15th September 2004

Menlo College Varsity Team 53-15 GB Bulldogs

The British are coming. Not Redcoats or Beatles, but the Great Britain Bulldogs, an all-star team of English college students who play American football.

The Bulldogs take on Menlo College in an exhibition game Saturday at 1 p.m.

These guys don't take breaks for tea. There's no talk of bangers and rashers unless it's in the context of banging around the opposition. The players are psyched at the opportunity to take on the genuine article -- an American college team.

"This is the biggest game in Bulldogs history, by far," Bulldogs lineman Tarquin Stephenson, a 6-foot-3, 390-pound two-way player, said after a practice Wednesday at the Menlo campus. "It's getting everybody excited."

American football has a longer history in England than one might think. It dates to the end of World War II when American servicemen introduced the local populace to the game.

It caught on in a bigger way in the 1980s with a push from the NFL and its global marketing arm. The exhibition between the Chicago Bears and the Dallas Cowboys at Wembley Stadium had a big impact. Three NFL games are shown live on television now each week.

Currently there are 32

colleges that play football. Offenses run the gamut from the wishbone (Hull) to the run and shoot (Southampton).

But the atmosphere that accompanies the games is far different from the passion associated with the American collegiate game. Stephenson estimates that 50 to 60 fans typically show up for a game.

"Soccer dominates the whole country," Bulldogs coach Graham Thorpe said.

But that doesn't diminish the enjoyment the players get out of the game.

"Football is the best team sport in the world," Stephenson said. "Eleven on the field, 11 playing together to achieve one goal and execute as a unit. We're a family with team spirit who do everything together. And we party like rock stars."

Most of the players come to school in September never having played before. Four weeks later they're playing their first varsity game. There's no structured youth program in the country.

Still there's plenty of raw talent with 32 colleges playing football in a country the size of Texas.

Robert Hart is a former member of the Bulldogs who has had some success playing football in this country. Hart, a kicker, played for Murray State and has had NFL tryouts with Miami, Tampa Bay and New Orleans. Thorpe says he has four players on this year's team who are good enough to get a shot with an American college team: quarterback Jonathan Baynham, running back Jason Prince, lineman Tom McKenzie and wide receiver Jonathan Gerring.

"Giving these guys an opportunity is what's important," Thorpe said. "I believe they need to get here to develop any further. I need to get them to the next level. If we can win a few games, that's great."

The Bulldogs started their summer tour with a loss to Team Canada before blowing out Team Ireland 63-9.

They showed up in the Bay Area on Sunday and scrimmaged the Oaks on Monday. Menlo jumped out to a 34-0 halftime lead in that contest, but the Bulldogs were heartened by a competitive showing in the second half when they were outscored just 19-15.

"That was our toughest game, and we didn't show up until the second quarter," Thorpe said. "Our brain hadn't switched on. We have a little bit of unfinished business. We didn't show what we could do."

After playing Menlo the Bulldogs will go to the Raiders game Sunday, then fly back to the United Kingdom on Monday.

"Whether we win or lose is irrelevant," Thorpe said. "What's important is if we can walk off the field feeling we did the best we can."