Green Terror football makes Red Square debut Western Md. tackles Russian all-stars today

March 17, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Red Square was OK, but the Western Maryland College football team had come to play football, after all.

As ambassadors of the American game, the 48 visiting Western Maryland players restlessly sat through a three-hour bus tour of Russia's capital yesterday, at times admiring the centuries-old landmarks they passed by and at other times making rude noises.

At last, they reached a cavernous, indoor practice arena, and they boisterously poured out of their buses and back into a world they knew something about -- football. The Green Terrors had come for one last practice before today's game against an assortment of Russian all-stars. The Russians were there, too, great big men gleaned from two of the teams struggling to get the game planted here. They were eager to play, delighted to have some Americans around and a little short on polish.

One wore lavender socks. Another was 35 years old. And although an American, John Ralston, a former Stanford University and Denver Broncos head coach, had been imported to help whip them into shape, almost none of them spoke English.

"I want 11 guys lined up here," Mr. Ralston said, to no discernible effect.

"I just want 11," he said.

"Can you get me 11 players?" he asked.

"Any 11," he said.

"I just want 11 bodies," he explained.

Finally, it got sorted out, and the drill was on.

The Western Maryland players, the first college team to visit here, efficiently went about their routines. Throwing a football around and knocking each other down helped get their minds off the country that was playing host to them.

"There's a lot of cabbage," Jim "Web" Webster, a linebacker, said by way of summing up. "And it's the dirtiest, grungiest place I've ever seen. If I never come back, it'll be too soon. The people -- they're beggars."

Mr. Webster, like most of the other players, had been particularly put off by the vendors who swarmed around them at every stop, offering fur hats and T-shirts and lapel pins and other knickknacks of the post-Communist era.

"This is insane," he said, after a quick walk past St. Basil's Cathedral.

"Well, people are friendly," said coach Dale Sprague. "Some beautiful places. Food's better than we were told it would be. I'll tell you one thing -- I won't ever need to come back here."

It had been Mr. Sprague's idea to go, after he received a brochure from an Alabama travel agency that promotes tours by football teams. He wrote his master's thesis about Russian physical education, but had never seen the place.

So the college agreed to a weeklong trip, and the players, coaches, aides and parents who joined up -- 72 in all -- paid nearly $1,800 each for airfare, rooms at the Red Star Hotel and the chance to participate in a little Russian football.

This was a group that gave a hearty cheer as it passed the American Embassy and an even heartier cheer as it passed the McDonald's in Pushkin Square.

Shepherding a football team through Moscow meant a lot of talk along the lines of, "Now, listen up, I'm only going to say this one time."

A question hung over the day: The Russians are no slouches when it comes to sports, as any hockey or track fan can attest, but why American football, in a country that's fanatical about soccer?

Eric Frees, a Western Maryland tailback, seemed a little indignant that anyone should ask. "It's a pretty famous sport," he said.

"It's beautiful. It's very fine," said Sergei Shaverin, a Russian player.

"It's a very interesting sport, because in this game we must show our thoughts and our strengths," said Igor Brener, an offensive lineman. "You understand?"

"Well, we're no longer a Communist country. So now we must play bourgeois sports," said Boris Zaichuk, a trainer.

The Americans outfitted the Russians with new helmets. "All right, I need five more guys -- now," said Kent Dunston, the travel agency vice president who was doing the measuring. "This is going to take me all afternoon if these guys don't hustle."

The Russians weren't exactly leaping to his or anyone else's command. But Mr. Ralston, who was here three years ago coaching one of the first Moscow teams, took it all in stride -- even though he somehow spent three days last week working with the wrong team in preparation for today's game.

"They're starving, just absolutely starving, for instruction," he said. Mr. Ralston, who has spent much of his time recently coaching in Germany and the Netherlands, said: "I'm convinced the Russians are more like the Americans than anyone else is. They're naturally aggressive. They're not afraid. They just don't know how."

A big, burly linebacker walks by.

"He doesn't always know what he's doing," Mr. Ralston said, shaking his head in admiration, "but he'll put his chin strap on tight, and he'll hit anything that walks."

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