Right now, there’s a delightful documentary you can watch (or rent or buy) on Amazon Prime called Unicorn Town. (Trailer here.) It’s about the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns, who play American football in the German Football League. It’s also about sports, life philosophy, and places.
Unicorn Town is a 2022 documentary by Nick Alfieri. Alfieri is an American who grew up playing football, played at Georgetown, got into USC film school, and then decided he needed a little more football before he aged out. Not good enough for the NFL, he was good enough for the German Football League. He went in 2016, to play some football and to make a documentary.
Once in Schwäbisch Hall, Alfieri began to learn about the German Football League. Plenty of Americans are in the league, but there are a maximum of six per team and only two can be on the field at the same time. Almost all of the Americans on the Unicorns are guys like Alfieri—they love the game, they’re good, and they aren’t ready to give it up. A few still harbor NFL dreams. Most of the talent in the league is German. Schwäbisch Hall is a “small town team with a small-town budget,” so the Americans get food, housing, and a small stipend, but the German players are all volunteers. As a coach reminds the Americans, “you are professionals amongst amateurs.” The German players work jobs and make it to practices as best they can.
As viewers, many of the contrasts in the film are entertaining. The team names are somewhat unexpected and amusing. The Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns face off against teams like the New Yorker Lions, the Stuttgart Scorpions, the Cologne Crocodiles, and the Munich Cowboys. Occasionally the Unicorns play a team in a neighboring country. At one point, Alfieri is lacing up to play on a field in Austria with a view of the Alps. He gets to travel all over with the Unicorns and they play real football. There are rivalries, long throws, hard tackles, and fans. It’s more competitive than Alfieri expected.
There are other, more significant differences between the German Football League and the experience of American football in America for competitive players. Without giving any of the real plot away, in the end, Alfieri ends up staying in Schwäbisch Hall. He’s actually still playing for the Unicorns today. The significant differences are a big factor.
What is it about Schwäbisch Hall? It’s a small city and the team has one of the smaller budgets. But they also have a different philosophy of sport. Once he’s in the mix, Alfieri is pleasantly surprised by how fun it is to play for the Unicorns. The guys want to win, but, for most of them, football is not a job. They just love it. And they take it seriously, but not too seriously. People get beers and have cigarettes after the games. There is a local bar where the players and fans hang out. The team is like a family and people keep playing for years.
One of the reasons that Schwäbisch Hall is so special is definitely their founder and then head coach, “Sigi” Gehrke. Sigi is a visionary figure in the history of American football in Germany, but he’s also a working teacher, one who is always smiling. He’s a little bit like a real-life Ted Lasso. He’s very encouraging and inclusive. When the team goes to the finals and the offensive coordinator only wants to take the players who may actually play (50) so they can avoid complications and distractions, Sigi insists they bring everyone—“my roster has seventy-four.” By the way, he takes all comers to the team. Anyone who wants to play for the Unicorns is welcome. When Alfieri gets injured, Sigi doesn’t send him back to the States. He chooses to wait out the injury rather than replace the new kid. It makes a big impression on Alfieri and on the viewers. The thing that’s special about Schwäbisch Hall is how they treat people.
In some ways, Unicorn Town is like Last Chance U. There are football players who have talent but maybe haven’t landed exactly where they hoped. Many of the Americans want to get somewhere else or may need to change their path in life a bit. The Unicorns are going for a championship and the whole film is filled with the drama of the season. But there are a lot of differences between Unicorn Town and Last Chance U that have nothing to do with profane coaches.
All of the schools featured in Last Chance U are situated somewhere and that somewhere matters to some people, but the players want to be elsewhere. The whole point is getting out. We get some nice cinematography about the places you find these colleges, but the players never connect with the place. Unicorn Town is entirely different. Players may come from all over, but the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns are all about Schwäbisch Hall. They have a youth development program. Players interact with fans. The Americans become familiar with the small, charming city. They learn about Europe. Plenty of players decide they want to stay in Schwäbisch Hall.
It’s pretty remarkable that Alfieri stayed in Schwäbisch Hall, and not only because most people don’t grow up planning to play American football in Germany. Alfieri went to Georgetown University, a really good school. He got into USC, the best film school in the country. He was on what some might call the “path to success.” Schwäbisch Hall was originally planned as a detour, but it became a destination. Why? In part because Alfieri found his fit in Schwäbisch Hall.
Unicorn Town is a good sports documentary, but it also contains some good life lessons. Being happy isn’t always about being in the highest ranked place possible. It’s not all about income. Unicorn Town emphasizes the importance of community and belonging and picking a place. The Unicorns as an organization reflect that philosophy. They have fewer resources than most teams, but they are successful, as one player emphasizes, “because they put a ton of resources into their youth program.” Most of their players are locals. The Unicorns are an integrated part of the life of Schwäbisch Hall. As another player says, “it’s not just about the game, it’s about all the surrounding things here.”
Unicorn Town is also one of many examples of how well Europe can do sports. Obviously, plenty of professional leagues in Europe trade players and chase money and titles just like anywhere else. But Europe has also excelled in having some smaller leagues and some different levels of leagues which allow for real attachment between a place and a team. We see this in the pub regulars and townspeople in Ted Lasso. We see this in the real life Welcome to Wrexham. Some teams really belong to their towns. The Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns are never going to leave for a better stadium. Many of their players wouldn’t play anywhere else.
High school and college teams fill the place of these smaller leagues in the United States in many ways, but we could handle more. Here in Florida, we could probably manage to support some semi-professional leagues for adults in a variety of sports and have plenty of towns to put them in. Like the people in Schwäbisch Hall, many Americans would love a team to walk on with. And since minor league baseball rosters are constantly changing and the G-League is miniature and there is no minor league football, why not? Sports can be something more of us do, not just watch. There’s some beauty in sports that are still a little bit amateur and not always lucrative and adults could enjoy participating. Once upon a time, different businesses and professions in a town would have their own baseball teams and play each other. At a minimum, we could do more to bring back church softball leagues.
Like all good sports documentaries, Unicorn Town highlights what is beautiful about sports. Play is beautiful. It’s enjoyable. Adults don’t do it enough. Sports is one of the best access points for play. When the opportunity is present, it’s almost magical, as we can see in the Yeti short about “baseball, life, Jack Sanders, and the amalgamation thereof,” The Long Time. You don’t age out of the thrill of the game. (You might have to transition to different sports—like pickleball.)
Unicorn Town is a fun and worthwhile watch. It’s a good reminder that “living the dream” is not just about playing at what everyone perceives to be the highest level. It’s about being in the right place, with the right people. Ultimately, Alfieri loves playing football in Schwäbisch Hall, but not just for the competitive play and the chance to get a championship. Schwäbisch Hall knows how to win, but they also know how to treat people. Winning is about life on and off the field, in and out of the workplace, in the places we’ve found, not just the places we find ourselves.
Image credit: “Schwäbisch Hall” by Jay Marschall via Wikimedia