Why NFL's first London game 10 years ago was a messy success

Umenyiora: Playing in London was an incredible experience (2:11)

Osi Umenyiora reflects on the Giants' game against the Miami Dolphins at Wembley in 2007, and how much it meant to him as he was born in London. (2:11)

It's no surprise the NFL has found a home in London, a city with a decade of regular-season games in its past and a full-time franchise potentially in its future.

It's also no surprise that the league found its way there in the first place, after a foundation had been laid by the developmental NFL Europe and years of preseason games starting with the Global Cup in 1983 and continuing with the American Bowl series.

What is a surprise is that the league ever decided to return to England after a bleak regular-season debut there 10 years ago.

As the NFL prepares to kick off its 2017 International Series with the first of four games in London -- Sunday's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium -- the powers that be must be checking the precipitation percentages closely.

On Oct. 28, 2007, one of the sloppiest, soggiest and sorriest games in NFL history took place at Wembley between the New York Giants, who would go on to shock the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII at season's end, and the winless Miami Dolphins.

That 2007 "mud-fest," as Giants quarterback Eli Manning dubbed it, will never be remembered as one of the game's classics. The 13-10 New York victory included just 483 yards of combined total offense, with a mere 168 combined passing yards.

Looking back on that day, two things stick out for Manning: the strange -- that his rushing touchdown, one of just five in his career, was the first TD in a regular-season NFL game outside of North America; and the stranger -- the streaker who sprinted onto the field before the start of the third quarter.

Manning finished 8-for-22 for 59 yards, with Jeremy Shockey (three catches for 26 yards) and Plaxico Burress (two for 14) as his top targets. His Miami counterpart, Cleo Lemon, whose NFL career included only eight starts, was marginally better, completing 17 of 30 passes for 149 yards and a score.

"It was a rainy, nasty day, and the field was not equipped for 300-pound men," Manning said. "We dug it up. It was a mud-fest. It was a good day to run the football, which we did well, but low scoring."

Behind Brandon Jacobs' 131 yards, the Giants ran for 189 yards and built a 13-0 halftime lead, only to see the Dolphins, in the midst of a dismal 1-15 season, make it close late with a Lemon-to-Ted Ginn Jr. touchdown at the two-minute mark.

To the fans in London, however, football was football (or, at least, American football was American football), and after years of having their appetites for the sport whetted, this was the real thing.

"That's the great thing about football," said Mark Waller, the NFL's executive vice president of international operations. "Every phase of this contributes to the next. We wouldn't have gone on to play regular-season games had we not played the NFL Europe. This is just how things evolve -- sports are built over tens of decades, and it takes time."

That evolution is personified by Ravens rookie offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor, who was born in London and moved to the United States less than a year after the game.

"It meant a lot to me," said Eluemunor, a fifth-round draft pick out of Texas A&M. "Without that game, I wouldn't be standing here in the Ravens locker room. That really was my first taste of American football.

"While I was playing high school and college football, I'd always think about it, like where would I be if I hadn't switched the channel to that game?"

Ravens offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor explains where his love for football started while growing up in London

Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer3y ago

Until then, one of the persistent gripes among American football fans in Europe had been the desire to see their favorite NFL stars in the flesh. The last exhibition game in London had been in 1993. And while NFL Europe -- which debuted in 1991 as the World League of American Football, with an original franchise in London, and folded in 2007 -- produced future NFL luminaries such as Kurt Warner, Dante Hall and Jake Delhomme, the Q rating wasn't exactly there.

Though the Giants and Dolphins didn't treat the Wembley crowd to the sport at its finest, the fans appreciated what they saw. Waller said all 84,000-plus seats sold out in less than 90 minutes. To hype the event, the NFL paraded a 26-foot-tall robotic version of star Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor around London.

"Never underestimate how grateful fans are to get real games," said Waller, who was born in South Africa to British parents. "Just the fact a team was willing to give up a home game to go to the UK to play, that meant a lot to fans. These are smart fans. They're smart fans of American football, soccer, rugby. They know there are good games and less good games, but you don't stop loving a sport or a team because a game doesn't quite live up to expectations.

"Would you rather have a bad game or no game at all? Ninety-nine percent would say a bad game."

While the quality of play was forgettable, the atmosphere was anything but. Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie, along with Manning one of two players still active with the Giants, recalls seeing a "smorgasbord of jerseys representing all 32 teams, it seemed."

"It was incredible," DeOssie said. "At the time, I was just doing punt snaps, but I've never seen a crowd so excited for field goals and kickoffs. Lawrence Tynes (the Giants' place-kicker and born in Scotland) felt like a superstar. I think the crowd was more excited for kickoffs than touchdowns."

Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga treated the first NFL regular-season game played outside of North America as a landmark event. Then-Dolphins defensive coordinator Dom Capers, now with the Green Bay Packers, said Huizenga flew out all the wives and families of the coaches and rented out the Tower of London for a team party.

"Wayne went overboard and treated it almost like a Super Bowl," Capers said.

For Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, it was an unrivaled experience. The London native was ecstatic to be playing in his home country, which he'd departed when he was only 6, first to Nigeria and then to the United States.

"I left London in '87, and I hadn't been back, and when I found out I was playing a game where I was born, it was crazy to me," he said. "To play a regular-season game overseas, and to play in London, it was an amazing feeling. A lot of my family came in from Nigeria."

Umenyiora remembers it being "a unique bonding experience" for the Giants.

"Once we got to London, it was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had on a team before," he said. "You have training camp where you're together all the time, but for us to be together like that in another country, experiencing different cultures, going around, always together. In the NFL, once training camp is over, you're there from 8 to 4 and everyone goes their separate ways."

Manning had his family and friends with him in London, as well, and recalled the team's victory celebration.

"After the game we stayed in the city, and we had the whole team gathered at one spot, with guys on the mic announcing other guys coming in," Manning said.

Aside from the poor field conditions, the game went off without a hitch. Since then, the NFL has been expanding its international footprint. In 2013, the league added a second London game to the schedule, and in 2014 a third. A new high will be set with this season's four games. There is also a regular-season game scheduled in Mexico City for the second consecutive year.

Waller said a significant number of fans will be returning for their 11th season of watching the NFL in London.

"One of the coolest things, and not just that game, but all of them, is fans come from thousands of miles away," Waller said. "We had German fans there, Dutch fans, a bunch of fans from Finland and Norway. One of the things that is remarkable about sports is you love to gather with other people who love what you love."

ESPN.com reporters Tom Hamilton, Jamison Hensley and Rob Demovsky contributed to this report.