Stan Gelbaugh was selling office equipment in Rockville when he received a call from former Buffalo Bills teammate Jim Haslett. What could be more innocent? Nothing, until the World League of American Football came along.
Gelbaugh, 28, wanted to change careers, not continents. But now the former Maryland quarterback finds himself playing for the London Monarchs, when the original plan was for Haslett's Sacramento Surge to select him in the supplemental draft.
The moral: Trust a telephone solicitor, and you wind up halfway around the world.
Not that Gelbaugh is complaining. He earns $25,000, big money by WLAF standards. He spends his off-days at places like Windsor Castle. He even gets to wear the Helmet-Cam.
As if that's not enough, London is 4-0 after last night's 27-0 victory over Birmingham (Alabama, that is, not England). Queen Elizabeth might be coming to an Orioles game. But the Monarchs are surely the first choice on her satellite dish.
To think, Gelbaugh could have been in Sacramento. To think, he should have been in Sacramento. "I packed a bag full of shorts," he said from Birmingham the other day. "I thought I was heading for California."
Instead, his career took a classic wrong turn.
All together now: Only in the WLAF.
As Gelbaugh understands it, Sacramento entered him in the supplemental draft (Haslett is an assistant under Kay Stephenson, formerly head man at Buffalo). But for some reason, the Surge chose a linebacker named Anthony Henton. London then took Gelbaugh.
This was a week into training camp. Gelbaugh, living in Bethesda, wasn't especially satisfied in sales. He wanted to get into coaching, and his plan was to earn a teaching certificate and start at the high school level.
Actually, that's still his goal; he renewed contact this weekend with DeMatha coach Bill McGregor. "I hope he's not panicking and hiring somebody else," Gelbaugh said. McGregor would be making a mistake. Oh, the stories Gelbaugh could tell.
Start with the footballs:
"Right when we first got to London, it rained for like 10 straight days," Gelbaugh said. "It was cold and windy. The fields were all muddy. And we had just come from Orlando, where it was perfect every day.
"We had only 10 footballs; the rest were stuck in customs. We played with the same footballs for two weeks. After one day, they were all bad. After five days it was ridiculous. It was like a throwback. I felt like Otto Graham out there throwing a stuffed pillow."
The Monarchs eventually received their full complement of balls -- Gelbaugh joked they stole some from Frankfurt after their first game -- but their problems didn't end there.
The average player salary is $20,000, and the league deducts $140 per week for room and board. Travel is an absolute nightmare. It took the Monarchs a total of 20 hours to reach Birmingham on Friday. "The mother of all road trips," publicity man Jack Gallagher called it.
The Monarchs reside and practice at the United States International University, 30 miles north of London in Bushey. Gelbaugh, however, shunned a return to dorm living. He and fellow quarterback John Witkowski are renting a house where they stay with their wives.
The food, you ask? In England it's notoriously bland, and Gelbaugh claimed an offensive tackle named Todd Oberdorf dropped 20 pounds the first two weeks. But phoning home for Domino's, if possible, would cost more than the pizza. Gelbaugh writes postcards, and he doesn't include a return address. The season lasts only 10 games, plus playoffs.
The obvious question for Gelbaugh is: Why bother? His NFL days are probably over. He served as the backup in Buffalo from 1986-89, but failed to win a similar position behind former Maryland teammate Boomer Esiason in Cincinnati last year. "My days of being a young prospect are fading fast," he said.
But in the WLAF he's a star. He exceeded 300 yards passing for the third straight game last night, completing 22 of 32 attempts. He entered the game leading the WLAF in percentage, and presumably his ranking didn't change. Not that it matters. No one plays Rotisserie WLAF.
As for a possible return to the NFL, Gelbaugh said, "It always makes you wonder." But chances are, he'll remain a pioneer: London leads the league in home attendance after averaging 41,000 in its first two games at Wembley Stadium.
In truth, it's not a bad life. Gelbaugh's wife spent the weekend in Paris with Witkowski's. London is easily accessible by public transportation. "We're going to try and do something every week," Gelbaugh said.
It sure beats sales.
It sure beats Sacramento.