La Courneuve may not have become France’s football powerhouse if Bruno Lacam-Caron hadn’t chased a girl. They were dating when she introduced him to a classmate named Yazid Mabrouki, who told Lacam-Caron that he wanted to start an American football club — football américain, in the parlance — in their dirty little Paris suburb 32 years ago. Lacam-Caron thought that joining the Flash might bring him even closer to her.
His relationship with football endured longer than his relationship with the girl, who he later married then divorced. He has never left the Flash, through the long period when the team was a glorified group of friends playing in a park, to now as a European Football League powerhouse. The Flash have won the French championship nine times and claimed a European championship. They have never been relegated out of France’s Élite division. Lacam-Caron has been the team’s general manager since 1994.
American football is a sub-chic sport in France, fervently practiced but in just a few small, insular places like La Courneuve and Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône in the Paris suburbs, or Thonon-les-Bains in the Alps. It has become French like so many things that define France — simple and good, rough and beautiful, like red wine and two-top cafés. It isn’t ubiquitous, but the sport is growing. There are now approximately more than 22,000 American football players in France, up from 2,000 20 years ago.
Lacam-Caron was one of the first few.
At age 14, he was living in the middle of France when his older brother died of leukemia, then he went — “psheeewwww,” he says — to Paris to live with his mother. Lacam-Caron’s parents were divorced and he didn’t like his stepmother or stepfather. He laughs and admits he was “a big asshole.” He says that maybe 80 percent of the original 26-person team was in trouble with the law, including him. He stole car radios and sold them. The other guys stole money, cars and wallets.
“It was a good salvation for me and my friends to be on this team,” Lacam-Caron says. “Because we create a new thing, a new family. We didn’t have a past. We come in like virgin people.”
Lacam-Caron didn’t care that he was playing an “American” sport. The sport shaped him as he and his teammates were simultaneously interpreting it 5,500 miles from the States.
France’s first American football club formed in 1980, four years before the Flash. In the years since, Lacam-Caron has helped build the Flash into a self-sufficient football machine, just as other programs are being molded in hidden places around France. French football exists. It isn’t a secret. It is spreading as a whisper you must be privileged enough to hear. And to the sport’s closest caretakers, that’s just fine.
“What does La Courneuve mean?” Mike Leach is wondering. “Is it some dude’s name, you think?”
I think the Washington State head coach thinks I know because of my name, and because I pronounce French words better than he does. I say it may have something to do with roosters, which isn’t even a little bit correct.
“They like roosters and frogs,” Leach says. “Why the fascination with roosters and frogs?”
The rooster is the national bird, and I think they just like to eat frogs.
“Well you know Benjamin Franklin thought the wild turkey should have been our national bird.”
The question I asked was about Flash de La Courneuve’s pro style offense and whether that was Lacam-Caron’s influence. Leach has been a friend and consultant to the program since 2010. He knows the Flash almost as well as anyone, but curiosity gets ahead of him a lot.
Leach loves history and wants to travel more, talk to more people, and see more things. His first head coaching job — 11 years before he took over Texas Tech, and 23 years before he took over Washington State — was with the Pori Bears in Finland. He had to have an interpreter tell his players what he wanted them to do. Physical demonstrations often translated better than words.
“Sometimes they’d laugh at inopportune times, and I’d be like, ‘Uh, hey, well hopefully you got that,’“ Leach says. “They were probably goofing on me, which would be understandable.”
Shortly after Leach was fired from Texas Tech in 2009, he met Lacam-Caron in a roundabout way through a former Flash quarterback named Braxton Shaver.
Shaver came from McMurry University, a small Methodist college in Texas, to play two seasons in La Courneuve before trying to find “a real job.” Then he decided he missed his friends in France and went back to La Courneuve to play three more.
Shaver’s last season in France was in 2006. In 2009, Lacam-Caron reached out to Shaver because Hal Mumme, the godfather of the Air Raid offense, had become McMurry’s head coach, and he wanted to know if the coaching legend was interested in visiting the Flash.
Mumme declined the offer, but he put Shaver in touch with Leach, who was living in Florida without a coaching job. Leach had wanderlust and a lot of time on his hands. He and Lacam-Caron exchanged a few phone calls, and then Leach was on a plane to spend a week in La Courneuve as a guest of the Flash.
“I was in touch with him, he said, ‘It’s not a joke. It’s Mike Leach,’” Lacam-Caron says. “And fuck, Mike Leach came.”
In La Courneuve, a street market envelops the games. The city is a popular place for artists and writers who want to live in “Paris” without paying the rent. A good deal of the population, 36.3 percent, was born outside of France’s five-pointed continental footprint. Booths outside the stadium sell dishes from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Tahiti. Inside the stadium, music will be blasting, “and the best way to describe it is ‘explicit,’” laughs Shaver.
He and Leach became close friends after that first meeting. They explored Cuba together. In 2015, Shaver traveled to the Middle East by himself, a trip he says he could only do because of the confidence he developed when he continued his playing career in La Courneuve instead of some Texas arena league.
American football clubs in France need American imports to succeed. American players are simply better — they start playing football at an earlier age, in better facilities, with more quality coaches, and a more rigorous practice schedule.
The way Leach and Shaver landed in La Courneuve is the same way that players in far-flung schools come to France. Few people seek it out. The opportunity has to come to them, often by word of mouth, and then players have to be daring enough to go.
“There’s a story you always hear, a kind of agreed upon story, of Division I football players from big schools sometimes don’t do so well when they go to the European leagues,” Shaver says. “They carry their pads to practice, they’ve got to ride the subway, they’ve got to wash their own clothes when they get home.”
They’re good players, but they have to be a little scruffy to end up in France. Ryan Perrilloux, former five-star prodigal son of Louisiana football, started last season for the Argonautes in Aix-en-Provence. Josh Turner, once a top-150 high school recruit for Texas, was the offseason’s prize signing for the Thonon-les-Bains Black Panthers, even though he was never much more than special teams ace for the Longhorns. He served a two-game suspension in 2014. Black Panthers president Benoit Sirouet calls him “the best athlete of his time here in France.”
Thonon-les-Bains is the most secluded of France’s football cities, hugged between the French Alps and Lake Geneva. The town is next to Évian-les-bains of Evian Water fame, and the Black Panthers play their games in full view of the real life three mountain tops on the bottle label. Players joked that they were showering in Evian water after games: The water from the shower heads really was that clear.
Thonon is small, a town of about 40,000 people where football is bigger than even soccer or rugby. American football is the only sport in which Thonon can claim a top-league team all its own. Sirouet says the club now has almost 500 members. The Élite squad won back-to-back titles in 2013 and 2014 behind French national team head coach Larry Legault.
Sirouet attracts a lot of athletes who are tired of France’s obsession with soccer. The Black Panthers regularly draw 1,000 to 2,000 people to watch home games at perhaps the best American football facilities in the country.
“It’s pretty weird seeing like a full turf practice field in the middle of France,” says Sam Poulos, a former dual-threat quarterback for Grinnell College in Iowa. He will be going back to Thonon to play a second season. “That’s a lot of money for a town or team to put in.”
American players get paid, too. The monthly stipend isn’t much — 500-800 euros a month depending on the club — but most of their French teammates pay dues, and often buy their own equipment.
The perks are better than the pay. Poulos gets housing and a car that he shared last season with former Idaho State linebacker P.J. Gremaud. The team was sponsored by local restaurants, so Poulos and Gremaud could go to a different establishment every night and get a free meal.
Clubs practice just two or three times per week and play games every other weekend. There’s no comprehensive film study. Most of the French players have to work jobs, or go to school, or be parents. Poulos and Gremaud, free of the football regimen as they knew it, took mid-week trips into the surrounding nature, up into the mountains.
“It was absolutely incredible,” Poulos says. “One of the more beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
Shaver has been back to La Courneuve from Texas five or six times since his last season. Leach visited a second time in 2015 to host a football camp, and hosted three Flash coaches to shadow his staff for three weeks through the Boise State game in September. Lacam-Caron once asked Leach if he would like to coach for the Flash. Leach said no, but the offer stands.
“I’ve actually thought about if and when I ever retire,” Leach says. “Just pick out someplace over there and I guess rent a house … satellite from there and kind of saturate the region.”
Shaver will will hop on a plane for any flimsy reason to come back. He likes the idiosyncrasies.
“After a game in college, we’d all gather around on the field and say the Lord’s Prayer, right?” he says. “At La Courneuve, at the end of the game they bring out Heinekens.”
Anthony Dablé would rather he never play in France again. Just a handful of French players have ever made it to the NFL for even a tryout. Richard “Le Sack” Tardits, born in Bayonne, set the career sack record at Georgia before spending three seasons with the Patriots until 1992. He is the only French person to ever play a regular season game in the NFL. Dablé could be second, and the first who was entirely Euro-raised.
Dablé came close last year. In February, he signed a one-year minimum contact with the Giants to play wide receiver, but was cut from the team at the final roster deadline. He bided his time in Boca Raton, training at XPE Sports Academy, throughout the season. He had tryouts with the Jets and Patriots in September. In early January, he signed a reserve/futures contract with the Falcons and may finally take the field in 2017. At 28, his opportunity is now and only now.
When he was 17 his cousin showed him the video game NFL Quarterback Club ‘98. Dablé didn’t understand the rules, but he understood big plays when they happened — long passes and kickoff returns — not just by the yards they gained but by how scarce they were, even in the polygonal universe.
“And you know that it’s special because it doesn’t happen all the time,” Dablé says. “You have a lot of runs, and short gains and everything, so when you have a big pass and a big play, you understand.”
Dablé calls football his father. His biological father wasn’t around as he grew up, something he was OK with until he was 19 and rudderless. He had dropped out of his university psychology program and was working in fast food when he joined the Grenoble Centaures, his local team.
The machinations that wear down some players invigorated Dablé. He spent hours, daily, watching clips on NFL.com. He watched so much American football that he learned how to speak English from the commentary. His 6′4 frame is prototypical in the United States, and mammoth in France where football doesn’t usually attract many of the best physical athletes. With the Centaures, he had several coaches teaching him the game, hands on, no translation needed.
Dablé became a specialized big play weapon.
“The mindset and the lessons that you get from football, and the game of football is so similar to life,” Dablé says. “It tells you not to give up, and to have a plan, and help each other, have each other’s back.”
Dablé’s first career reception was a slant he housed in his first game in front of a crowd made up of friends and family. The first big game he played was in front of 7,000 people for the Élite division championship against the Flash in 2011, in which he caught another touchdown.
“It’s like practice is the way it works,” Dablé says. “Whether it’s one person or 100,000, that’s the same. You just have to do your job.”
In 2011, Dablé watched a man who looked a lot like him go No. 4 overall in the NFL Draft. A.J. Green was 6’4, 211 pounds, with a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash — like Dablé, or close enough. He set his eyes on the more competitive German league, joining the Berlin Rebels, then the New Yorker Lions, Europe’s preeminent club. In two seasons, Dablé caught 145 passes for 2,437 yards, and 32 touchdowns. He won two German titles and the Euro Bowl — Europe’s Super Bowl.
In early 2016, the NFL called. His agent had forwarded Dablé’s tape to the NFL United Kingdom office, where it found former Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, now working as a league ambassador. Umenyiora brought Dablé to London the next day for a workout, then — upon confirming that Dablé was the same athlete he saw on tape — told him to take a trip to Florida to train for the NFL regional combines.
The Giants hosted Dablé for a tryout two weeks later, then signed him right after. He was wanted. His mother cried. He couldn’t stay on the roster, but he knows now that he belongs to a class of people who can call themselves the best in the world at something. His future is in football, and he says he will only play it at the highest level before heading off to the sport’s peripheries, into coaching or broadcasting.
“When you get to a certain level, it’s harder to go back down,” Dablé says. “It’s going to be boring.”
Dablé misses the kinship of small-time French football and where it has brought him. It’s hard to make friends with NFL players, especially as a complete outsider, he admits. Rosters turn over rapidly. Some cliques have been in place since high school when many professional players remember playing against each other.
But returning would be like admitting he needs the coddling of a parent. France doesn’t get the external attention that mounts pressure and creates prestige.
“Because really a game of football is just four quarters,” Dablé says. “What’s happening is advertisements and a show — before the game, the tailgate, and all the family comes and they have a barbecue together — that dynamic that brings the game of football has to happen in France so that it can grow.
“Because even in France, it’s not called football it’s called American football, so people know it’s American. That’s not our sport.”
The French don’t genuflect. John McKeon, a former NC State offensive guard, played in La Courneuve after a stint with the Helsinki Roosters in Finland. He thought he had a chance to make the NFL as a 38-game starter who had helped protect Philip Rivers. When he didn’t stick, he said “oh shit” and went abroad. McKeon had NFL size, but his new teammates stood up to him.
“A lot of these guys are paying to play, they come in after work, after they’ve had a long day at work, they’re tired,” McKeon says. “There was this defensive end who I think played Division II or Division III ball here in the U.S., but he was a French citizen. … He comes in right off that bat, head down, trying to take out the new American kid, who they’re paying to be here.”
McKeon now runs American Football International, a website chronicling American football as it is played outside the United States. Joining the Flash allowed him to go to places like Moscow, Barcelona, and Vienna. Culturally, it felt more like football as he wanted it to be.
“It’s that community aspect — ‘I’ve played next to this guy for five, 10 years,’” McKeon says. “We love the game, we love each other, it’s not because I’m getting paid a lot of money. And that kind of goes back to why I fell in love with football. I was disenfranchised with college.
“College is not a friendly sport. College is a professional sport.”
Formal American football has existed in France for more than 30 years now, despite its barriers to entry. Few major sports are as unintuitive, or require so much space, expensive equipment, and bodies. Marc-Angelo Soumah remembers when teammates used to play in motorcycle helmets. “[We] didn’t know much about the game, but we had a lot of enthusiasm,” he says.
Soumah was a Flash player in the 90s before joining Browns training camp as a 29-year-old wide receiver in 2003. He later became president of the Fédération française de football américain (FFFA) and is now head coach of the second-division Fontenay-sous-Bois Météores. He once had to work an entire summer so he could buy his own equipment. Back then there was just one supplier called Trocasport, and cleats, a helmet, and a full set of pads could cost $2,000 in French francs.
American football was too expensive to be played on a whim back then. Today, newcomers to American football can afford to play more casually. Xavier Mas, head coach of the two-time defending French champion Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône Cougars, has noticed that his under-19 players seem to have different motivations than he did.
“Some of these kids, they only have two practices, and they are like asking for, ‘Do you have this type of glove?’“ Mas says. “And I’m like, ‘Dude, you don’t even know how to play football and you’re already talking about how you will look on the field?’
“I’m trying to find a football player and not a model.”
The clubs do a good job of managing themselves, but they lack strong central organization. The FFFA doesn’t have the resources to do much more than sponsor the teams in France. The most equipped organization in Europe, the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), is a farce of leadership disputes and dysfunction, exemplified by the 2015 IFAF World Championship.
In France, club-level caretakers like Lacam-Caron, Sirouet, and Mas are the most competent drivers of the sport’s development. They are first-generation football players, so their stake is personal. They are inclined to protect what they feel is best about American football, even if it means neglecting attention and profitability.
The word “American” in the name of the sport works against it. The French are notoriously wary of anything they think might impinge on their cultural identity. The government has been trying to beat back marauding vacationers for decades, and has resisted the English language’s global takeover. Media coverage of American football largely centers on head trauma and domestic abuse scandals.
French football clubs have agreed on a few small gestures to distinguish themselves. There’s a reason the name of the France’s championship game — Le Casque de Diamant, the diamond helmet — is not a “bowl.”
“I am French,” Soumah explained in a 2015 interview. “For me, if I call it a ‘Bowl,’ I’m going to have the impression of copying the Americans. A French name shows that it is appropriate [for France].”
The growth of the sport would accelerate if international players started popping up in the NFL — say, if Dablé or Vikings receiver Moritz Boehringer from Germany became American football’s Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki, respectively. The NFL is understandably hesitant to invest in an unstructured system, however, leaving the sport to move at its glacial pace toward mainstream relevance.
“Players are here for passion, because they love the game,” Soumah says. “And that’s the way we play it, for the guys next to them, for their coaches.
“You know Bill Belichick, ‘Do your job?’ That will never work in France.”
On Nov. 13, 2015, 130 people died in terrorist attacks around Paris. Three explosions occurred near the Stade de France where an international friendly soccer match was taking place between France and Germany, just four kilometers away from where the Flash de La Courneuve play their home games. Two Flash players worked at the Bataclan, the night club where 89 people were killed. They both called in sick with the flu that night.
La Courneuve doesn’t get many visitors. It has one of the highest rates of violent crime in France, and has become associated with acts of terrorism that have taken place in the last year. Many of the perpetrators had been living in Paris banlieues like La Courneuve. France, like many Western nations, is dealing with a rise in racism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Lacam-Caron brought his players, many of them Muslim, closer together after the Nov. 13 attacks. Insulated them. The Flash quickly set out trying to get updates from every member of the club to make sure no one had been hurt or victimized. They organized discussions between players, coaches, and the organization’s board to iterate in no uncertain terms that it did not equate “Muslim” with “terrorist.”
“We then refocused on the practice of sport, our social actions, and the organization of [activities] in order to ensure that our members think of something else, and do not fear.” Lacam-Caron says.
La Courneuve as France sees it — and as the world thinks of it, when it thinks of it — is different from how its players and fans know it. The insularity of France’s American football programs has served them well as both a barrier against negativity and a force of communal and personal growth. That incubation means that football in France won’t be big business like the NFL soon, or ever, but it also preserves what’s special about it.
The sport has defined itself in marginal places that are more beautiful and welcoming because football exists in them. The questions of what is “French” football and what can “French” football become assume there isn’t an answer already.
“Very quickly, we understood we have a role on the society, we were the connection, we were an example, and we can do something,” Lacam-Caron says. “We had a mission. And the sport was a secondary goal for us.”