London’s new National Football League (NFL) Academy, housed within Barnet and Southgate College, started this month with 80 students aged 16-19 dreaming of a place on the roster at one of the major American franchises.
It’s a long and daunting road to get there, but one that’s endorsed by some of the NFL’s biggest stars, including wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr and Juju Smith-Schuster, who both flew to London during the off-season to make coaching cameos during the trials.
“American Football isn’t just American,” says Cleveland Brown’s Beckham Jr, who scored six touchdowns last season for former team New York Giants. “It’s a sport for everyone and there are positions that fit people of all backgrounds, skills and body sizes.
“What I love about the NFL Academy is it’s a way to find new talent and, for me personally, to give back to the game. I think the potential here is insane.”
“There’s Jay [Ajayi], Marvin [Allen], Efe [Obada] and I hear [Tottenham striker] Harry Kane wants to move over one day as a kicker,” adds Pittsburgh Steelers’ Smith-Schuster, who started his 2019 regular season with six receptions for 78 yards in a 33-3 loss to defending Super Bowl champions New England Patriots.
“There’s tons of interest in the NFL in England, so if we add the right coaching and keep these kids in school and out of trouble, we can do something special.”
The class of 2019-20 have already come through a series of gruelling trials - 40-yard dashes, broad and vertical jumps and agility grills - to win their places.
The final selection process took place at Tottenham Hotspur’s new 62,000-capacity stadium, which will also host of the NFL International Series game between Chicago Bears and Oakland Raiders on October 6.
“It was really cool to play [American] football at such an awesome venue,” says 6ft 3 inch aspiring quarterback Matthew John. “I was a bit star-struck, especially when OBJ [Odell Beckham Jr.] casually walked in and took a selfie with the group.”
“It was surreal sharing the field with Juju,” adds 17-year-old Sergei Starodoubtsev, who ran the 40-yard dash in a lightning-quick 4.85 seconds. “I play rugby and hockey at school and when I saw this opportunity advertised on social media I couldn’t believe my luck.”
“I was quite confident of making it through to the final class,” admits 18-year-old quarterback George Reynolds. “I play for Kent Exiles and England Under-19s and winning a place at the NFL Academy means I can focus on football full-time.
“That’s the only way I’m going to be the next [Tom] Brady or [Russell] Wilson. You can’t be half-hearted with this type of dream.”
All NFL Academy students still receive a formal education – either gaining A-levels or vocational diplomas – and receive 12 hours of American football training each week led by former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Tony Allen.
But as with any professional sport, the path to elite level is perilous and the odds remain stacked against the majority of the inaugural class ever reaching the NFL.
A handful of students will potentially pique the interest of NFL scouts, but a more grounded aspiration would be to target a college scholarship in America first rather than expecting to go from Barnet straight onto an NFL roster.
Christian Wade knows how tough it is to break into the NFL. The former Wasps and England winger quit rugby to pursue his NFL dream and was drafted by the Buffalo Bills this summer.
Wade then went viral after scoring a sensational 65-yard touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts with his first carry of pre-season but was still cut from the 53-man roster.
“It’s hard because you don’t just have to impress, but also learn the playbook,” says 28-year-old Wade, who is the third-highest try scorer in English Premiership history. “This exists in rugby as well, but it’s not as micromanaged or complicated.
“I wish I had something like the NFL Academy 10 years ago. In England, we have to normalise playing American football, so as to show it’s fun, safe, inclusive and easy to learn. That will help attract players at a young enough age to then turn them into stars.”
Another NFL Academy ambassador is Carolina Panthers’ defensive end Efe Obada. The 27-year- old has one of the most interesting and inspiring backstories in or outside of the NFL.
Obada was born in Nigeria, but was trafficked to London aged 10. He found himself homeless in Hackney for a few days but once under a roof fell into gang culture.
Having seen some of his friends murdered in so-called ‘gang wars’, and, by his own admission, made some poor choices during this period, Obada believes American football set his life back on track and handed him a sense of both belonging and community.
“I think my story is obviously unique but also in some ways familiar,” reveals Obada. “A lot of these kids [at the NFL Academy] have also suffered their own type of hardship, been in gangs or have just struggled for opportunities in life.
“Maybe they have battled despair or discrimination. This type of initiative gives them a chance and, as importantly, role-models, regardless of whether they make it to the top.”
As Obada alludes to, the morally-conscious NFL Academy also has community-focused goals, which are arguably more important than the coaching side.
According to NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood, the primary objective is to ‘build well-rounded individuals who can contribute to society and become more employable.’
“The NFL Academy is basically keeping 80 kids in school,” says 18-year-old receiver Rami Miller. “I live in Brixton and, to be honest, there is a bad gang culture around. So if you don’t get a degree or job it’s hard to avoid just joining the gang.
“The players who are part of the NFL Academy are kind of in their own gang and it’s a positive one. I don’t think it’s about competing against each other. It’s more about encouraging everyone to stick with it and then there are no losers.
“Everyone leaves with an education and, as a bonus, one or two might make it - hopefully me!”
The NFL Academy isn’t consciously targeting any specific demographic, but statistically there is strong interest in American football from black players. This is no surprise considering 69 percent of current NFL players are black.
“Black sports stars are used to being minorities, but that’s not the case in the NFL on the field,” says Obada. “As the ‘majority’, they still face many challenges, including racism, but football is a very inclusive sport.
In America it has helped give many black youths a purpose and even lowered poverty rates. I see no reason why this can’t be the same here.”
It will be intriguing to follow the NFL Academy class of 2019-20. The NFL has traditionally focused on finding new fans abroad with initiatives like its London games, but their latest and most ambitious international strategy of sourcing players is sure to bolster their brand and also strengthen the case for a much-talked-about London franchise in the process.
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