The official stat-book description of the pivotal play in the Berlin Thunder's victory over the Scottish Claymores last weekend doesn't even mention T.J. Bingham. Corey Smith, a defensive end allocated to the NFL Europe League this spring by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is credited with a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown. Clearly, it was a big moment for Smith in what has been a season of game-turning plays.
But, as Smith tells it, Bingham was just as much involved in the defensive touchdown that put Berlin ahead to stay as he was himself. In effect, the two Thunder defensive ends forced the Scottish offense into a series of killer mistakes. One couldn't have done it without the other.
Smith's account: "We had just gotten back on the field from a turnover by our offense. Our defense came back on the field and we went right after the passer. I think the quarterback was trying to go for a bootleg, but T.J. bottled him up. (The quarterback) couldn't break containment, so he tried to roll my way and I was right there. I hit him and made him fumble, and the offensive tackle tried to pick up the ball.
"That surprised me. I thought, 'What is that guy doing?' You expect an offensive lineman to just fall on the ball, but it looked like he tried to pick it up and run. That's when T.J. came by again and tackled him, stripping the ball. The ball started to roll towards the end zone, and I took off after it. Their running back tried to pick it up first, but I was able to scoop it and get my arms around the ball in the end zone."
The Thunder took a 20-16 lead on the play and eventually won 27-19, pushing their record to 8-1, with one game left in the regular season. The victory wasn't all that important – Berlin had clinched a spot in the NFLEL championship game two weeks before – but the strong play by Smith was, and so was the recognition he paid to Bingham. Those two and many other NFL Europe players who hope to use the experience to launch a lasting NFL career back in the States have formed a bond during their three months overseas. It's likely that they will continue to support each other in the months and years to come.
That is perhaps the most important thing Smith will take from his European 'vacation.'
"It was a good experience as far as the football went," he said. "I was glad to get the game experience again, get the feel for playing full-speed again. But, actually, the best thing was making new friends. It was good to get to know guys who are in the same situation you're in – we talked, shared ideas on and off the field, football- and life-related. It was good. And, as far as living in Germany goes, it was good to experience a different culture and see people doing things in a different way than you do."
Smith, Bingham and the rest of the Thunder players extended their time in Germany an extra week by qualifying for World Bowl XII, to be played June 12 in Rhein. Berlin will face Frankfurt in the title game; coincidentally, those two teams will also square off in Berlin on Sunday as they play the final game on the NFLEL regular-season schedule.
There isn't much at stake. Berlin could surrender its one-game lead over the Galaxy with a loss, and Frankfurt could avenge a Week Eight loss to the Thunder and perhaps gain some championship game momentum. The Thunder would match the best record in NFL Europe history with a win. Not much of that is relevant to either team, but it appears likely that both squads will primarily use their starters, Frankfurt because its roster is riddled with injuries and Berlin because the players want to play.
"The coach didn't really say anything, but I don't think we're going to do anything different," said Smith. "Jobs are on the line and everybody wants playing time, so I don't think we're going to change anything."
The jobs of which Smith speaks are those coveted regular-season spots on NFL rosters. After putting in the three months of labor for which their NFLEL allocations called, Smith and his new friends are ready to start again in their respective training camps, armed with the lessons of live playing time.
"Most definitely, I'm ready to come home," said Smith. "I just want to get home, get ready for camp and try to get myself a spot (on the 53-man roster). I'm confident. I've learned a lot that I can bring to training camp. I'm ready to go."
Smith never got completely comfortable in Germany. Concentrating heavily on football, he didn't have much spare time to absorb the culture or the language, though he enjoyed what he sampled. He took taxis most often because the buses and trains were a little daunting. And his favorite meal of the spring may have been a barbecue at the American Embassy in Berlin a few weeks ago.
Still, his time abroad gave him an appreciation for different cultures, something he would like to explore more fully on an actual vacation.
"Yeah, I would definitely come back here for a vacation – a European tour instead of just going to Germany," he said. "I'd like to see Paris and Italy and Greece, instead of just staying in one place."
He also learned that the talent level in the NFL Europe league is as good as the NFL has suggested for years. Quite a few players who have the skills to make it in the parent league but are still looking for the right opportunity head to Europe to put the evidence of their abilities on film. Smith has had a fabulous season – most notably, 7.5 sacks through nine games – and it wasn't against shameful competition.
"It was surprisingly good," said Smith of the league's overall talent level. "The guys who I played against weren't different than what I'm used to in the regular NFL in terms of physical ability. It wasn't like you could just come into the league and say, 'These aren't good and I can dominate them without trying.'
If somebody was trying to decide whether or not to come over here, I would say yes if they want to get some in-game experience and work on some portions of their game. It helps out a lot. Sitting on the bench or even just working on the practice squad, going from team to team, you don't get that experience, you don't have a feel for the game after a year of not playing. So I would recommend this for somebody who hasn't played in awhile."
And if you want to make some new friends and experience new cultures, well, those are just added bonuses.