Rams coach Fassel remembers NFL Europe: “Nowadays, so many opportunities are lost for potential players”

by Andrew McSteen

LA Rams Special Teams Coordinator John Fassel is in his fifth season with the franchise and has more than made his name in his field of work – quite literally.

Delivering a variety of results and trickery that have made the Rams, now located in Los Angeles, one of the best special teams’ units in the league and pushing to become one of the best in franchise history – in his third season the Rams’ net punting average was the third highest-ever by a Rams special teams unit.

Fassel has worked closely with current players including wide receiver Tavon Austin along with Pro-Bowl punter Johnny Hekker and kicker Greg ‘The Leg’ Zuerlein and the 42-year-old spoke to A Head For The Game about the Rams trip to London ahead of their historic match later today at Twickenham and his career in Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals where he was the strength and conditioning and wide receivers coach.

Coach Luginbill and the Amsterdam Admirals
“That’s cool you asked that,” said Fassel at the Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa on the Surrey/London borders at Rams training ahead of their match against the New York Giants when asked about his time in NFL Europe.

“I was in NFL Europe in 2000 and it was one of my first coaching jobs; coaching receivers and special teams under Coach Al Luginbill.

“Coach Luginbill gave me a great opportunity, I have such a great memory of getting one of my first coaching jobs and working for him, he just gave me tons of opportunities to coach and get started.”

Under Luginbill, the 2000 season for the Admirals in NFL Europe was mixed, with the team finishing 4-6 for the season, but beating eventual World Bowl 2000 winners Rhein Fire early on in their campaign.

“I remember travelling to Barcelona, Scotland and Rhein, taking the train to Berlin and those type of things,” reminisced Fassel, who joined the Rams in 2012 after spending the previous three years in the same role with the Oakland Raiders.

“We didn’t live in Amsterdam, we were in a hotel just outside of Amsterdam but I remember the different food, the different culture – I worked a ton so I didn’t get out that much but it was my first time ever in Europe so it was really cool.”

League of nations
That “ton” of work included working with young American players looking for a chance to make it to an NFL roster in the USA, those looking to develop generally, plus players from Europe and further afield – an integral part of the league looking to bed down in a different continent.

“For my role it was really just American players,” said Fassel, who was the Baltimore Ravens’ assistant special teams coach from 2005-7. “We had a few ‘nationals’, I think they called them; I forgot about that, we had a Japanese receiver, a former Dutch ‘soccer’ player and Jose Cortez the kicker (Cortez was the first ever El Salvadorian to play in the NFL) – I remember that now.”

Despite the amount of work he had in his inbox, Fassel did get a chance to take in a little piece of Europe, although he freely admits that he has lost touch with a lot of those he worked with during those months at the turn of the new millennium.

“Most of the people I had associations with were American,” said Fassel who was head coach and assistant athletic director at New Mexico Highlands University from 2003-04. “I tried to get out as much as I could especially on the road games. We went over to Scotland and had half a day to take a trip, we walked downtown and they had the kilts and all the different things.

“We also took the train to Berlin and I went for a run on the street and along by the Wall – just a totally different culture and downtown dynamics. I even remember not knowing which bathroom to use because it was in a different language.”

The legacy of NFL Europe
After the NFL league presence in Europe folded, finally in June 2007, the NFL International Series started a few months later in England and the game this weekend represents the 16th match-up in the expansion of regular season games to the European continent.

As regular readers of A Head For The Game will know, plenty of former players and coaches from that league continue to make a living in the NFL – including the Rams own wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Mike Groh, who played back-up quarterback for Rhein Fire in 1997 (“I didn’t know that,” said Fassel), so does coach Fassel think there was a legacy left over from that time?

“I thought it was a great league,” said Fassel, son of former NFL coach Jim Fassel, a long-time NFL coach who guided the New York Giants to the Super Bowl during the 2000 season.

“I don’t know the reasons why it eventually defaulted, but I think that having NFL Europe out here for however many years they had it, 10-15 years, definitely introduced some fans to the game and hopefully that’s carried over to having NFL games over here since 2007.

“I think it’s definitely related, and I would love to have a league back here in Europe – the fan base probably got a taste for NFL and then had a little gap in between before the International Series started.

“The games we played in the fans were super in to it, especially those in Germany which was really the hotbed [of support for the league]. Fans cheered huge for field goals and penalties – just the same as touchdowns – so they were kind of still learning what the important things were but it was really cool.”

A chance for development
Fassel clearly remembered his time in the league with affection, smiling and looking into the distance as he thought back to what was clearly a turning point in his NFL career.

“Being back here does bring some memories,” said Fassel who played wide receiver at Weber State, graduating in 1999 with a degree in Exercise Science and later signed as a rookie free agent wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts.

“You know, with the weather, the accents of some of the people, it all brings back some great memories, gosh, I can’t believe it, it was 15-16 years ago.

“It’s my second time back here because I was here with the Rams when we came in 2012, but I don’t have anything to say about London really other than that because I have been in my hotel room since I came here; it’s just work.

“I would love to have the league back [here] because it really was a developmental league for guys who had the potential to be really good.

“The guys who played in NFL Europe loved playing in it because they knew it was an opportunity to play – nowadays, so many opportunities are lost for potential players because there’s nowhere for them to play, whereas those guys who played in the spring league loved it and knew it was a chance; most of them got a shot in camps and got placed on rosters.”

History in the making, rugby influence
As the famous home of English rugby prepares to welcome its first-ever non-rugby sport in over 100 years, coach Fassel is quick to acknowledge how rugby and NFL have a lot in common, especially related to his role in special teams.

“Wow,” said Fassel when told about NFL being the first sport other than rugby to take place at the stadium. “Our guys in special teams take a lot from other sports, for the kickers there’s some soccer correlation and for the punters a rugby correlation.

“Our punter Jonny Hekker uses some of the rugby style punts with the way he drops the ball to get different types of spins, rotations and directions. It started with Darren Bennett from Australia way back in the day – he was kind of the ringleader for all that different type of stuff and it’s carried over a lot with the rugby type of punts, more so for the punters.

“The kickers have more of a soccer type background – there’s a huge influence and most of the punters nowadays have that type of background.”

Photo: LA Rams

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