NFL Europe Could Help Bubble Players

Tight end Jeff Kostrewa and the Vikings' other NFL Europe graduates agree that the football experience was valuable as the Vikings start to think about roster cuts.

Jeff Kostrewa didn't care for all the cigarette smoke. For that matter, he didn't enjoy dining at a restaurant where dogs were permitted to sit under the table, either.

But he wasn't there on vacation; he was there to play football. And play football is exactly what Kostrewa and five other Minnesota Vikings did this spring in Europe.

The Vikings' NFL Europe Class of 2002 included Kostrewa, Mike Malano, Romaro Miller, Brian Morton, Lewis Kelly and Mesene Louisdor. Morton, a punter, has since been released by the Vikings. Some Vikings who spent the spring playing in the NFL's developmental league in Europe will be on the bubble when the roster gets trimmed later this month. Others could be playing vital roles this season for the Vikings.

Regardless of their fate with the Vikings, all six will agree NFL Europe was time well spent.

"It helped build my confidence," said Kostrewa, listed on the depth chart as the team's fourth-string tight end behind Byron Chamberlain, Hunter Goodwin and O.J. Santiago (Jim Kleinsasser is listed as an H-back). "It was a good experience."

Offensive lineman Lewis Kelly benefited greatly. A seventh-round draft pick of the Vikings in 2000, Kelly spent his rookie season with the Vikings on injured reserve, then played in just three of 16 games last season. In Europe, Kelly started eight games at left tackle for the Frankfurt Galaxy.

In training camp for the Vikings, Kelly can back up both starting tackles — Everett Lindsay at left tackle and Chris Liwienski at right tackle. The team might be examining the possibility of temporarily moving All-Pro center Matt Birk to left tackle as well, since 2002 first-round draft pick Bryant McKinnie decided to hold out of training camp.

Regardless of who starts at tackle, Kelly will likely see his role greatly increased from one year ago, when he was inactive for 13 regular-season games. Since he was drafted, Kelly — 6-foot-4, 300 pounds — has put on about 30 pounds. Thanks to NFL Europe, Kelly was able to add experience to his resume. Because of that, he hopes his role with the Vikings is enhanced.

"I improved a little," Kelly said. "My hands got a little better. I made calls on the run and on the go, instead of sitting at practice and looking at a chart. Coach (Steve) Loney graded me out as if I was playing here in regular games. I don't know my grades, but I think I did pretty good."

Before his tour overseas, Kelly had never left the United States. "It was nice to see a new culture," Kelly said. "They have a lot of holidays over there, too. Here, we have one day for Good Friday and Easter. The kids get a couple of weeks for Easter over there.

"They're also big on family. It's not so work-oriented like it is here in America. They're really family-oriented in Germany."

Kostrewa didn't care for the culture as much as Kelly did. In fact, Kostrewa was ready to come home.

"It was tough not knowing where anything was and taking public transportation," said Kostrewa, a former Wisconsin-La Crosse player who spent the majority of last season on the Vikings practice squad. "And they smoke everywhere. You get off the airplane and the airports are filled with smoke. If you find a place to eat, somebody's dog is sitting under the table."

Kostrewa's cultural impressions pale in comparison to his experiences on the football field. Kostrewa's Berlin Thunder stumbled off to an 0-3 start. Then they won six of their final seven, which led to their second consecutive World Bowl championship.

"We got better as we went along," Kostrewa said. "But it was good for me. Winning six of our last seven really helped my confidence."

Playing for the Thunder, Kostrewa felt like he was at a soccer game rather than a football game. "Fans basically cheer in soccer style," he said. "They have synchronized cheers and soccer chants. It's like a big party. Even when the home team's offense is on the field, they're noisy."

In Minnesota, with the Vikings, Kostrewa's name is barely on the radar screen. Because of that, he knows that gaining experience by playing in Europe is an asset, not a liability.

"The NFL Europe guys get put on the back burner here. Right now there's only a [few] left. I'm just trying to make a impression and stay on the team," Kostrewa said. "Coach (Mike) Tice has decided there'll be two starting tight ends in our lineup and then two behind them. I'm fighting for that fourth spot, and you never know if an injury happens. I wouldn't wish injury on anyone, but if there was, I'd like to leave a lasting impression."

Just two weeks into training camp, Kelly, who is nursing sore quadriceps and ribs, feels like it's the middle of November. It's understandable, when you consider there was little time off between the NFL Europe's season, working out, then training camp.

"It's more of a mental thing," Kelly said. "I've been playing football since back in January. I'm struggling right now, but I just push through it. I just want to come in and do my best."

Other Class of 2002 NFL Europe players' statuses: Malano is listed on the depth chart as the team's third-string center and right guard; Miller is battling Shaun Hill and Spergon Wynn for the third quarterback spot; and Mesene Louisdor is listed as the third-string left cornerback behind veteran Corey Chavous and 2002 fourth-round draft pick Brian Williams.

As the roster cutdown to 65 players nears on Aug. 27 or the cutdown to 53 players happens on Sept. 1, these players will find out just how much NFL Europe helped their chances of making the regular-season roster of the Vikings.

Vikings contributors who are NFL Europe alumni include tight end Byron Chamberlain, quarterback Todd Bouman, defensive lineman Winfield Garnett, offensive lineman Everett Lindsay and linebacker Antonio Wilson.

"It was a chance for me to adapt to the game of football itself," said Wilson, who spent the 2001 spring playing in Europe. "It's nice to get playing time in. It was worth the experience."

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