Scott Woerner: Falcons’ trip to London brings back USFL memories

SAUTEE NACOOCHEE — When I first heard that the Falcons were going to play a game in London this year, my first thought was I hope they have the week off when they return. My second thought was “been there, done that and got the T-shirt!”

While playing in the United States Football League during the summer of 1984, the Philadelphia Stars and the Tampa Bay Bandits were selected for an exhibition game to be played in London’s legendary Wembley Stadium. I have no idea what brought about the game on foreign soil, but the USFL was attempting to compete with the NFL at the time. I am speculating that it was an attempt to expand their fan base. I mentioned to my wife, Marianne, about the Falcons playing a game in London, and we started recalling the good times and great memories from the London trip in 1984.

The USFL had its inaugural season in 1983, and my Philadelphia Stars team lost in the first championship game to the Michigan Panthers. The Stars won the championship in 1984, completing an unbelievable 16-2 season, which was the second-best time I ever had playing the game of football.

A few days after the championship game in July 1984, the Stars team and families boarded a chartered plane. It was the first time my wife and I crossed the pond. I do not remember much about the flight on the way over, but we arrived in London very early in the morning, and the team was bused to the Cumberland Hotel in central London. Unfortunately, as is often the case arriving so early, our rooms were not ready. The group spent several hours in some large, basement banquet rooms, jet-lagged and punchy. We passed the time playing a variety of silly games, like Charades. The rooms were being slowly made available. With a last name starting with a W, it was quite a while before my wife and I finally received our room assignment.

During that time waiting, I had taken a few walks through the lobby and around the hotel passing the time. Several teammates that had gained access to rooms earlier were back down in the lobby at the front desk. Curious as to what the problem was, I walked over to eavesdrop on the conversation. “Air conditioning, how do I turn on the air conditioner?” I heard one teammate say. I saw the hotel clerks at the front desk with confused looks on their faces. July in London is warm, but most hotels back then didn’t have fans, much less air conditioning. Well, many of my teammates were ready to go home right then. They finally calmed down and went to bed, but with no air. It wasn’t until then that they realized their feet were hanging off the end of the beds, which clearly weren’t built for American football players.

I remember seeing an itinerary, which included tours of some of well-known historical locations that anyone coming to London for the first time would visit. Also listed were practice times. We visited all the sites that time would allow, such as Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. We even spent one night at the theater seeing “Cats” on a revolving stage, which really was amazing. The pubs were great, along with the famous fish and chips.

When I say that practice was probably the last thing on our list of things to do, a person might understand. But there was a game to be played in a couple of days. I remember very little about the actual practice, although I do remember the location. The Cumberland Hotel was located just a short walk from Hyde Park. Yes, Hyde Park. As a team, we practiced a couple of times in Hyde Park, with onlookers wondering what are these crazy Americans doing?

The game itself was rather uneventful, extremely generic as I recall. I do remember the fans that made it to the game -- tickets were free -- were very excited and cheered whenever a punt or a kickoff took place. I think we won the game, but I have no idea of the score. It seemed the fans had no idea either and really didn’t care.

Our last day in London started early. Everyone was excited about returning home to their own bed and air-conditioned homes and apartments. We said our goodbyes, sent some luggage back with teammates and began a journey that would change us forever.

Marianne and I had planned ahead. We already had purchased a Eurail pass, which gave us unlimited train travel throughout the European mainland. The “Chunnel” did not exist yet, so we left England on a ferry from Dover, landing in Calais, France, after crossing the channel for the first time. We made stops in Paris, Munich, Salzburg, and Rome with no plans, no reservations and way too much luggage for three weeks. That three weeks turned into a lifetime of adventures exploring the European continent, creating friendships with fellow travelers, as well as locals we met along the way. I never imagined as a young boy learning how to punt, pass, and catch with my father and brother in our front yard in La Porte, Texas, that the game of football would take me anywhere.

Boy, was I wrong.

Scott Woerner was an All-American defensive back and kick returner for the Georgia Bulldogs and played on the 1980 national championship team. He was drafted by the Falcons in 1981 and played for them one season before moving on to the USFL. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016. Woerner is a retired elementary school teacher, and he and his wife, Marianne, live in Sautee Nacoochee in the North Georgia mountains.