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Pro Football / Bob Oates : Interest Grows in England

July 30, 1986|BOB OATES

Ten or 12 years ago, one of the downtown London hotels devoted one of its smaller banquet rooms to football one noon each week.

There it presented 30-minute highlight films of National Football League action.

Both British and transplanted U.S. fans attended, but the room was seldom full. In those days, there wasn't much British interest in the U.S. game.

There is now. London has sold out Wembley Stadium--about 80,000 tickets were available--for the Chicago Bears' exhibition opener Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.

This isn't the first NFL game at Wembley. The Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Cardinals played there a few summers ago. But this is the first one to catch fire.

American football may never be big in England, but it's gaining.

The NFL is rushing the season with two exhibition openers on TV this weekend featuring last year's Super Bowl teams.

Blown out of the Super Bowl by the Bears, the New England Patriots will come back against St. Louis in the Hall of Fame game at Canton, Ohio, Saturday at 11:30 a.m.

The Bear-Cowboy game in England will be shown at 10 a.m. Sunday in California.

The Bears weren't happy to be heading for England this week. Jim McMahon, their unconventional quarterback, and other players expressed concern about European terrorists.

Mentioning their worries to State Department spokesmen, they were advised to keep a low profile in London.

"How about that?" Chicago Tribune writer Don Pierson said from the club's training camp at Platteville, Wis. "Imagine asking the Chicago Bears to keep a low profile."

Organized American football is being played in England each fall in a few leagues. There has been enough interest to sustain a monthly magazine devoted entirely to Britain's U.S.-type teams.

The shoe is finally on the other foot.

On Nov. 6, 1869, the first intercollegiate football game played in America--one that is still celebrated every year--was actually a soccer game. When Rutgers beat Princeton that day, 6 goals to 4, the players weren't allowed to touch the ball with their hands.

As a sport, this wasn't scientific enough for Americans, who began changing the rules in 1870. Deliberately dismantling the game they knew as football--the pure English variety--they changed at least one rule a year until, by 1881, they had a sport that resembled modern American football.

They're still changing at least one rule almost every year. In the NFL, all that's left of English soccer is the English name of the game, football.

An expanding number of Canadians, who also have their own variety of football, also want NFL football.

A Canadian syndicate, seeking an NFL franchise, notes that Montreal has the continent's eighth-largest population.

In a French language magazine edited in Montreal, La Semaine, the U.S. bunch is called La Ligue Nationale de Football.

The meanest man in London this week? There are a few candidates, but Coach Mike Ditka of the Bears certainly looks like a leading contender.

On the banquet circuit this winter, Ditka was asked about his mean look so often that he decided to explain it, according to Tulsa World writer Charlie Smith.

Said Ditka:

"My father used to give my brother and I a nickel before we went to bed. We'd put the nickels on the dresser. Then he'd come up during the night and take the nickels.

"The next morning he'd ask where the nickels were. We'd say, 'I don't know.' Then he'd whup us for losing the nickels.

"That makes you mean."

The Rams and Raiders will be mingling with their fans this week at two admission-free events in the L.A. area:

--Thursday at Anaheim Stadium, 7 p.m., the Rams will scrimmage the San Diego Chargers in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. From 6 to 6:30, Ram fans will be allowed on the field to take pictures of the players and coaches. Gates will open at 5:30.

--Saturday at Oxnard High School, 1:30 p.m., the Raiders will demonstrate football techniques at a clinic conducted by Coach Tom Flores. Afterward, Raider fans will be allowed onto the field to take pictures of players and coaches. There will also be a late-morning music and Raiderette program. Gates will open at 10:45 a.m.

Here's a prediction you can take to the bank.

Jim Plunkett will start the season at quarterback for the Raiders--if he makes it through the exhibition schedule unscathed.

"I don't know about that," Flores said. "Jim has missed 20 (of 32) games in the last two years."

But if the Raiders can protect him, Plunkett is the best they've got. Rusty Hilger will only benefit if he doesn't have to carry the load so soon.

The good times are still rolling for some NFL draft choices. Sources close to Keith Byars say that his contract with the Philadelphia Eagles will pay him $2 million in the next four years.

After a foot operation last winter, the Ohio State running back expects to be 100%, or close to that, by September.

Byars is one of only nine first-round draft choices from last spring who have come to terms with NFL teams this summer.

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