LONDON -- On a balmy summer's day this past Tuesday, the NFL finally landed in North London, at Tottenham Hotspur's new state-of-the-art stadium. Sure, most of the current players present weren't suited up to take reps -- other than of the relentless-media variety -- and the action on the retractable artificial turf primarily featured teenage hopefuls being put through their paces in a bid to earn a spot in the newly formed NFL Academy.
But the symbolic nature of the day -- underpinned by the giant NFL shield in the centre of the field -- was apparent. This was the first time that the stadium, which opened in April, was in full NFL mode. By taking the opportunity to showcase some possible future British stars of the league, the league demonstrated that its international expansion has taken another major step forward.
"I wasn't really expecting this," said Cameron Brate, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end who will play in London this autumn in Week 6. "I was expecting to walk into a soccer stadium, so to see this setup is awesome and shows the commitment to growing the game here."
"The stadium is breathtaking. The amount of money they spent on the stadium? Well spent! It's a gold mine," Mario Addison, a Carolina Panthers defensive end, said, laughing. He'll also make the trip to face the Bucs later this year.
The stadium is believed to have cost 850m British pounds, roughly $1 billion.
It wasn't just American football stars present to see the first event on the stadium's dedicated NFL field. Former Spurs and England defender Ledley King attended in an ambassadorial role for the club and liked what he saw: "It really does feel like an NFL stadium today."
Historically, logistical concerns have been raised when the big show has come to town, and that has extended beyond the impact that previous International Series games have had on the Wembley (or Twickenham) turf. At both of those stadiums, NFL teams squeezed into the relatively small off-the-field facilities.
At the Tottenham stadium, new locker rooms specifically made for larger squads -- and the more sizable frames within those rosters -- were unveiled to the media, with scale and space apparent for all to experience. A merchandise shop conspicuously selling NFL gear further cemented the permanency of the partnership between Tottenham and the U.S. league. Walking around, with the blazing sun beating off the hashmarks, you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the West Coast of the U.S., not yards from Seven Sisters Road.
The Academy hopefuls being put through their paces between those hashmarks reminded those present that the partnership between the NFL and Spurs extends beyond commerce and beyond the initial 10-year deal that will see regular-season games played at the stadium every year. Announced earlier this year, the Academy will be based in the North London area, at Barnet and Southgate College, beginning operations in September with a first class of approximately 80 students, enabling a permanent, year-round footballing presence in the community.
The course will give young British players unprecedented schooling in the game as they maintain their academic development. The hopes, fears and dreams that the aspiring players were facing at the final trial to win a place on the course resonated with a lot of the past and present NFL stars in attendance, such as Christian Scotland-Williamson, the former Worcester Warriors player now signed to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Scotland-Williamson transitioned in his 20s, fast-tracking an understanding of the game to get a shot.
"I've only been playing for a year and a half now," Scotland-Williamson said. "These guys are able to go in and build up their skills so [when] they get to that stage when they could be entering the [NFL] draft, they have 5 or 6 years' experience under their belt."
Getting to the players at a younger age and teaching them the basics is a major progression for talent development in the U.K.
"You get to the level now where we have the [Academy] kids taking the next step, trying to get to the next level, and we have coaches in place teaching them the proper ways to get used to playing in the NFL," said Johnathan Joseph of the Houston Texans, who was a first-round draft pick in 2006.
One of those guiding hands is Jason Bell, who spent 10 years as an NFL player and is now a recognisable face on U.K. TV covering the game. Bell is heavily involved with the Academy, hands-on, sleeves rolled up, motivating the players, putting them through their paces. He sees the potential firsthand.
"How can I help this player improve because I see the raw ability there?" Bell said. "That's what I'm so excited about."
That "raw ability" is apparent from looking at the assembled young talent at the stadium. Pace, strength, dexterity are all on show, but many of the young hopefuls have never played organised football. Now they have a chance to try something new, to explore a different direction for their talent.
King considers what could have been an alternative path for him had the Academy existed back in the day. "I've been walking around here this morning and thought, 'This could have been me.' I'd have fancied a go at something like this."
"These kids are in a very privileged position," said Efe Obada, who came from a challenging upbringing -- and an unconventional path -- to star in the NFL against the odds. "If I'd gone through the whole student-athlete route that everyone else took, I would have been further along."
Obada is the first international player who did not play college football and advanced directly from an American-football European league to the NFL.
The odds are still stacked against most of the hopefuls following in Obada's footsteps even with the few years' head start they will have on the current generation of Brits in the NFL, but the potential to make it as a pro is only part of the appeal of the Academy.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the game of football and the education element," Bell said. "All these people doing this are going to go back into their communities and be better men, know how to get along with people, because that's what you do on a football team."