The National Football League (NFL) comes to Munich this autumn, so we talked to Gary Lautenschlager and his father about American football – and the special history of this sport in Munich.
The first two generations of football players were even on the field together for a while. Gary Lautenschlager was quarterback with the Bundesliga team Munich Cowboys at the time, but there was a shortage of personnel in the line in front of him – among the heavy guys who are supposed to protect the quarterback from attacks. So Lautenschlager suggested his father: after all, he’d been on the team that won the German championships 15 years earlier. “Right – dust him off and bring him here with his walking frame,” the coach said in jest at the time. But when he saw him play, the head coach realised: “Hey, this guy’s good – he can benefit us.”
“Right – dust him off and bring him here with his walking frame,” the coach said in jest at the time.
The duo played alongside each other for a good two years, with father Martin in his late forties snapping the balls back to his 23-year-old son at the start of play, as they say in the jargon. And most of the time, Gary’s brawny Dad did a successful job of protecting his son. Their time together didn’t come to an end until 2010, when Martin suffered an injury – in his 250th league match. After the game, the two were sitting opposite each other in the dressing room, and Gary suddenly realised that something was missing from his father's left arm. It was the biceps: he’d suffered a tear. A team mate had fallen on his elbow from behind and pushed it forward – but with all the hormones in his blood, the veteran hadn’t even noticed.
The Munich football story of the Lautenschlagers neatly captures the development of the sport in Germany as a whole: from its gruff, amateurish beginnings through to the not-so-amateurish 1990s, and ultimately the question of whether its current popularity will succeed in shifting American football into the mainstream of society. In any case, when they were active, the two Lautenschlagers would never have dreamed that an NFL game would one day be played in Munich.
For the Munich Cowboys, it all began in the Englischer Garten (park) and Perlacher Forst. Martin Lautenschlager had somehow got wind of the fact that a few American football maniacs were meeting there two or three times a week. Since he didn’t know the dates, he went along a few times to check it out, but to no avail. Then, eventually he did meet the other players, so he put his bag on the floor, opened it up, changed into his kit, and said: “You guys are playing football, right? I’d love to join in.”
I’d always weighed around 100 kilos, so I couldn’t exactly start with floor gymnastics or even soccer; I’d have to have grown up with wrestling or something like that. What else are you going to do at 16 with a physique like that?
That was in 1979: Lautenschlager senior was 16 years old. He’d got to know about the sport through a sports dealer who sold helmets and shoulder protectors. Football was an exotic outsider sport at the time, a second chance for Lautenschlager: “I’d always weighed around 100 kilos, so I couldn’t exactly start with floor gymnastics or even soccer; I’d have to have grown up with wrestling or something like that. What else are you going to do at 16 with a physique like that?”
The Munich Cowboys played their first league game in autumn 1979 against the Ansbach Grizzlies, and Lautenschlager was on the score sheet. “We were all amateurs. The other players had so little experience, too – there was no one who’d played on the youth team: we all started at the same time,” says Lautenschlager. American football is a highly complex sport. Lautenschlager started out as a running back – a ball carrier. But as he got older, it made more sense with his physique to play in the offensive line, the ones who protect the quarterback.
There are a lot of different things you have to learn to be good. All the moves are rehearsed, so anyone who makes their moves a tenth of a second too early or too late jeopardises the success of the whole team. You also have to be persistent and strong, so you have to work hard on your body – if only to avoid injuries. Like hardly any other amateur sport, football is a full-time job. Incidentally, in those days it was a welcome sideline for real sports professionals, too: Manfred Nerlinger, who was world weightlifting champion in 1986 and 1993, played for the Cowboys for a while.
Little Gary quickly came to understand how time-consuming a footballer's life can be, too – he often had to travel with the team. Lautenschlager senior says that if you really want to take football seriously in Germany, it takes up so much of your life that you have to involve your family. “So my two daughters became cheerleaders and their mum became the cheerleader manager,” he says with a smile.
There are a lot of different things you have to learn to be good. All the moves are rehearsed, so anyone who makes their moves a tenth of a second too early or too late jeopardises the success of the whole team.
And little Gary? He started out playing soccer, like so many others at that time. As a true Giesing lad, he played for 1860 Munich, where he was goalkeeper. “That was mostly boring,” he says today with a laugh: As the keeper of the often superior team, he would often just stand around – “nobody shot at my goal.” But he knew about American football from his Dad and would often go with him on his travels. At home games, son Gary would sometimes go out ahead of the team holding the Bavarian diamond flag when they ran onto the field before kick-off. But it was a youth leader at 1860 Munich who said to him: “Why don’t you give American football a go?” And then something happened that you hear from a lot of people who start playing this sport: it instantly electrified him. “I quickly realised I’d now be focusing on football,” he says.
There’s no doubt that football in Germany is played much more athletically today: things move much faster and the sport has gained a lot in terms of aesthetics. But German children still start too late to get really good. Gary Lautenschlager was a comparatively early starter at eleven, but he had also developed an understanding of the game as a child. It was probably no coincidence that he quickly became a quarterback with the adults – a key player and tactical expert.
At the end of the day, Gary may not have played as many games as his father, but he has undoubtedly experienced a lot. The highlight year was 2011, when he reached the play-offs with the Cowboys and got to travel to the World Cup in Austria with the national team. Germany finished fifth out of ten, with substitute quarterback Lautenschlager making an appearance, too.
If you really want to take football seriously in Germany, it takes up so much of your life that you have to involve your family. “So my two daughters became cheerleaders and their mum became the cheerleader manager,” says Lautenschlager with a smile.
The match for fifth place against France took place at Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium in front of 17,000 spectators, with the players running under flamethrowers as they entered the arena. Back then, you couldn’t get much closer to the feeling of being a professional as an American football player in Germany.
Gary was a few years too old to turn pro – he gradually brought his career to a close soon afterwards. But by then the level of training was good enough to enable some players to make the move to the USA. First and foremost Sebastian Vollmer from Düsseldorf, who studied in the USA on a scholarship before joining the New England Patriots and winning the Superbowl twice as the protector of superstar Tom Brady. Or Mark Nzeocha, who’s been playing for the San Francisco 49ers since 2017. Lautenschlager played with Vollmer at the European Junior Championships, and he played against Nzeocha in the Bundesliga.
“We’re really one big family – we all have a lot in common," says Lautenschlager, who now works as a business psychologist. He thinks the German federation could have done a bit more to support players’ development, which would have helped make the sport more popular in Germany. While interest is growing, active players are still stuck at the amateur level, despite the fact that you can't really play American football as an amateur.
Nonetheless: today, there’s more than just the German Football League (GFL) where the Cowboys play. For a while there has since been an NFL Europe, and since 2021 there has also been a European league, organised by Patrick Esume from Hamburg. What is more, it is now possible to watch NFL games live on Sundays – several in succession. “Back then,” Gary tells us, “one of us would have had a subscription to Premiere, so everyone would go to that person’s house and spend the whole night watching the games.” That and battling it out on the field together was what welded them together. Friendships for life have been formed in German football – and the Lautenschlagers were always at the heart of the action.