When Danny Johnson left Germany in 2003, he had long been a die-hard Dolphins fan but had never attended a game.
Fast forward to the present, he’s not only a season ticket holder — he has also become a linchpin of the Dolphins’ global fan community, which gathered in Frankfurt this weekend to support their Fins in the NFL’s second regular season game on German soil and first in Frankfurt.
“This game has been an instant family reunion,” said Johnson, who served in the military from 1982 to 1989. He returned to Germany with his German wife and his daughter for the first time in 12 years.
The Miami Dolfans Germany fan club, a network of fans based in the European nation, held several events during the weekend, including at Louisiana, the official bar for fans in Frankfurt.
On the eve of Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the line to get inside was spread out several yards as fans from all over the world drank beer, munched on wings and broke out into the team’s fight song throughout the night.
Dirk Albrecht, head of the fan club, has watched the network grow, with the registered fan club holding close to 400 members.
“Facebook, that’s such a nice tool to get together to connect,” he said, “and our group has grown.”
Johnson, born a year before the Dolphins’ inaugural season in 1966, launched the Dolphins fan club and charity “The Positive Porpoise” after learning about other United State fan clubs doing charity work at the International Fan club Weekend in Miami in 2019, a yearly reunion of Dolfans from all over the world.
At last year’s Fan club Weekend, Danny welcomed more than 300 Dolfans from near and far. One of them was Bianca Guschke from Germany.
“We learned to love the Dolphins after last year’s experience in Miami,” Guschke said at Sunday’s game, a 21-14 Miami loss. “Danny showed us around. Everyone was so friendly, they treated us like we’ve been long-time supporters. Here in Frankfurt, we were hanging out with him at the Louisiana pub, where we became members of the Dolfans Germany fan club.”
Guschke said she and her friends mingled with Dolfans from the UK, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Portugal and other countries in Frankfurt, a testament to the geographically diverse turnout this weekend with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Dolfans who traveled to Frankfurt.
Johnson, who himself played three seasons for a German team in the 1980s, thinks satellite fans are more enthusiastic than domestic fans.
“Things come to domestic fans too easy,” Johnson said. “We’ve had it for so long, sometimes we think: ‘Will I go to the game or not.’ Here, they wouldn’t think twice when the opportunity comes. It’s ‘Gold wert’, or worth one’s weight in gold, as they say in German. All 32 teams are represented here this weekend. It’s special.”
The Frankfurt game was not only a homecoming for Danny Johnson but also for American football itself. In 1977, the Frankfurter Löwen became Germany’s first American football club. The first regular competition followed two years later.
In 1990, the NFL played the first of five preseason games in Berlin’s Olympiastadion and even kick-started a global league a year later, rebranding it to NFL Europe in 1995 with six European teams. The five teams in Germany helped popularize the sport, partly because they stuck around longer and were more successful than the four non-German NFL Europe teams.
Today, there are 500 registered mostly amateur teams with more than 70,000 members in Germany, according to the German Olympic Sports Confederation. The annual championship game, the German Bowl, attracted a high of more than 20,000 fans in 2019 and took place several times in — you guessed it — Frankfurt.
A new professional European League of Football, a kind of NFL Europe 2.0 launched in 2021, expanded to 17 teams for its 2023 season, including one in Paris, Italy and Hungary.
Germany’s appetite for American football is large and growing: 3.6 million Germans say they are avid NFL fans. That’s 25 percent more than in Britain, which has hosted regular-season games since 2007.
A year ago, 70,000 fans witnessed the Buccaneers beat the Seahawks in Munich in what NFL Germany’s managing director called the NFL’s “most successful international game” in terms of viewership and merchandise sales.
Home away from home
Despite seating 50,000 people — Hard Rock Stadium seats about 65,000, for reference — the atmosphere in Deutsche Bank Arena was just as impressive, with Country Roads and Sweet Caroline again being darlings of the crowd.
With the exception of the scoreboard, the Frankfurt weekend was a rousing success for Dolphins supporters. To Johnson, even the loss was secondary.
“I always say: ‘Go for the Erlebnis, not the Ergebnis’ – go for the experience, not the final outcome,” he said.
German Dolfan Michael Hartwig says what’s special about being a Dolphins fan is that they stick together no matter how their team performs on the field.
“We’ve had nearly 20 years without success, but we stay strong and together for the Dolphins every time,” he said. “We’ll discuss this loss, but in an hour we’ll celebrate the Dolphins again in the pub here in Frankfurt.”
For many Dolphin fans who came to Frankfurt, being members of the global Dolfans community is just as important as the Fins’ success on the football field.
Dolphins beat reporter Daniel Oyefusi contributed to this report.