When you're living in an unfamiliar land, some things are just different.
The movie-going experience, for instance. Corey Smith was born and raised in Virginia but he's currently living in Germany as he plays for the Berlin Thunder of the NFL Europe League. Occasionally, he and his Thunder teammates have a Movie Night out – they most recently viewed Troy, the Brad Pitt take on Homer's Iliad.
The movie was in English, but some of the customs were foreign to Smith. For one thing, there were assigned seating sections, as one might on Broadway. For another, there were intermissions. (Given Troy's 2:43 running time, Smith wasn't complaining.)
Smith's assessment of a night at the cinema in Berlin: "They take it very seriously."
Some things, however, are the same no matter where you're stationed. The pursuit of a championship, for instance, is exciting whether you're after the Lombardi Trophy or the NFLEL title. That's why Smith and his Thunder teammates are thrilled to have earned a spot in the league's June 12 championship game, World Bowl XII.
Berlin is 6-1 and tied atop the six-team standings with the Frankfurt Galaxy. The third-place squad, the Rhein Fire, is 3-4, and there are just three games left in the regular season. Only the Thunder has officially clinched, however; Frankfurt is likely to get the other World Bowl bid soon.
"We're very excited to be in the championship game…a chance to get a ring, you know what I mean?" said Smith. "And everybody's going to be watching, so it's a chance for more exposure. We get to show everybody what we're capable of."
Berlin clinched a championship-game spot earlier than any team in NFLEL history, and Frankfurt needs only a win or a Rhein loss to join the Thunder. However, there is an added wrinkle to that otherwise anticlimactic race: The Thunder and Galaxy will play each other twice over the next three weeks, before their likely matchup in World Bowl XII.
Berlin and Frankfurt have taken parallel records to Week Eight without testing their prowess against each other. That will change on Saturday when Smith's team travels to Frankfurt for a showdown. The rematch will occur on the 10th weekend, in Berlin. Though only the likely third game between the two teams will decide the league title, the Thunder is taking the two warm-ups seriously.
"It's a chance to feel them out, in case we play them in the World Bowl," said Smith. "We'll see how their offense works against our defense. Plus, it's a matter of pride. Nobody wants to get his butt kicked, so we're going into it like it's a regular game. We want to win.
"You want to prove to everybody that you're the best team in the league. Having that challenge is an inspiring thing. From the beginning, we knew that this team was the other team to beat. It's very exciting."
The Thunder very nearly took an unblemished record into their test against Frankfurt. After starting 5-0, Berlin was upset, 28-27, by the Cologne Centurions on a last-second touchdown pass. (Frankfurt's only defeat was also tight, a Week Four, 21-17, loss to the Amsterdam Admirals in overtime.) After that one down week, the Thunder rebounded last Sunday with a 33-20 victory over the Fire. Smith, the NFLEL's third-leading sack artist with 6.5 QB takedowns, helped Berlin take control early with a sack and forced fumble on Rhein's first possession.
"I'm kind of pleased that I had a big play early," said Smith, who has seen many of his sacks come during crunch time in the fourth quarter. "I played a solid game, throughout the course of the game, instead of just coming through in the fourth quarter. That was my goal coming into this week, to do something, to make something happen in the first quarter, then carry it all the way through. So I'm pretty happy with what I did. I didn't have as many stats as I've had in some other games, but I was consistent throughout the game."
There was a reward awaiting Smith and his teammates in the week following their clinching victory. On Thursday, the Thunder players were invited to the U.S. Embassy to share in a cookout. Ostensibly, it was a show of support between the league and other Americans working abroad. For Smith, the trip had a much more basic purpose.
"I don't know about everybody else, but the purpose for me was to get some good food," said Smith. "I guess they were just cooking out and they invited us. It was really good. I had a good meal, something I was used to. It was nice."