the best interests of the league that Kuharic be removed as head coach. Lory never gave a detailed explanation behind the move to the press, but every sports reporter in Scotland knew why Kuharic was sent home.
The situation was disastrous. Some members of the Scottish press believed that Kuharic’s public flogging was a conspiracy to generate publicity, but that seemed farfetched, given that the league was already struggling to appear legitimate. The entire incident was an embarrassment to NFL Europe, as the league was renamed in 1996. But from the dust of the rubble left by Kuharic arose an opportunity for Criner to rebuild his career. With only a few days to go before the start of the season, the league couldn’t hire someone outside the team as coach, so they promoted from within and gave the head job to Criner. One man’s downfall was Criner’s good fortune.
“That first season was rough,” recalled Criner. “We just didn’t have much talent and we finished 2—8. Everything was thrown together so quickly at the beginning that it was difficult for us to get into some sort of a rhythm. But really, what I felt really badly about was how we didn’t come through for the people of Scotland, because they came out and supported us and we just weren’t that good. That’s part of the reason I came back and that’s why I have kept coming back, because I want to give the people of Scotland, who are so great in their support of us, a winner. Maybe that sounds corny, but it’s true.”



MOST MORNINGS IN the offseason Criner woke up at 5 AM and then, as he watched the glow of dawn outside of his West Yellowstone window, he made phone calls to his front office staff in Scotland or the league office in London. He then had coffee and toast. At six, he phoned whomever he needed to speak with on the East Coast, whether it was potential players or someone in the NFL office in New York. After that, he took a break. He either drove into town to run errands or went cross-country skiing with Ann. On December 29, 1999, during this break time, he traveled to town with Ann to drop off some Christmas presents for friends who had been away for the holiday.
It was a clear, sunlit morning. Criner drove his pickup truck the eight miles into town and then, arriving at his friend’s house, pulled over on the snow-covered road. He stepped out and looped around to the back of the tuck to get the presents out. Just as he reached the back, though, something terrible happened. He didn’t see it coming, but an out-of-control snowmobile blindsided Criner at about 30 miles per hour, sending him flying 10 feet into the air.
Criner hadn’t been paying attention to the snowmobiles in the area, because there were so many buzzing around. But 30 yards behind him, just as Criner was getting out of his truck, a middle-aged woman was mounting one of the machines, which she had rented only a few minutes earlier. When the woman started the snowmobile, the throttle was apparently on full, because the machine shot out into the winter afternoon. The woman, who was an inexperienced snowmobiler, froze as the machine lurched forward. Seconds later Criner was catapulted forward, wondering if he was going to die. He landed on a patch of frozen ice, which nearly knocked him unconscious and shattered his right femur. The pain was excruciating. About ten minutes later, a team of paramedics was on the scene.
“My wife was still in the truck when I got hit and she heard this big thud and she came right over to me,” recalled Criner. “The first thing out of my mouth was: ‘Are the presents okay? You gotta deliver them.’ Then I felt a funny sensation that the bottom of my leg was higher than the top. I asked the paramedics where my feet were. Well, the ambulance took me to a local clinic and pulled the leg out and twisted the ankle just right and everything fell back into place. It was very, very painful.”
Criner winced as he retold the story a few days after the 2000 training camp had kicked off. The memory was still fresh in his mind, and he seemed to be using it as a motivational tool for this season. Only three months had passed since the day the music nearly stopped for Criner, and now here he was, trying to mold a team together that could win a championship. If he could coach through this, he believed he could coach through pretty much anything.
THE PROVING GROUND. Copyright © 2001 by Lars Anderson. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.