<
>

NFL's London Academy has potential to change lives -- on and off the field

play
'Life changing' NFL academy launched in London. (1:52)

British Super Bowl winning RB Jay Ajayi joined the NFL at the launch of the NFL Academy in London. (1:52)

The NFL's continued expansion internationally has been further accentuated with the launch of an NFL Academy in London, where this Autumn, 80 students aged 16-18 will be given the opportunity via a dual programme to combine their education with training in American football, benefiting from full-time professional coaching.

"This is an opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of many young people, regardless of their experience of our sport," said NFL UK Managing Director Alistair Kirkwood, at the launch of the academy at the NFL UK headquarters in central London.

The Academy will be based at Barnet & Southgate College, selected for various reasons including an identifiable track record in developing other similar sporting academies. Its close proximity to Tottenham Hotspur is a key factor too, with Kirkwood citing the need to "create something meaningful for the community on a year-round basis" to support the NFL games being played at the new Spurs stadium on an annual basis from the 2019 season.

On the surface, the initiative, supported by NFL superstars including Odell Beckham Jr & current MVP Patrick Mahomes, seems a logical progression from the successful International Pathway Program which in recent years has helped a number of non-US players with talent like the Carolina Panthers Efe Obada (another ambassador) and England rugby player Christian Wade, transition to the NFL.

The relatively late adoption of an extremely technical sport is a distinct disadvantage for aspiring international players who often don't start playing till university age, or older, so the academy will provide a more level playing field for those with ambition.

Furthermore, the exposure and awareness of the programme will be instrumental in attracting a larger pool of players as more and more young British athletes realise that American football can be a viable option for them to pursue over other sports.

Indeed, it seems inevitable that talent with the potential to follow in Obada's footsteps will be unearthed by the academy, though most students, just like their American high school counterparts, won't make it to the big leagues. But as most of the key protagonists in the academy suggest, what's on offer to the teenagers is much more varied, and long lasting, than the chance of a professional contract.

Kirkwood emphasises the programmes three-pronged focus; education, football training, "where (students) will have a unit to support and feel like you should be supporting others" and character development, to "equip them going forwards" on the assumption that they're one of the 99% that doesn't end up in the league.

Broadcaster and former NFL player Jason Bell, now based in the UK, is one of the ambassadorial team involved and shares a similar perspective.

"It's all about education. It's hard to be a professional player and to make it and if you do, it's not going to be a long thing," said Bell. "You're going to be something else longer than you'll be a football player.

"The advantage of being a player is that you learn how to learn, you know to communicate with others from all different walks of life, and that's key as you go on into your future"

The correlation between football and life opportunity is long established in the US. Talented high school athletes have the chance to make it to college, gain a degree, pick up a range of life skills and this enables a strong start for their adulthood, without ever being a viable candidate for having a professional NFL career.

The NFL Academy hopes to mirror this thinking, developing young adults equipped for a range of career possibilities, positioning itself apart from other sporting academies whose principal objective is to find elite talent to turn pro. Alongside more standard academic qualifications, students will additionally be educated in a range of practical subjects including financial management and social media.

Tony Allen, a prolific figure in the UK game, head of international player development for the NFL, and instrumental in Obada's journey to the NFL will head up coaching at the academy.

"These kids are going to come out of here with a better understanding of life," he said. "To have young players practising four times a week, in the weight room four times a week, in the classroom learning the game four times a week, it's just a fantastic environment for these kids to achieve."

The co-ordinated, sustained coaching that Allen will oversee is a significant development from what currently exists, despite organised American football being one of the faster growing participation sports in the UK.

British Super Bowl winner Jay Ajayi, another ambassador, outlined the importance of the academic & sporting duality, celebrating the health of such an environment where students will be "around people chasing the same goal, the same dream (which) is going to drive you...make you want to better yourself."

The Ambassadors will serve as role models and aspirational touch points to the students and involvement will be varied. Bell will be on-site more frequently, with the US based players like Ajayi & Beckham committed to visit the students in person at least once a year, with additional "virtual" communication promised.

Recruitment for the first class, enrolling in the 2019 Autumn term takes place over the coming months. At the moment, it's just open to males. Kirkwood talks of the possibility of a co-ed class in the future, with a women's team featuring alongside men and it seems likely that there will be further academies globally should this prove to be successful.

"This is something that was not there yesterday," said Ajayi. He concluded: "American football changed my life and I have seen it change the life of many others."