Frankfurt Galaxy post dramatic victory in first-ever ELF Championship Game

In front of a national television audience and a crowded Dusseldorf stadium freshly awarded their own franchise, the European League of Football was hoping that their inaugural Championship Game would live up to all the hype, with little separating their two premier organizations.

In the end, Patrick Esume and company got everything they could have dreamed of and more. The Frankfurt Galaxy held on to a 32-30 victory over the Hamburg Sea Devils by the distance of just a few feet, as a 62-yard field goal attempt from all-star Phillip Friis Andersen in the dying moments fell painfully short of the crossbar.

Had the kick been from just 60 yards, it would have been Hamburg on the podium, but instead, it was the Galaxy who emerged as the first ELF champion thanks to a fourth-quarter comeback in a back and forth contest. It was the reverse result of the final NFL Europa World Bowl in 2007 when the predecessor franchises of these two clubs met for the final time with a Hamburg victory.

Initially, it seemed as if Frankfurt’s lack of a kicking game might prove the top seed’s downfall, as they left a number of points on the field including on the game’s first drive. The Galaxy moved down the field thanks to a key third-down catch from Marvin Rutsch and another 17-yard conversion on the ground from a scrambling Jakeb Sullivan, but on fourth-and-six Frankfurt was reluctant to attempt the 43-yard field goal. Aleksandr Astahin broke up the pass to force a turnover on downs and the Sea Devils seized control early.

Championship Game MVP Frankfurt Galaxy QB Jakeb Sullivan Photo: Mikkel Rasmussen/1st Down Photo

Quarterback Jadrian Clark found tight end Adria Botella Moreno wide open for 31 yards to kick things off, before a couple of slashing runs got Xavier Johnson down to the one-yard line. The last carry triggered the first coach’s challenge in ELF history from the Galaxy, who believed they forced a fumble at the goal line, but the referees quickly determined that the runner’s knee was down first, allowing Clark to sneak in the game’s first touchdown as center David Weinstock cleared a path. A swarming Hamburg defense forced a quick three-and-out and Justin Rogers provided great field position on the punt return before Johnson christened the second quarter by bouncing a 23-yard run outside. A pair of penalties led to third and goal from the 15 and Clark couldn’t connect on the endzone pass, forcing a 32-yard Andersen field goal to make it 10-0.

A big sack from linebacker Daniel Laporte killed another Frankfurt drive prematurely, but Hamburg fared a little better and they soon had the ball back. They got two first-down pick-ups from Nico Strahmann before a sack by Giovanni Nanguy put the drive in jeopardy, but the Galaxy counter punch was something fierce. Gennadiy Adams leaked out of the backfield for a pass and took advantage of a subtle pick from Hendrik Schwarz to get the corner, racing 43 yards untouched into the endzone.

No trust in the kicking game led to a failed two-point attempt, but the Galaxy weren’t done scoring. Clark looked for Kwame Ofori in his own end on the ensuing drive and the pass was deflected by Omari Williams into the waiting arms of linebacker Jhonattan Silva Gomez. Evans Yeboah immediately got a sack on the next play, but Sullivan would not be deterred as Strahmann came open in the middle for a 13-yard touchdown, taking a 12-10 lead after another failed two-point conversion.

Hamburg RB Xavier Johnson Photo: Mikkel Rasmussen/1st Down Photo

A big pick-up from Hamburg receiver Tobias Nill took the game into the two-minute warning and Nill added another first down after, with a roughing the passer penalty tacked on. Already in Andersen’s field goal range at the Frankfurt 33, Clark had time to look deep and threw up a prayer to Jean-Claude Madin Cerezo. Boxed out by Omari Williams in the endzone, the Spaniard out-jumped his opponent and somehow plucked the ball off the defender’s facemask for a spectacular touchdown catch.

With under a minute left in the half, Hamburg appeared to stop the Galaxy’s drive but committed a too many men penalty to grant their opponent new life.  Sullivan took full advantage, flipping the field with a 50-yard bomb to a diving Anthony Mahoungou, then finding him wide open again in the endzone for a 10-yard score after a replay confirmed the game-changing catch. Adams finally added a two-point attempt and Frankfurt entered the break-up 20-17 after a wild final few minutes.

Predictably, Hamburg came out swinging to begin the third quarter. A cross-field pitch-back trick play was unsuccessful, but Kwame Ofori picked up a big first down and Xavier Johnson rumbled for 18 to get the ball moving. Jhonattan Silva Gomez gave up some free yards with a dead ball major penalty and fullback Levi Kruse got into the action to make it first and goal, but the Frankfurt defense held firm until Hamburg was given a fresh set of downs on a questionable roughing the passer call against Ville Valasti. Clark would punch in his second touchdown, but an unsuccessful challenge on another Kruse catch ruled short of the goal line and poor clock management earlier in the drive led the Sea Devils to expend two time-outs early, a factor that would come back to bite them later.

The Frankfurt offense stalled once again, succeeding only at pinning Hamburg at their own one-yard line on the next drive. While the first attempt to get some breathing room resulted in minor injuries to Johnson and starting linemen Timo Winter and David Weinstock, Clark still got all the protection he needed to find Botella Moreno on the deep post for a 47-yard gain on the next play. Clark delivered another first down to Benjamin Mau, then scrambling for a massive gain of his own before the team had to settle for a 38-yard Andersen field goal. After another Galaxy three-and-out, it was Johnson who returned to cut through the middle of the Frankfurt defense for 27 yards, setting up another 37-yarder from Andersen to make it 30-20 early in the fourth.

Frankfurt Galaxy RB Gennadiy Adams Photo: Mikkel Rasmussen/1st Down Photo

The Galaxy finally got going again thanks to a strong return from Justin Rodney and Sullivan delivered a 16-yard strike to Mahoungou to move the chains, before adding another first with his feet. Gennadiy Adams got the team inside the ten and tight end Kevin Mwamba took the short dump off from a rolling Sullivan six yards to bash into to endzone before yet another two-point attempt was stuffed short.

With just over five minutes remaining, Jadrian Clark was hardly conservative in protecting the four-point Hamburg lead. He shocked the defense with play action to find Botella Moreno for 27 yards up the seam, then Johnson battled for 16 more on a screen and got a facemask penalty tacked on to immediately put the Sea Devils in the redzone. It looked like a score was inevitable but Weinstock was ejected for a weak punch at the bottom of a pile and the penalty backed them up enough for the Galaxy to bar the door. Looking at a 31-yard chip shot to make it a full touchdown difference, the consistently automatic Andersen hooked the kick left of the upright and suddenly Frankfurt’s fate was in their own hands.

Sullivan found Strahmann for 18 yards on first down, before sending a deep shot just past the fingertips of Lorenz Regler on the first play after the two-minute warning. Regler would pick up the first down anyway on the next play, before doing it again with a brilliant high-point catch on the right sideline, absorbing a hellacious hit from Curtis Slater that was ruled a 15-yard penalty for targeting a defenseless receiver. That put Frankfurt on the 14-yard line with 53 seconds left and Sullivan wasted no time, throwing a fade to Hendrik Schwarz that was ruled down at the one after a review. He plunged in himself for the go-ahead touchdown, but Miguel Boock intercepted his two-point attempt and provided a glimmer of hope for Hamburg to win with a walk-off field goal.

With less than 30 seconds on the clock, Frankfurt committed a potentially fatal error when Nico Strahmann sent the kick-off out of bounds, giving the Sea Devils the ball at the 40-yard line after penalty. Tobias Nill gave his team a crucial first down with a toe drag catch that held up to review and with 8 seconds left, Andersen trotted out to attempt a 62-yard game-winner from his own side of half. The kick was on target but the ball dropped just a foot short of the crossbar, prompting an explosion of emotion from the Galaxy sideline as they held on to the 32-30 win in the biggest game of their lives.

Crowd celebrating Photo: Mikkel Rasmussen/1st Down Photo

In the end, it was small errors that killed the Sea Devils. The early usage of their time-outs gave them too little time to work with late in the game to secure a more reasonable attempt from Andersen and 110 yards of penalties was pivotal in allowing their opponent the opportunity to come from behind.

Crowded onto the podium post-game, Frankfurt quarterback Jakeb Sullivan was named the ELF’s first-ever Championship Game MVP for his role in the fourth-quarter comeback. The triumphant league all-star was 24-0f-37 for 311 yards and four touchdowns on the evening, in addition to carrying in the winning touchdown. On the Hamburg side, Jadrian Clark was equally impressive and played his best game of the season by far, going 25-of-39 for 351 yards, a touchdown, a pick, and two rushing scores.

After a historic first season, the ELF has already announced three new teams and as many as three more could be on the way, sure to make it much more difficult to claim the title again in 2022. But the Galaxy and the Sea Devils proved on Sunday that they will be near the top of the blossoming league for years to come, just as their two cities were the last time professional football was played in Europe.

For a league that wishes to be the spiritual successor to NFL Europe, there could be no more fitting ending to a first season, as the winningest franchise in that league’s history became the very first to hoist the trophy in the new one.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.