Thursday, July 2 marked exactly a year since the NFL Academy made its bow at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as 150 teenagers competed for 80 spots on the UK’s landmark programme.
Year one entailed 69 practices in total – prior to the Academy’s suspension in March due to the coronavirus pandemic – a visit from Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, 5am wake up calls for some, four trips to the gym each week, four sessions in the football classroom each week, and an opportunity for eight student-athletes to compete at the Pro Bowl in Orlando.
The group consists of athletes from rugby, basketball, soccer, swimming and boxing backgrounds alongside those that originate from grassroots gridiron, with 30 per cent of them having never played American Football before, while the English students have been assisting Europeans that have come from overseas to join the Academy.
While intensive film study has developed the group’s understanding of the X’s and O’s, practice three times a week has enabled them to harness their physical attributes. Head coach Tony Allen is now looking to competitive games as one of the next steps forward.
“It’s big on our table when we get back,” Allen told Sky Sports. “For the planning of our return we plan for September on the government guidelines for where we are now and then again in October the same thing.
“We’ve planned for different scenarios that god willing the restrictions are eased. It will all be leading towards looking at playing games more into the end of spring, summer.
“It depends when we can come back and go full contact. We’re looking at February, March, May, June, we’re looking to have games throughout that period.
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“We’re currently talking to international federations and their national teams and we’re looking at those being our projected opponents.”
Applications recently opened for the 2020/21 academic year, with the number of players returning for year two meaning there is fierce competition for the remaining places.
Those graduating from the Academy are meanwhile looking for their next move, whether it be joining universities or pursuing opportunities at US High Schools.
“We’d always planned, although we weren’t having a league in the first year, we’d planned to have interactions of some sort, playing games and combine workouts because it’s essential for getting placed in the US,” added Allen.
“Unfortunately because of COVID we weren’t able to do that. That said, there’s a strong university league here in the UK and they give out scholarships so two of our guys have been offered scholarships to play here.
“We’ve had a couple of other guys who are currently talking to US schools, even though we didn’t have game film which is highly unusual. I think we’re graduating about 25 players this year.
“They’re talking to schools and we wish them luck and hopefully something happens there. A couple of guys have gone to UK universities but there may be more.”
As part of the process, Allen and the Academy have drawn up a list of graduating players that will be available to all universities.
The recruitment of new student-athletes to replace those making way has this time involved coaches getting out on the road to watch and evaluate players up close, although that has been made more difficult by the cancellation of the British league.
“We were fortunate to get out and look a huge European tournament that is held in Germany, where 12 federations send their all-star teams and you get the chance to look at that and their best kids,” said Allen.
“There is a Scandinavian tournament which was held in October so we were able to get a look at that. Again, going back to our sport it’s indicative of our sport where the young players who are trying to take it to whatever they deem as the next level are always putting film out there.
“We did all that and had 68 kids that we really liked and that we were talking to and then we had COVID and parents aren’t as happy or enthusiastic about sending their kids out away from home with what’s going on.
“The domestic game in the UK didn’t happen so we didn’t even get a chance to look at the British kids which is a little crazy and disappointing.”
Allen has been involved with the game for 35 years and previously spent 14 years with NFL International working as director of international player development.
While he has seen NFL Europe and the International Player Pathway programme pave the way to America for some, the Academy represents an opportunity he has long yearned for.
“One of the things that was forever rearing its head was ‘I wish I could get the players younger’,” he said.
“We have talent. There is talent in Europe, talent in the UK, there is some great talent there but the basic understanding of the game, they’re behind the eight ball.
“Their US counterparts have been doing it from such a young age so talking to Alistair Kirkwood (NFL UK’s managing director) and others in the past, this was something we always wanted to do.
“Get the young talent earlier, create the environment for them to grow and develop and give them a fighting chance to compete against the US players.”
Football is the common denominator for those at the Academy, but there is also an impetus towards success in the classroom and preparing for life off the field.
The programme aims to open doors to both sporting careers and apprenticeship opportunities, with those interested in media having been given the chance to spent time with the NFL media team in London.
“The regime at the Academy is tough, I won’t lie, but then you talk about these kids, all their dreams are to get to the US,” said Allen.
“Well, if you don’t work hard in the gym, you don’t work hard on the field and more importantly, if you don’t work hard in your Academics you aren’t going anywhere. It’s very big for us in the Academy.
“If you miss a class you miss a practice, end of story. It’s not just football. Life after football, what are you going to do? It’s important that that message gets across and these kids work hard and we’re all on the same page.”
For a relatively unprecedented student-athlete setup, it may be too early to know how to measure its success.
Having seen his players impress in skills challenges at the Pro Bowl, Allen envisions a chance to compete with the top US high school players at the Under Armour All-America game as another sign of progression.
“To have some of our kids there and compete and stand out, that’s where I’d like it to be, them stand out with their American counterparts,” he continued.
“The by product of all of this is the NFL, it would be fantastic if players make it there. Going to college is huge if you can. But if you’ve got 90 kids, there’s a small percentage I think being realistic that are going to have those opportunities.
“We’re turning young sportsmen in our sport back into the British game with a greater foundation than they’ll have got anywhere else. There’s nothing like what we do.
“You’ve got young men going back into the British game who are training three times a week, eating right, they understand what it’s like to be an elite athlete. British coaches are going to have to get their act together to stay up with them.”