To explain how he came to be in late October standing inside Wembley Stadium wearing a Giants blue Saquon Barkley jersey above a traditional Scottish kilt — before a game between the Broncos and Jaguars — Kevin Eddison has to take you back to 1987.
As a 14-year-old growing up in Aberdeen, Scotland, Eddison was grappling with a maddening case of chicken pox. He sat on the couch, unable to sleep. The only thing on TV late that night in January: Super Bowl XXI between the Giants and Broncos.
“I got enticed by Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor and all that,” he said of the stars who helped the Giants that night to a 39-20 victory. “It just started off from there.”
The NFL last Monday wrapped up a robust, five-game international schedule with the 49ers beating the Cardinals, 38-10, at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. The league staged three games in London before that — the aforementioned contest at Wembley and two at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium — and also held the first-ever regular-season game in Germany, a 21-16 Buccaneers victory over the Seahawks in Munich on Nov. 13.
A common scene that linked all those games: Fans sporting jerseys — of players both well-known and obscure — from teams across the league. A couple of laps around the concourse at Wembley before the Broncos’ 21-17 victory on Oct. 30 was all necessary to check each of the 32 teams off the list. On any given Sunday at an NFL stadium in the United States, you’ll see a handful of jerseys that don’t represent either team playing, but the bulk of the fan wardrobe is either in the colors of the home team or those of the infiltrating visitors.
When the game reaches the international stage, the aesthetic is far different.
“When games come over here, it’s our way of celebrating our love of the sport,” said Paul Jhon, a young fan from Germany who flew to London for the Broncos-Jaguars game and arrived at Wembley wearing a teal Dolphins jersey with former quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s name on the back.
Jhon began watching the sport as a teenager eight years ago, and he’s spent the last two years playing on an amateur football team in Germany as an offensive lineman, but he has never gravitated toward a specific NFL team. Instead, he picks his jerseys based on iconic moments the players wearing them have produced.
For example, Jhon was watching a Dolphins game against the Raiders in late December 2020. Fitzpatrick, attempting to lead the Dolphins on an improbable game-winning drive, had his face mask yanked by a Raiders defender and still managed to complete a 34-yard pass to Mack Hollins, setting up Miami for a winning field goal.
“He completes the throw, and it was just incredible,” Jhon said. “I just couldn’t resist it. After that game, I immediately went online and bought the jersey.”
In the playoffs a few weeks later, when Washington backup quarterback Taylor Heinicke dodged nearly the entire Tampa Bay defense on his way to an 8-yard touchdown run, Jhon placed another order, this time for a burgundy and gold No. 4 jersey.
“You just get so caught up in the moment,” he said.
At a bar called Augustiner Stammhaus earlier this month, the Seahawks’ designated watering hole in downtown Munich, the place was packed with Seattle fans. But even there, fans wearing other jerseys were part of the mix. One man named Tobi was wearing a Patrick Mahomes jersey.
“I started watching NFL really intensively in 2016 and 2017. I never had a team; I just loved the sport,” Tobi said. “I used to watch Patrick Mahomes, and it just (caught) me because it was spectacular, and it never let me go. I just started to watch Patrick Mahomes going on and on and on, and he (caught) me.”
His friend Josaph had a similarly simple explanation as to why he was sporting a No. 99 J.J. Watt jersey from the All-Pro defensive lineman’s days with the Texans.
“I think the player is legendary,” said Josaph, reveling in the environment ahead of the NFL’s first game in Germany. “His mentality, he’s such a great player. He’s awesome. He’s one of the greatest that played football. That’s all I can say.”
A common thread among many international fans, most of whom weren’t born or raised in the geographical footprint of an NFL team, is the random nature of how they came to support one of the 32 teams — and ultimately wear one of its jerseys.
Georgina Sewell, from Sheffield, England, got a free trial for the Madden video game on her Xbox a few years ago. When it came time to pick a team to play with, she created some specific parameters.
“I worked in Florida for a while for Disney, so I knew I had to pick a Florida team,” said Sewell, who came to the Broncos-Jaguars game in a No. 17 Jaylen Waddle jersey. “I like blue, so I knew it was Jacksonville or Miami, and I liked the Dolphins as an animal, so I picked that. So then, I started watching the Dolphins.”
Standing next to Sewell was her husband, Scott, who was wearing a No. 10 Mac Jones jersey in the Patriots’ navy blue color. He wasn’t much of a football fan before 2018, but that February, he and a friend were invited to a late-night Super Bowl party.
“That makes us rivals,” Georgina said with a laugh.
No matter how they came to own the jerseys they wear to international games, it is safe to assume most of the numbered shirts represent an authentic, passionate fandom. Eddison, whose wife, Julie, is a Lions fan by way of family who live in nearby Windsor, Ontario, and wore the jersey of former receiver Calvin Johnson to Wembley last month, has been to all three games the Giants have played in London since 2017 — including this season’s 27-22 win over the Packers at Tottenham. He also has been to three games in New York over the years, all Giants victories.
“I’m the lucky mascot, I guess,” he said.
International fans also get points for creativity. In the Munich game earlier this month, a Seahawks fan wore a modified Russell Wilson jersey, the former quarterback’s name on the back replaced by tape that read “2-First-Round-Picks,” a reference to the premium draft capital Seattle acquired when trading Wilson to the Broncos.
A Seahawks fan showed up to the game in Germany today with this jersey 😳
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) November 13, 2022
“It’s cool to have that connection,” he said.
It is connections like those and the passion they produce, on full display during this season’s international games, that explain why the NFL’s growth beyond its domestic borders might only be getting started.
— Michael-Shawn Dugar contributed to this report
(Top photo of fans outside Tottenham Hotspur Stadium: Bradley Collyer / PA Images via Getty Images)