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NFL comes calling on London again

New England plays winless Tampa Bay on Sunday at Wembley Stadium, a few time zones beyond surrealism.

October 25, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

LONDON — Stare at an oil painting at just the proper angle and the eyes of the subject can seem to widen, as appeared to occur Friday morning just a few cricket fly balls south of the Thames.

There on the wall at the Surrey County Cricket Club was the picture of the erstwhile club president, Henry Marshall, in his black 19th century tuxedo, his wavy white hair meandering from the sides of his bald pate, which oversaw something he never could have envisioned in his lifetime, which concluded in 1914.

He sort of looked down from his intricately painted roost and saw, well, Bill Belichick.

Yeah, he saw the New England Patriots coach all primed for an NFL practice in sawed-off green sweat pants and a roomy blue sweat shirt standing before a banner that advertised the Massachusetts lottery and a doughnut chain that dominates truck stops in the American Northeast.

"We'll see the Tower of London and all that," Belichick noted breezily, an image forming of the frumpy coach carefully studying the crown jewels through the glass as the ultimate evidence that the NFL has come all the way over here again.

A fluorescent-yellow goal post had materialized on the Brit Oval cricket pitch for Patriots practice; a British newsletter explained that the NFL uses a "prolate spheroid" for the ball, while a sports magazine noted instructively that the "offense and defense are not on the pitch at the same time" in American football.

New England (4-2) plays Tampa Bay (0-6) today at Wembley Stadium, and Junior Seau finds himself a few time zones beyond surrealism.

Signed recently by New England, the linebacker who attended high school in Oceanside and college at USC said of his first 40 years on Earth, "I could only go as far as Boston, and then turn around and go back."

Now he is five time zones east of Boston and understandably bleary, temporarily mistaking the site of the game as the cricket pitch in South London rather than the globally famous colossus of a stadium in northwest London.

He might consult the German-born left tackle Sebastian Vollmer for jet lag advice, as did many reporters -- "Just fight through the [first] day," Vollmer said -- but luckily, Professor Belichick will emerge from his chemistry lab and instruct his men on the tricks of flying eastward, or, as receiver Wes Welker said, "Coach talked to some experts about it."

Then they'll all take the pitch today at 6 p.m. (10 a.m. Pacific time), for an event that figures to churn out a third straight 80,000-plus sellout crowd of curious Brits, odd and devoted Brits, stray Europeans, American expats and American tourists trying to quell jet lag with beer.

There's not a ticket to be found, even though for the second time in three NFL games here, one of the teams enters the contest winless.

It began in 2007 with the New York Giants' improving to 6-2 while docking Miami to 0-8 in a drizzly 13-10 soup that did not portend the Giants' impending Super Bowl title. It continued in 2008 with the New Orleans Saints' reaching 4-4 with a more vivid 37-32 win over the San Diego Chargers, who plunked to 3-5.

It persists with the Patriots as its sizzle given their team-of-the-decade status, even if the idea of Tom Brady as some sort of global brand was dispelled, grinningly as ever, by . . . Tom Brady.

On a holiday to London four years ago Brady did get recognized. "By Americans," he said. "But the English people, they're not too familiar with football" -- save for the English kind, for which "familiar" doesn't even begin to peg it.

Here, those who do ride the Tube northwest will find a New England team fresh from one of its vintage moments, a snowy 59-0 win over Tennessee that shouted with Brady's NFL-record five touchdown passes in one quarter (the second) and prompted Belichick to say, "I'll be lucky if I'll ever see one of those again in my entire career."

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a fan of English soccer who won't make it to the towering Liverpool vs. Manchester United match today, sounds like a giddy kid when he says that after being a spectator at Wimbledon in the 1970s and 1980s, he can't believe he owns a team that'll play Wembley. Brady told of a team bus streaming in from Heathrow Airport on Friday morning with eyeballs looking intently out the windows. And the Friday news conference occurred in a stuffy room rife with paintings of men in cricket sweaters and fine suits.

In walked Belichick, and it's a wonder the esteemed Mr. Marshall didn't topple off the wall.


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