Super Bowl 2020: The NFL Academy & its first students on a new path to US game
It’s 5 am and an alarm clock goes off in Milton Keynes. Fraser Holden has to get up and out in time to catch the 05:53 to London Euston.
From there he takes the tube to Southgate, north London, and is down to work by 7.30 am. He might not leave until five in the afternoon.
Unlike the other commuters, Fraser travels kitted out in sportswear. He’s 16 and is going to college to learn how to play American football. Today. the aspiring linebacker will meet Jerry Rice, one of the greatest players of all time.
Yet this is not a one-off, it’s a regular day at the NFL Academy. Backed by the NFL, Nike and some superstar mentors, the programme is the first of its kind in Britain.
The aim? To transform the perception of American football in the UK and Europe.
The NFL said nothing until a surprise social media campaign announced the details last May. Within two weeks, over 1,500 had applied for the 90 places on offer.
In September, the first intake started at Barnet & Southgate College. Here, 16-to-18-year-olds study for regular qualifications alongside elite American football training.
Fraser was one of those who applied. He grew up playing rugby but had started playing small-sided American football games too. He was lured by the ‘We Can, We Do’ campaign, aimed at British youngsters dreaming of following Efe Obada and Jay Ajayi into the NFL.
The first try-outs were held in June. Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr was there – as well as BBC pundits Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell.
From the outset, the message was clear. Academy hopefuls would be judged on their attitude and character as much as their athletic ability. And the programme would be very demanding.
“It’s dedication, it’s a commitment,” says Will Bryce, NFL UK’s head of player development. “It’s prioritising studying, managing your time, getting to bed early, getting off social media when you don’t need to be on it. It gives the kids structure, they’re part of a team, plus there are some pretty cool opportunities too.”
Selfies with OBJ was just the start. After the try-outs, 150 hopefuls were called back to a stadium showcase in the first NFL event at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in July. There they met Obada himself and did drills with Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Juju Smith-Schuster.
Fraser was among the 90 eventually accepted. He admits the first few weeks of the programme were “a big shake-up – especially after going to school five minutes away”. Now he is proud to wear his NFL-branded kit, to be one of those who stand out on campus.
In pride of place is the academy gym, which was converted from the college’s theatre and now features NFL branding inside and out. Jerry Rice came for the official opening.
The 57-year-old, who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, tells students that at their age he was a “diamond in the rough”, that he never thought he would play professional football, that he wasn’t the greatest athlete and didn’t have the best skills but refused to let anybody “out-work him”.
The legendary receiver speaks with the ‘inspiration wall’ as a backdrop. It features quotes from NFL players, each one almost always featuring the same word – work. Three more are prominent too: Responsibility, integrity, respect.
The students are often here lifting weights at 7.30 am. For linebacker Fraser and defensive end Tyrese Peters-Tovey, 19, the strength and conditioning work has been the toughest part. But the shared experience quickly saw the group bond.
“You kind of have to when you’re running 110-yard sprints together and running into each other for three hours a day!” Fraser says.
Each week they have three field sessions, four classroom sessions and four weightlifting sessions. On Wednesdays, the focus is on character development. Staff and external speakers talk about life skills, wellbeing, and issues such as social media safety and domestic violence.
They have 10 hours of classes in their chosen subjects – the same as all the college’s students – plus 15 hours of training on top. And if anybody wants extra video footage to review in their own time – an essential part of life in the NFL – staff are happy to oblige.
“If they’re willing to put the work in, we’ll match it and then some,” says Bryce. “It’s going to produce a type of American football player which this country has not produced before. They’re going to be much better prepared to compete in the NFL, mentally and physically.”
The head coach is Tony Allen – the long-serving London Warriors coach. He and his staff have had to tailor sessions to accommodate a range of skillsets.
Some signed up having already broken into Great Britain’s Under-19s, some had never played a snap. Many have come across from rugby, others have switched from sports like athletics, tennis, judo and swimming. In total, 32 of the 90 students are considered ‘crossover athletes’.
While American youngsters grow up with the game, British players like Umenyiora and Obada have proved you can pick it up late and still succeed.
Umenyiora was born in London and hadn’t even heard of American football until he moved to Alabama at the age of 14. He went on to win two Super Bowls. Obada didn’t play until he was 22 and, five years on, has just signed for a third year with the Carolina Panthers.
“We always said that if we’re going to help develop European talent we need to get them earlier and here we are working with 16-year-olds,” says Allen.
Students come from very different backgrounds, too. Three are involved with the Big Kid Foundation which seeks to help “young people at risk of social exclusion and youth violence”. Another is a former pupil at Charterhouse boarding school in Surrey.
Thirty-five have left home to be here – 30 from further afield in the UK, five from Europe. Because they’re under 18 they aren’t permitted to live on their own, so the college has partnered with a homestay programme to place them with local families, with extra pastoral and welfare staff on hand to support them.
The dream for many is to earn a scholarship and join the American collegiate system, from which NFL players are drafted. The academy has, therefore, had to find centres in London where they can sit the SAT test, for college admissions in the US.
That’s true of George Reynolds. He wants to be the NFL’s first British quarterback and has just been out in Florida. He was one of eight from the academy, selected by fellow students, to take part in a High School skills showdown before Sunday’s Pro Bowl all-star game in Orlando.
Fraser has recently joined George in the British U19 squad, and although he also hopes to play in the US too, he feels his academic choices could help him pursue an alternative career in politics.
Tyrese chose to put off university for a year, moving from Hackney to his dad’s in Enfield so he could be closer to campus. While his parents backed the decision, he initially faced opposition from his grandparents, who are lawyers and dentists in Trinidad.
“They made it sound like I wasn’t being productive,” Tyrese says. “But I’m not just getting better at football, I have a chance to get a qualification and get something in life.
“Whatever happens after this, I’ll be a better player and a better person. I think I made the right choice.”
With the NFL’s regular-season already over, British players Christian Scotland-Williamson and Jamie Gillan recently dropped by. Obada is also set to pay another visit.
He and Scotland-Williamson are products of the International Player Pathway, which started in 2017. And the success of that programme, for over-20s, gave Alistair Kirkwood the inspiration to revisit an idea he first presented early in his 20-year tenure as NFL UK’s managing director.
Back then, things were focused solely on producing more elite, international players. But after helping bring regular-season games to London, Kirkwood realised an academy could do much more.
“We wanted something from a community perspective in north London that was more year-round and impactful than just playing the London Games,” he says.
“Now education is as important in the academy as the athletic side, if not more so. An elite few will go to the States but success for us is 100% of kids having some form of defined success, be it going on to further education, becoming more employable or being role models who can influence younger kids.
“We’ve had lots of little landmarks where we’ve confounded ourselves and gone on to greater things but of all of these, I’d say the academy has the potential to be truly transformational. It could be something we look back on and say it changed the shape of the sport.”
As the students watch Super Bowl 54 this Sunday, it will be with a clear path of how one day they could get there too. Realistically, few will make it. Only 1.6% of US college players were drafted in 2018.
But even if they don’t, the experience will last a lifetime, wherever their future lies.