“I have a Claymores jersey all framed up and in my man cave at home,” says a smiling Cedric Saunders, Senior Vice President of Football Operations at NFL team Detroit Lions, when asked if he still had any equipment from his time playing for the Scottish Claymores.
Between 1995 and 2004 the Claymores (from the Scottish Gaelic claidheamh-mòr, or ‘great sword’ – a Scottish variant of the late medieval two-handed longsword) were Scotland’s professional American football team, representing the country in the NFL’s World League of American Football (WLAF), and later NFL Europe, between 1995 and 2004.
“Oh man, that was probably one of the best times I’ve had playing football,” said Saunders who had been a four-year starter at Ohio State University as a receiver, posting 68 career receptions for a total of 853 yards and as a senior in 1993 recording 27 catches earning him second-team All-Big 10 honours.
“The people of Edinburgh, Glasgow and in Scotland were really wonderful to us; great folks, they treated us nicely – the football was really good over there and the cities were really nice.
“I got fond memories because it was fun, it was kind of like you were back in college but it was professional football and you just enjoyed it. The one thing I didn’t enjoy was the three-hour practises in the rain.”
The 6’3” Saunders had previously moved into the NFL from Ohio State joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a tight end for a three-season spell seeing action on the practice squad and active roster from 1994-96, before moving to the Claymores in early 1997 who played their home games at Murrayfield in Edinburgh.
The Claymores finished 5-5 that season, narrowly missing out on the post-season after losing their final two games, against the London Monarchs and then a big loss away at Barcelona Dragons, who would later go on to win the 2007 World Bowl.
“I figure for that particular season we probably should have won more games than we did,” said Saunders. “We could have had a chance to go and play for the World Bowl at that point in time but we lost some games that were tight.
“Our guys were really fighting for that championship but they were also fighting for jobs back over in the United States because NFL Europe was like a breeding ground to get some good tape on yourself to be able to get on a NFL team at some point.”
This weeked is the second visit to Wembley for the Lions in just over a year – their ‘home’ win against the Atlanta Falcons was at the end of October 2014 – and Saunders is no stranger to the capital.
The Florida native also has experience of playing American Football in London taking to the turf as a player for the Claymores against the London Monarchs at Stamford Bridge, home of Premier League side Chelsea FC.
In a match dubbed the ‘Battle of Britain’ the Claymores lost 16-8 on 11 May 1997, in front of just over 11,000 fans. Former Chelsea striker Clive Allen scored three field goals and a point after touchdown for the Monarchs, later telling the press that the American players did not appreciate what an England v Scotland match was all about.
“I can’t remember much about the stadium,” said Saunders about Stamford Bridge. “I remember visiting the city and doing all the touristy stuff like visiting Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, but that particular field is at a loss right now.
“I remember going to Dusseldorf in Germany (home of Rhein Fire) and Barcelona but not really particular stadiums. I have actually talked to a couple of guys from the Claymores since then too; Ron Dickerson, Jr. and (former quarterback) Jim Ballard who I speak to from time-to-time but as far as that – I talk to guys who played on other teams back then, not with guys who actually played for the Claymores.”
After retiring from playing Saunders joined the Kansas City Chiefs as Area Scout in 1999 and then moved to the Bucs in 2001 as Director of Player Development in before joining the Lions in 2006.
With his perspective on both a playing and administration side and with the success of the NFL in London now does he think the old World League of American Football and NFL Europe were ahead of their time?
“I think they were,” he said. “Having football over here back then people were really getting a feel for what it was because football is different here to what it is in the States.
“We had some fans but not as big as it is now, so it was a little ahead of its time but I it’s caught up now and it’s a pretty popular sport here now.”
The popularity of the NFL has lead to Jacksonville Jaguars signing up to play games in London until at least 2020, Premier League football side Tottenham Hotspur announcing a 10-year deal to host two NFL games a year in their new stadium and the NFL Head Office in New York openly discussing a further expansion of the International Series, and the possibility of a future London franchise.
Saunders himself is convinced the success of the NFL in London can be replicated in other European cities but stressed the need for a sustained growth.
“Players are really enjoying the experience of coming over here and playing,” said the 43-year-old.
“It’s a little different for the players coming for the first time now, for the guys that actually got a chance to play last year and the years before they can see the popularity that football has gained over the years here; the support they are getting over at Wembley Stadium, how loud it is and how the fans are embracing them over here.
“I don’t think it is a big deal to players anymore to come over and play in London – it is just another game – they enjoy the process of being able to come over here.
“With the popularity of the NFL gaining momentum and something being established over here now with the best product you can get here I could eventually see the International Series growing (outside of London).
“If you keep doing things right first and foremost and keep expanding, the league is one of the most popular sports leagues in the world now so if you do that and it starts to grow then there will be possibilities to move to other cities as well.”
As Saunders and the rest of the Detroit Lions prepare for their date at Wembley against the Chiefs, has he been approached by any of the current roster keen to ask for any tips on playing in London?
“I haven’t really had chance to talk to any of the current players about being over here and playing,” he said, laughing. “A lot of them don’t even remember the World League; some of them do, some of them don’t but I haven’t had any conversations with them.
“They know I played NFL, they know I played over here because they read my bio but the whole thing was a good experience for me.”
Photos: BucPower.com, sports-logos-screensavers.com, Wikipedia