Football has taken hold in the high schools and colleges in the U.S., but lacks popularity beyond our borders.
For UC Davis athletes of the late 1990s, though, European shores were a landing place for those who could not make it in the NFL.
Football with the Mermaids
After graduating from UC Davis in 1998 with a degree in economics, Aggie cornerback Desi Barbour wanted to continue his professional career. Barbour had several stints with the minor leagues in the United States and then decided to take his chances playing in Europe.
Barbour made his way into the Danish American Football Federation, Denmark’s top American football league.
Like many European players, Barbour was given a contract that featured more than just monetary incentives. He was provided a place to live and a transportation pass to ride the bus or train around the country, in addition to a stipend.
Still, adjusting to Danish life was not necessarily simple.
Barbour recalls an instance during his first week in Denmark when he had difficulty performing the simple task of purchasing a candy bar.
“I asked my teammate if I could borrow some money because I didn’t have any Danish currency yet,” Barbour said. “I was terrified to speak to anyone because they were all speaking in Danish. It was a bit of a shock.”
When it comes to football, American players in Europe face some unique challenges as well.
While European teams want to employ as many American players as possible, most European leagues, including the one in Denmark, have rules limiting the number of American players a team can have.
Barbour says his teammates referred to American-born players as “imports,” something that Barbour perceived as odd.
Still, Barbour’s connection to Denmark has become about more than football.
During his time as a player, Barbour’s girlfriend gave birth to their daughter Melva. While Barbour has never been married, he has continued to make attempts to remain part of his daughter’s life.
Although Barbour came back to the States in 2010, he is once again exploring the possibility of returning to Denmark as a player so he can be close to his daughter.
But finding ways to make Denmark his permanent home has been a challenge.
“Their immigrations laws are very strict,” Barbour said. “Even if you have a child or you’re married it is difficult to find ways to stay in Denmark permanently.”
Barbour has also written a third-person narrative about his experience as a player in Denmark entitled A Knight in Denmark, which he says was inspired by Melva.
He expects the book to become available for sale sometime this year.
Kevin Daft made a name for himself in Europe as well.
Daft graduated from UC Davis in 1999 and was drafted in the fifth round by the NFL’s Tennessee Titans as a quarterback. After being part of the Titans team that lost in the Super Bowl in 2000, Daft was assigned to the Scottish Claymores of NFL Europe, the NFL’s developmental league.
After holding their training camp in the U.S., the Claymores headed to Scotland for the three-month NFL Europe season. During that campaign Daft led the Claymores to a World Bowl victory (NFL Europe’s championship).
For Daft, it was his first trip to Europe, and he says it was a welcomed opportunity to see the world.
“It was a chance to get away from a lot of stuff,” Daft said. “You get a chance to use different money. They speak English, but with an accent that makes it sound almost like a different language, so it was cool getting used to that.”
Daft says that it was also a transition to get used to the Scottish way of eating.
He says the hotel that the team stayed at did not serve particularly good meals, so Daft began the practice of eating Burger King as a pre-game meal.
During the games, Daft was struck by the fervor of the Scottish fans.
European stadiums do not have the same restrictions on noise-making devices that are often prohibited in the U.S. Moreover, rather than just cheering after plays end, Daft remarked the Scottish fans, in the tradition of European soccer, sing in unison throughout the game.
“Even though some of the venues only held 12,000 people, it sounded like 30,000,” he said.
Although most NFL Europe teams were made up mainly of American players, the league had a regulation requiring each team to sign at least a few players from their local country.
According to Daft, some of the native players had played college football in the U.S., but some had significantly less training.
He recalls one wide receiver, who was raised as a soccer player, had transitioned to football relatively late in his athletic career. More notably, however, this player would smoke cigarettes at halftime, which Daft found highly surprising.
Like Barbour, Daft also found a lifelong commitment in Europe.
Daft’s girlfriend, whom he met at UC Davis, traveled to Scotland with him. Daft would later propose to her at the famous Saint Andrew’s golf course.
After the 2000 NFL Europe season, Daft returned to the U.S., where he played for several NFL teams before being assigned back to NFL Europe as a member of the Amsterdam Admirals in 2002.
Daft ultimately finished his career with the Indiana Firebirds of the Arena Football League in 2004, at which point he began coaching.
Daft is now in his first year as wide receivers coach/co-offensive coordinator at UC Davis, where he is preparing for the upcoming season.
TREVOR CRAMER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.