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American Football NFL's UK Academy is the opportunity British fans and players deserve

I PLAYED American football you know. It was nothing major.

I played for my university team, the Huddersfield Hawks. An outside linebacker and one of the team captains. 

We lost all eight of our games during my rookie season and was forever fighting an uphill battle.

That level of American football was rough. Training on AstroTurf was little fun and only getting to practice twice a week (and one of those was held the morning of game day) was also less than ideal. 

Sometimes we struggled to field a full team with some guys taking snaps on offence and defence.

Still, it was only five years since the NFL made their first trip over to Britain as their International Series and the level of attention paid to the sport was still pretty minimal and it was reflected in how it was funded and the facilities available to those who wanted to play.

That was six years ago and back then there was no thought that any member of our roster could make it to the NFL or even the college ranks of the NCAA. There was only a handful that looked good enough to make the step up and play regionally.

A lot has changed since then. The landscape of British American football altered when the National Football League announced its NFL academy which is to be launched in September 2019 and will be based in Barnet and Southgate College, North London.

The league has seen a handful of Brits make the move from these shores over to the United States in a career change that has yielded mixed results so far. On the one hand it has helped produce Super Bowl-winning running back Jay Ajayi, but his story thus far is an outlier – and he benefited from playing college at Boise State.

Former discus thrower Lawrence Okoye flamed out of the league after spending time on six NFL practice squads and was recently part of the Birmingham Iron team that competed in the now defunct Alliance for American Football (AAF). 

Offensive tackle Menelik Watson has also see his NFL career come to a stop after spending time with the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos.

This is no different in many respects to the general rat race to make it into the NFL. But at least those in the US have the benefit of the NCAA, high school and even Pop Warner football (aimed at 5-14-year-olds with varying subcategories). It’s a lot easier to “make it” if you have played the game from infancy.

Most of the current crop of British athletes attempting to make waves in the NFL are transitioning from being a professional at another sport – the latest recruit being former England and Wasps winger Christian Wade trying his hand at becoming a running back with the Buffalo Bills.

The academy is a window to changing that.

NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood is aiming to build on the early success of the Player Pathway programme. The initiative is one that gives teams an extra space on their practice squad which is exclusively reserved for a player outside the United States.

“The Academy is a first-of-its kind initiative that will deliver on three key elements: education, character development and football,” said Kirkwood. “Also, we have seen from success of players such as Efe Obada in our Player Pathway programme that with the right kind of ambition and approach there is potential to achieve breakthrough results.”

The league has thrown some of its biggest stars to the forefront of the project with reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and star wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr and JuJu Smith-Schuster all ambassadors for it as well as Efe Obada, who believes the initiative will break down the barriers that he and others before him have faced.

“Being from London and having spent time with so many young athletes there, I know how much the NFL Academy will mean to them,” said Obada. 

“To have the chance to pursue American football while receiving an education and other life-changing skills is an awesome opportunity. The values that the sport teaches go beyond the field and can help you make more of your life. I am really excited to give the NFL Academy my support and help these young people achieve their dreams.”

England is embracing America’s favourite sport like never before, and while some remain reticent to climb aboard the bandwagon the appetite is undeniable even to the point that part of Tottenham’s new stadium is having a purpose-built NFL field underneath the football turf.

Now more than ever are British American football players being offered a legitimate chance to make their NFL dreams a reality. Long gone are the ill-fitting helmets and barely fit-for-purpose practice facilities that littered the country. Fresh impetus has arrived and there will be millions of Brits hoping to achieve their American dream.

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