STARKVILLE — Joe Moorhead makes self-deprecating jokes about it now, but it was no joking matter in the spring and summer of 1996: he wanted to play professional football.
“My aspiration was to play in the NFL, I think I had a relatively solid college career, but when that ended I was looking to extend my football career and didn’t get drafted,” Moorhead told The Dispatch.
In this situation, where the NFL passes on a prospective football player, looking around forces one to get creative. For Moorhead, that meant a year in Munich, Germany.
Moorhead began his climb up the coaching ranks to be Mississippi State’s coach, but not before exhausting every option as a player: he left Fordham with the single-season records for completions and passing yards, after all. That opportunity came with the Munich Cowboys of the German Football League.
Moorhead was over there to extend his playing career, but the life of an American in foreign football leagues actually sets one up to be a good coach.
“You basically sign on to do everything you can to help, that being coaching and playing,” Brett Williams told The Dispatch.
Williams played one year for the Osnabruck Tigers, at the time in the German Football League — the highest level — but has since been relegated to lower leagues. He stopped after one year, fearful of further concussions, but came back to the United States for a career as a journalist. He has written about his experience as a GFL player more than once for Splinter.
“It was probably among the best decisions I ever made, to go play over there. It has indirectly set me up for everything I’ve done since then,” he said.
The opportunities for the American in the GFL are plentiful: since retiring, Williams befriended a former Arena Football League player, and in trading stories, he’s convinced he got the better deal in Germany.
Both Williams and Moorhead were mostly paid in accommodations more than true salary. Moorhead said he was given access to a car and a gym, a place to stay and a small salary, far from livable on its own; Williams had the same experience and the added bonus of meals provided by the mother of a teammate.
To best describe the pay structure, Moorhead referenced the title of a John Grisham novel on playing football in Europe: “Playing for Pizza.”
For Moorhead, the opportunity granted to him by playing in Germany was a head start on his coaching career.
When Moorhead played, the German Football League rule on foreign players was a limit of four Americans on the roster. By the time Williams got in the league, the rules had changed to allow any number of Americans on the roster, but only two on the field at any given time.
In any configuration, the Americans are brought in to do more than play. They are there to develop their teammates that did not grow up in America’s all-encompassing football culture, and do the same for the future of the club.
“You help to coach the youth teams because all of these teams are set up like clubs, like the soccer clubs over there,” Williams said. “Part of your responsibility as an import player is to coach the youth and help your teammates out in understanding the game.
“In a lot of cases at the lower level, in the lower tier leagues, you’ll have player-coaches. We had some turnover with a coach who didn’t wind up panning out; the quarterback I played with, who was from the U.S., wound up as the offensive coordinator as well. That’s not uncommon.”
Much like full-time football coaches, Americans playing in Europe must adapt to players of different skill levels. Williams played with some players who studied abroad in America and learned the game then or had American family members and learned the game that way; he also played with those with little to no experience, people who had never caught a ball before.
It’s a useful mental exercise for a future coach.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say influenced, but it was an opportunity before coaching where you’re utilizing your knowledge of the game and of people whose understanding of the game isn’t very sophisticated,” Moorhead said.
Williams bets that experience helps Moorhead now.
“One of the biggest reasons why is, more so than when you’re coaching in the U.S., for any team, at any time, things can happen,” he said. “There’s all kinds of factors that can throw a season off course. In the GFL there is no stable infrastructure, so you have to be able to adjust on the fly.
“By nature of these being semipro players, they’re not always going to be available. You have to be ready and willing to adjust to everything you can, both the circumstances and the players. I’m sure from his experience he’s going to be a master improvisor.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson