With two prior NFL Games in Germany serving as preview, the New England Patriots and their American fans thought they knew what was in store during their Deutschland debut and the week leading up to it.
Passionate fans were a given, proven by the excitement around ticket sales for the Week 10 game in Frankfurt and the number of people registered for a slate of activations hosted by the team. The crowd at the game would be ready to sing "Sweet Caroline," and the Patriots content team semi-seriously considered trying to obtain licensing rights to "Country Roads, Take Me Home" to be able to use the sound captured when all of Deutsche Bank Park belted it in unison.
Perhaps less anticipated was the power of the German national anthem to induce instant chills. Not everyone in the sold-out crowd of 50,144 people knew the language, never mind the lyrics, but with the way it sounded – sung proudly by fans throughout the stadium – it would be hard to tell otherwise.
The moment set the tone for the atmosphere through the rest of an admittedly boring football game – actually, the lowest-scoring contest of the 2023 season. Because despite the result, no one in attendance could argue against how special the fan experience was.
The display of pride for their country and passion for the New England Patriots gave the team every reason to double down on its investment into the DACH region. Looking back on the last two weeks, it captured the essence of everything those fans have to offer the NFL.
"Tremendous experience. The support today was phenomenal. The energy. I was really surprised but I thought it was fantastic," said Patriots captain Matthew Slater after the loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
"Many thanks to the German fans. Many thanks to Germany for hosting us. We almost had a phenomenal time. We had a pretty good time until the game, but I'm thankful for this experience."
Slater had been around for the Patriots' last international trip to London in 2012. It was fellow team leader David Andrews's first time playing overseas.
"Great atmosphere. Cool experience," the center said, despite struggles, grateful for the organization's reach.
"I missed out last international game and I appreciate all the support over here and the fans. I'm lucky to play for a great organization with a really great fan base and I'm appreciative of that."
Those Patriots fans traveled far and wide to see their favorite team come to Europe, creating a strong presence that grew immensely towards the end of the week. For Germans, it was a true home game, at last. For Americans, especially those from New England, this foreign land made them feel right at home.
Arriving in Frankfurt, they found a city similar to Boston – built around a river, with prestigious universities and hospitals, balancing its old Gothic and Renaissance architecture and rich political history with a bustling financial district and modern skyline of skyscrapers in the Westend.
A German man named Julian Wagner traveled just 70 kilometers north to attend the game and connect with other fans at the Patriots Haus, a three-day event at the Hilton Frankfurt City Centre.
There, fans gathered to take photos with all six Super Bowl trophies, Pat Patriot, and the cheerleaders, win giveaways, watch a Patriots Unfiltered live radio show, and meet legendary players like Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, Rob Nikovich, Malcolm Butler, and even Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft.
Wagner was among thousands who attended the opening night of the Patriots Haus on Wednesday.
"My favorite event this weekend was the Patriots Haus," Wagner told Patriots.com. "It was just great to meet lots of fans, exchange ideas, and simply celebrate this great club with former players."
Wagner's touchpoint to American Football was his uncle.
His grandparents emigrated from Germany to Albany, New York. They moved back in 1962, but not before his uncle, born in the United States, fell in love with the sport. Through stories and photographs, this connection to the United States was passed on to Wagner, making him feel "American at heart" thanks to a deep relationship with his uncle.
"I had a very close connection with my uncle. He introduced me to the sport of American football. At first, I wasn't a fan of any particular team, I just liked the game," Wagner said.
"However, in 2012, my uncle gave me a New England Patriots jacket on his last Christmas. Unfortunately, he died of cancer in January of 2013, but this jacket I received as a gift made me a Patriots fan. I also wore this jacket to the game on Sunday, so I also had my uncle by my side."
Wagner shared that his second daughter was born on August 3rd – the same birthday as future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady.
Fittingly, he immediately wrapped the newborn in a No. 12 jersey.
"Of course, I knew that Tom Brady's birthday was also on that day," Wagner said. "I'm just grateful that my daughter shares Tom Brady's birthday and I'm looking forward to introducing her and her sister to the game and this great club, just like my uncle once did. I am really looking forward to this."
Every fan had a different story of why they were drawn to the Patriots, but plenty of common threads were shared.
Some credited NFL Europe, which fizzled out in 2007, leaving a void. It was filled for some when the Patriots drafted offensive lineman and German native Sebastian Vollmer in the 2009 NFL Draft, like a fan named Alex who boasted a full Patriots sleeve, complete with Vollmer's signature tattooed on his arm.
For many, it stemmed from family or time spent in the United States. Ziad Alborno, originally from Saudi Arabia, married a woman from New Jersey and now lives in Denmark. Watching Tom Brady in person at MetLife Stadium compelled him to root against his father-in-law's Jets.
They'd watched NFL games together since 2013, but this regular season game cemented his allegiance.
"In 2016 they took me to my first game," Alborno told Patriots.com while attending the Patriots party at Gibson Club – a lively music and dance hall the Patriots rented out on Friday and Saturday night.
"I'm like yeah, I love this sport. Amazing. And the first game I attended was the Jets against the Patriots in New Jersey. (While watching it) I realize I don't like the Jets, I like this other team. Tom Brady scored a fourth-quarter touchdown (to win) and I'm like, I love this team. I'm going to be a Patriots fan. They're like, out of all the teams in the NFL, you pick the Patriots."
Of course, that season, New England went on to pull off the greatest comeback in its storied Super Bowl history. Alborno was hooked.
That same game sparked Stefan Zenkowitz's fandom, who attended Patriots Haus with his young daughter and a friend.
"Since 2017 versus the Falcons," Zenkowitz said. The German man didn't speak much English, but some phrases make up a universal language for NFL fans.
"I was so excited, the 28-3 comeback. The comeback. I was not a fan of any team and I saw that. I'm still a Patriots fan today."
Now, he is hoping to raise a little Patriots fan. His toddler didn't take well to the Pat Patriot mascot at first, but she did happily high-five Vince Wilfork when the Patriots Hall of Famer posed for a picture with Zenkowitz.
A few spots ahead of them in the autograph line were Helena and Sina – two women from Germany. They'd both traveled to London for games in the past and landed last-minute tickets to see the Patriots play in their homeland.
Sina had been a fan for about 12 years, dating back to when her family moved and she suddenly had a new television allowing her and her dad to watch ESPN. Helena learned about the Patriots 26 years ago when she was a foreign exchange student in New England.
Both retained their love for the game and now play for the Wiesbaden Phantoms, a local women's tackle football team playing in the 2nd Football Bundesliga – the second-highest German league.
"I think you have more opportunities as a woman to play football here in Germany than in America," Sina said. "It's quite ironic."
Like many German fans, they've become avid fans of the European League of Football.
Announced in 2020, the first season of the professional American football league kicked off its first season in the summer of 2021, with the NFL deliberately allowing the ELF the rights to the old NFL Europe team names.
After just three full seasons, the league has expanded to 17 teams for 2024. With 11 of those teams located between Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, it's safe to say the sport has caught on in the DACH region.
"The ELF is worth watching," Sima said. They both often come to Frankfurt in the summertime to watch friends who play for the Frankfurt Galaxy.
"Every weekend it's just football. Either you play yourself or you go watch football. There is no Sunday without it."
When the NFL announced the Global Markets program last year to grow the game abroad, all 32 teams had the opportunity to bid for a "home market" in nations abroad. The Patriots pursued Germany and Germany only, something team president Jonathan Kraft referred to as a "no-brainer" thanks to the momentum the Patriots had building for years.
With the excitement around the Patriots, it reinforced why this football thing isn't a fad in Frankfurt, and offered a reason to double down on investments in the DACH region.
The Patriots strategically partnered with the German national soccer team, practicing at the DFB’s state-of-the-art training facilities and hosting a flag football game with children. Introducing the game to school children was part of a five-year plan the team had to submit detailing how they'd grow the sport in Germany.
As it is in New England, community building was an important part of that push overseas.
The Thursday leading up to the game, Vollmer accompanied Kraft Sports + Entertainment CMO Jen Ferron to a shelter as part of that collaboration with DFB, with the organizations coming together to donate Empowerment sleeping bag coats.
It's a cause important to Germany, and the Patriots are committed to the country in a way that's about much more than brand building.
"When we came here to the DACH region, we're making this our home," Vollmer said. "That means bringing the same values that the Krafts instill in every player who becomes part of the organization. You have to carry it over."
With all the work the Patriots have been doing to continue growth abroad, its fans are helping them with that mission.
"Football is family," Sima said, when asked what draws Germans to the sport. "That's being lived here and I love it so much."
A game was going to be played at Duetsche Bank Park on Sunday, but connection is what drew so many to Frankfurt.
The NFL experience had taken over the Rossmarkt Square and Hauptwache Plaza in the center of downtown. Soaking it all up on Saturday were a group of four women – a pair of best friends and their daughters – reunited for the occasion.
"Paola (Rode) was an oncologist at Leahy Hospital in Burlington, Mass. and I was the manager of the cancer center," said Jacqueline Broms, who was born in Germany but now resides on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
"We're best friends, and she was my oncologist, and these are our daughters, who are now best friends."
Rode now lives in Germany with her husband. When the Patriots game was announced, the women tried relentlessly to secure seats and get together for the first time in a year.
"I woke up at 3 a.m. to try and get tickets," said Broms' daughter, Caroline. "I sat in a million-person queue and didn't get them. I continued to try every week, and we eventually got tickets."
The timing couldn't be better for the two women who have become family.
"I was just diagnosed with breast cancer a week ago, so it's very special to be together," Rode said. "We caught it early, so it's good news, and this is amazingly special.
Her daughter, Hannah, interjected: "It's nice that they came here, because they've been through this before together."
For them, it was all about coming together to love and support each other as women, celebrating Boston, the city that brought them together, and Germany, the country that allowed this important reunion.
Like all the fans who shared their stories, they were grateful for the Patriots.
That's why, despite a 2-7 record leading into the game, fans flocked to Frankfurt by the thousands to show how much the team means to them.
The result brought a playoff-type vibe to the stadium, with the fans making it feel like the most supportive home crowd New England played in front of all season, appreciative that the Patriots had finally come to them.
Before the game, one of 14 German fan clubs organized a fan march to the stadium, a tradition for the supporters of European soccer teams. While the hope was to see participation from a few hundred people, thousands showed up to support, following a marching band through the streets to the train.
The display showed that win or lose, the fan base in Germany is as loyal and proud as any, even after a loss to the Colts.
Fortunately, this is not the end for Patriots Deutschland. That march is just beginning.
The New England Patriots welcomed several fans to the Patriots Haus in Frankfurt Germany on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. Those fans got treated to special appearances from Robert Kraft, Malcolm Butler, Rob Ninkovich, Sebastian Vollmer and Markus Kuhn.