Excerpt: Le Football
The following is an excerpt from Le Football: A History of American Football in France (August 2016) by Russ Crawford.
Chapter 8: Lafayette, le football est voilà!
In the beginning (of the 1980s) there was Laurent Plegelatte.
The American military had played more than a thousand football games in France from 1914 to 1966. Entrepreneurial missionaries, including Curt Riess and Jim Crowley in 1938, William Dodds and Maurice Tardy in 1961, Bob Kap and Jim Foster in the 1970s, and finally Jim Foster alone did their best to convince the French that football was the future. After all that effort the autumn quiet remained unbroken by the crash of pads or the roar of the crowd.
As an exercise in cultural imperialism, if it could be called that, it was a miserable failure. That would change in 1980, when Laurent Plegelatte took a vacation to Colorado and was laughed at by an American football coach. His hero’s journey would then see him visit the “Cavern of Ali Baba,” where he would purchase enough equipment for one team. He would then return to Vail for a time to prove to the laughing coach that he was serious, and there he would gain advanced training in the sport. His preparation finished, he would finally return to France, where the Paris Spartacus team would be born.
So begins the creation story of football américain. The eighties would finally see the establishment of a football league of the French, played by the French, and for French purposes. Over the course of the first decade of French football, the number of teams would grow from Spartacus in 1980 to forty teams in 1989. The original teams would cluster around Paris and its surrounding suburbs, but by the 1990s teams would be playing across the breadth of the country. Founded on amateur ideals, the federation that grew to administer the new sport would struggle against forces that envisioned a different future for the game, but it would win in the end.
All this, according to legend, as a result of one high school football coach who saw only humor in the idea that Frenchmen could play football. Plus one Frenchman who was not amused.
In a 1991 interview for US Foot, Plegelatte retold the famous story of how he went to Vail, Colorado, on vacation in September 1980. While there he met the head coach of a local high school football team from nearby Eagle. “This is where I discovered football,” he remembered. When Plegelatte told the coach that he wanted to introduce the game back home, the man “broke out laughing.” Stung by this reaction, he decided to take matters into his own hands.1
Without telling anyone else who might laugh, he located a sporting-goods merchant in Denver who did not ridicule the idea but rather recognized the potential of the project. Perhaps this store owner, like Albert Spalding, saw the possibility of opening a new market for his equipment. Maybe he only wanted to unload some surplus stock. Whatever his motivation, the man led Plegelatte into what the budding football missionary described as “Ali Baba’s Cave,” where he was offered a deal: “ten dollars apiece for helmets and shoulder pads, and six dollars for pants.” With enough equipment for twenty-five players, he went back to Eagle and convinced the coach of the Battle Mountain High School Huskies to teach him the game. Impressed by Plegelatte’s seriousness, as evidenced by purchases that would have totaled nearly seven hundred dollars (F 2,800), the Huskies’ coach wasted no time integrating the novice into his training camp.2
A bit of a Renaissance man, Plegelatte was a fine athlete, a musician, a painter, and a licensed pilot.3 He was also no stranger to combative sports. In his job as a physical education instructor, he practiced and taught judo and boxing.4 He was also a man of ideas, particularly in politics. Described by all as a Communist, and by most as a Trotskyite, part of his motivation was reportedly to bring football to France so that he could toughen up his “Red Guards.”5 Others, while acknowledging his political motivations, argue that the game became an end in itself for him.6
Upon returning to Paris, he arrived at around noon, and by 3:00 p.m., he had twenty-five players signed on to his project. Most of the new players were recruited from his students at the U.B.U. Judo Club. This core group, that would later take the name Spartacus, began practicing before the month had ended. Without a practice field to call its own, the group “squatted” on the grounds of Stade Pershing in the Bois de Vincennes.7 Likely without knowing the significance of the site, they had symbolically closed the circle, training near the location where the Eighty-Ninth and Thirty-Sixth Divisions played the final game of the Divisional Championship in 1919.
1. Luc Bouchard, “Dix ans, et toutes ses dents,” US Foot, special ed., no. 2, June 1991, 13.
2. Bouchard, “Dix ans, et toutes ses dents,” 12.
3. Jerome Laval, “Farewell to the ‘Artist,’” Amerfoot Mag, no. 1, December 2011, http://www.amerfoot.com/magazine/1#/3, accessed January 3, 2014.
4. Jerome Laval, “Spartacus de Paris,” Amerfoot Mag, no. 1, December 2011 http://www.amerfoot.com/magazine/1#/4, accessed January 3, 2014.
5. Stephane Sardano, Julien Lenau, and Eric Burtscher, interviews by the author, around Paris, June 2012–July 2013.
6. Directeur technique nationale adjoint of the fffa Olivier Moret, interview by the author, Nanterre, France, June 7, 2012.
7. Bouchard, “Dix ans, et toutes ses dents,” 13.