The NFL International Series returns to Wembley this weekend and it is turning the most American of sports into a British pastime
Wembley Stadium, 28 October 2007. The New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins in the first ever regular season NFL game to be played outside of north America.
Little did they know that they were changing the future of a 12-year-old boy, sat in his living room across the city, catching his first glimpse of American football that day.
“I was flipping through the TV looking for an Arsenal game and I came upon the Dolphins and Giants game in Wembley Stadium.
“The game just had something about it that I couldn’t take my eyes off and from that day on I’ve just been in love with the game I was first exposed to when I was 12.
“I hadn’t even heard of the sport before watching that.”
That is what Jermaine Eluemunor, a London-born 6ft 4ins, 23-stone offensive lineman who was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft, had to say on his first experience of gridiron. The draft is where the best young prospects get picked up by NFL teams and how nearly all players make it into the league.
That game between the Giants and Dolphins was the first of what is now known as the NFL International Series. A series that has continued to grow in the decade since and will now see four games taking place in London this year.
As of now there have been 17 NFL games played this side of the Atlantic with 1,481,701 people heading to Wembley or Twickenham to get a glimpse of their favourite stars in action.
The first of those takes place this weekend where, in what almost seems like fate, Eluemunor’s Ravens will take on the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags are a regular visitor to the UK but this will be the first time that the Ravens have made the trip.
Ahead of April’s draft, where he was about to fulfil his ambitions and become and NFL player, he claimed he had one other dream – playing at Wembley Stadium, just a few miles from where he grew up in Chalk Farm.
He said: “If I get to play at Wembley it will be crazy. I think about it all the time.”
At that time he had no way of knowing who he would be drafted by but shortly after being selected by Baltimore he proclaimed his delight at being able to head back home.
“It is going to be a dream come true. I am ready. I told Ozzie Newsome (general manager) and coach Harbaugh (head coach) that I am ready to go,” he told the team’s website.
Playing at Wembley is a special thing, even for those that are not from here. Something that was stressed by Andrew Luck last season. The Colts’ quarterback spoke about what it would be like to play at Wembley when his team were over to play in last year’s series.
He declared: “I’m excited. I remember going to the old Wembley as a kid and I’ve been to a couple of soccer games there in the past couple of years.
“I understand the importance of the stadium to English football and so I’m sure it will be cool.
“And all my buddies that have played over here, the common theme is how great it is to walk out at Wembley.”
As well as playing at Wembley, last season saw games played at Twickenham for the first time. These were the first games played away from Wembley and were a historic occasion. It was the first time in its 107-year history that a non-rugby game had been played at the stadium.
This was something that was not lost on Odell Beckham Jr. – the Giants wide receiver – who stated enthusiastically: “I can’t wait to get there. See the atmosphere and the stadium.
“It’s going to be like a dream come true. Hopefully I can get out there and just have fun. Embrace it all and enjoy every moment.
“You don’t get too many like that. I’m looking forward to it.”
Eluemunor’s story was somewhat different to many of the other Brits that have made it into the league. As mentioned already, he had never even set sights on the sport until after most others that are now in the NFL had already been playing for a few years.
He was hooked on the game from the moment he first set eyes on it, but his first experiences of the sport were not exactly what he was expecting. Originally, he dreamt of being a quarterback. Unfortunately for him, there aren’t too many 23-stone quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Londoner laughed: “I wanted to be like Sam Bradford (the current Minnesota Vikings quarterback) but I was too chubby and didn’t have the best arm in the world but my first dream was to be a quarterback.”
His initial experience of playing the game was not great either. He tried out flag football – a non-contact version of the game – at Finsbury Park in London during a trial day with the London Blitz.
He recounted: “First time I played I played flag football but it wasn’t fun so I quit and went back to rugby because I wanted to hit people.”
Soon though, he and his father were moving to America where they ended up in New Jersey. Eluemunor, now 14, attended Morris Knolls High School where he took up wrestling and American football – the contact version this time.
He excelled in wrestling – a sport that the school is more known for – where he reached the state finals. Football did not come quite so easily though.
“It was hard early. I didn’t get on the field until my senior year. I had a lot to learn. I didn’t really pick a lot of it up until my senior year of high school,” he stated.
His high school coach, Ryan Esdale agreed. Speaking to the NFL ahead of the draft he remarked: “Jermaine was pretty raw when we got our hands on him. He had to learn what shoulder pads and helmets were. He actually called his uniform a kit and he called his spikes a boot.
“And there were some growing pains during his high school football years. We didn’t quite scratch the surface of the big-time NFL prospect he is now.”
However, he has no doubt that Eluemunor has what it takes as he takes the step up to the professional game: “There are no challenges that Jermaine cannot overcome. There is no adversity he hasn’t faced. He will persevere.”
Things could have turned out very differently. Following his second year at high school, he and his father had to move back to the UK for financial reasons. Eventually they agreed to return – after some begging – on the basis that the budding football star would complete college and go as far as possible in the sport. He has certainly done that.
From high school, he went to junior college at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania to try and hone his skills. The college is far from a sporting powerhouse but it gave him the chance to work on his game and really start to learn the intricacies of the sport.
While there he made a tape of his play and sent it out to the best colleges in America to try and convince them that he was good enough to play with the top athletes in the country.
He said: “I sent my highlight tape out to every single division one school (the best level of college sport in America) you can think of. I wanted the opportunity to play American football and wasn’t going to stop at anything until I made it happen.”
Despite being a relative newcomer to the game, some of the best colleges in the country attempted to recruit Eluemunor. His tape, combined with his talents in wrestling and obvious physical gifts convinced them that he could play a that level.
He committed to playing for both UCLA and Arkansas, before changing his mind on both occasions and backing out. Finally he settled for Texas A&M and their football team known as the Aggies. The school based in College Station in Texas is perhaps best known in recent years for former quarterback Johnny Manziel but is also one that has produced a number of NFL calibre linemen.
College athletics in America is split into various conferences, largely based on location but other factors as well. Texas A&M are part of the Southeastern Conference (or SEC) – widely considered to be the best and most competitive for college football.
An incredible eight of the past 11 national champions in American football have come from the SEC. So by choosing the Aggies he was choosing to go up against the very best players at that level.
Eluemunor did not get much chance to play in his first two years there. In fact, he was redshirted in his first year at the college. This is where a player is kept out of competition in order to develop their skills. He played just one game in his second year but he was constantly working to improve and to get his chance.
Jim Turner – his position coach at Texas A&M – was full of praise for his young offensive lineman when he was speaking to NFL.com before the draft.
Turner gushed: “What I put this kid through this year, I put this kid through a lot. And for him to do the things that he has done and to answer the bell, this is all him. This is his character. He put himself in this spot by meeting me halfway.”
Thanks to that drive and determination to improve, Eluemunor finally won the starting role in his final season with the Aggies. What he lacks in football intelligence and experience, he more than makes up for in natural talent and work rate.
Eluemunor said: “I just train and work in everything and work harder than I have ever trained before.
“You have to train like it’s all on the line because it’s now or never and if you don’t work harder then you ever have before then you won’t achieve your goals.
“I work my ass off and don’t let anyone outwork me.”
He certainly did that when he got to Indianapolis for the pre-draft combine – a series of physical and mental tests that lets teams see the young prospects and goes a long way to determining the order that players get selected. His 34 reps on the bench press was just one shy of the highest total set in 2017.
Then, on Saturday, 29 April it was announced that Eluemunor would be taken with the 159th pick in the draft by the Ravens.
Baltimore are one of the very best franchises in the league. They are just four years removed from winning the Super Bowl and are led by one of the game’s very best coaches in John Harbaugh.
By going there, Eluemunor will be learning under one of the league’s top offensive lineman, Marshal Yanda.
What made this even more intriguing is that it meant that he had been drafted into the same division as his college teammate Myles Garrett.
The Cleveland Browns, who will also play in London this season, selected Garrett with the first overall pick and are one of the Ravens’ main rivals. He is one of the most physically gifted players to come into the league in some years and what is more, he plays directly opposite Eluemunor.
The Brit will be tasked with protecting his quarterback from his old friend and teammate twice a year. It is something that he cannot wait to do.
Speaking on a conference call he stated: “They were telling me about Myles playing for the Browns, with them playing against them in week two. They need a right tackle, and I play right tackle, so it is a perfect fit for me. I am ready to get in there and get to work and take that spot.”
He didn’t forget his promise to his family either. Before being drafted by the Ravens he graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in recreation, parks and tourism sciences.
The British game
Eluemunor adds to a growing number of British players in the NFL. Menelik Watson, Jack Crawford and Jay Ajayi are just some of the players born here in the United Kingdom that played last season. The NBA has had the likes of Luol Deng but for the NFL, Brits that are anything more than kickers is a fairly new phenomenon.
Sky Sports’ leading NFL pundit Neil Reynolds believes that the growth of the International Series, as well as the likes of Ajayi will only inspire more Brits to take up the sport and attempt to follow him into the league.
He said: “There’s going to be more of those. We might see players cross over from other sports.
“But once you see a few do it, and it makes such a difference having Jay Ajayi, an actual Brit, carrying the ball, scoring touchdowns, rushing for 200 yards, I think it is going to encourage others to come over.”
The start of that is to get more people playing the game in this country. It is still a bit of a niche sport and one that will almost certainly not ever reach the levels of football and rugby, but American football is seeing rapid increases in the number of participants in this country.
The most recent figures released by BAFA (British American Football Association) certainly suggest that this is the case. Perhaps most encouraging was the increase in the numbers of youth players taking up the game.
The figures show an increase of 10.2% playing the game at under-19 level and a huge 38.8% increase in under-17s from the previous season. While flag football – a non-contact version of the sport – has seen a tremendous 90.6% increase in participation.
While there is of course no guarantee that even one of these players will end up making it into the NFL, the increase in participation can only increase the chances of it happening.
The 47% increase in the number of qualified coaches is another big step forward for American football played in this country.
One British club – the Hastings Conquerors – are seeing the effects that the International Series is having on their club.
The south coast team were formed in 2013 and are one of a number of teams that have started up relatively recently. They currently play in the BAFA division two southern conference.
Club chairman Anthony Fenner believes that the NFL games held in this country are driving people towards the sport. He stated: “We actually ran our rookie days to coincide with those (International Series games). We have a couple of games in London, then a break where we have our rookie days so the buzz is already in and around the area.”
The Conquerors are a community based club and are looking to expand into youth football and start a programme that would see them running sessions in schools.
“Next couple of years are going to be huge for the club,” Fenner asserted. “We are going through various sport initiation processes with Sport England where we hopefully are going for the Clubmark accreditation – that will be huge for the club.
“We are also branching out into youth and junior football. We want to bridge the gap between senior ball and university football and actually introduce it into schools in the local area.”
Conquerors running back Aaron Woods had this message for those wanting to take up the sport: “The thing that has made me love the sport more than anything else is that there is literally something for absolutely anybody.
“It doesn’t matter if you are short and you weigh eight stone or if you’re a giant and you might think you are overweight, there is something for you in this sport and you can get involved. It is a great team experience.”
The routes that players are taking to get into the NFL are starting to change as well. For many of those players, like Ajayi and Crawford, they moved to America when they were young and went the traditional route of taking the sport up as a kid, high school, college and then drafted into the league.
The improvements in coaching in this country are starting to see players move straight from British – as well as European – leagues and into the American league.
The first of these was Efe Obada. A 6ft 6ins, 23-year-old born in Nigeria but living in London at the time. He started playing in 2014 for the London Warriors – one of this country’s top teams – and played just five games before signing with the Dallas Cowboys.
Then in the 2016 draft, German Moritz Boehringer became the first player to ever be drafted directly from a European league.
Boehringer was playing for the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns who play in the German Football Legue when he caught the attention of NFL teams. The Unicorns play in the American football version of the Champions League alongside the likes of the London Blitz – the team that gave Eluemunor his first taste of the game.
It was his electrifying pace that really made teams sit up and take notice. His incredible 4.39 seconds on the 40-yard dash saw the Minnesota Vikings take a chance on him.
While that isn’t from the British league, it is from a team playing at the same level as some of our teams. NFL teams are starting to pay attention to leagues elsewhere and that can only be a good thing for the development of UK based players.
The most recent player to attempt to make the jump is Alex Jenkins. He grew up in Bath and took up the game for a slightly bizarre reason. He told the BBC: “I first found football watching an Adam Sandler movie – The Longest Yard. When I was young I used to really like that movie. I watched it all the time.
“So I just Googled American football one day and I found the Bristol Aztecs and that is where it all started.”
Soon after he was selected to represent Great Britain in the sport and from there he caught the attention of some American colleges. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Incarnate Word in Texas – not the most well-known of schools but a fantastic opportunity.
“Initially it was like this is an amazing way of getting my university paid for and having the best experience of my life.
“The NFL was in the background because it’s a hard thing to think about when your 18 and to say ‘I’m from England. I want to play in the NFL.’ You could say that, but you’re more likely to get struck by lightning.”
Jenkins was not selected in the draft. Instead he will be an undrafted free agent. Any player not selected in the draft is free to sign with the team of their choosing.
For some it is actually seen as an advantage to drop out of the draft entirely. That way they get to choose the team that suits them and where they feel they can develop.
Jenkins is likely to follow the path of former Olympian Lawrence Okoye. He represented Great Britain in the discus at the London Olympics in 2012 where he reached the final. Following that, Okoye decided to switch sports and try and make it in the NFL.
Okoye went to the scouting combine and wowed with his freakish athletic ability. A player of over 300 pounds managing to run the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds will get people’s attention.
In the end he was signed by the San Francisco 49ers after going undrafted. He has spent most of the time since then on practice squads around the league. A practice squad is a group of players that will train and practice with the team, but are not part of the active roster. They can be signed by other teams at any time. It is a similar situation to that which Eluemunor had when he was redshirted by his college team.
Jenkins, like Okoye did, will likely join a team for training camp. Teams start the offseason with a roster of 90 players before whittling that down to 53 (the maximum roster size) by the start of the season.
A London based franchise
Eluemunor is currently a Raven, but that didn’t stop him talking about the prospect of one day playing for a team based in the city he grew up in.
When asked about the possibility of one day playing for a London based franchise he declared: “If I got the opportunity then that would be awesome.”
An increase in British players is not the only thing that the International series has spawned. It has also opened up the possibility that there could one day be a franchise based here.
A team moving to the UK has been one of the hottest topics within the sport ever since that first International Series game was announced. Whenever the games are played here – and are successful as they have been so far – the topic gets brought up once again.
Some even see the International Series as a test to see if a team could work in London eventually. With the steady increase in the number of games here, it is slowly moving towards the sort of schedule that would be needed to have a team here.
To some fans of British sport the idea of a team moving from the US to here seems farfetched – just look at the way the MK Dons are thought of by British football fans. They have been almost shunned by fans here. However, in American sport it really is not uncommon.
In just the past year there have been three NFL teams move from their cities. Two teams moved to Los Angeles – first from St Louis and then from San Diego. Then the Raiders announced they would be moving from Oakland to Las Vegas.
If you look further back there are countless examples of teams moving from one city to another. Not just in NFL but in the other major American sports such as basketball, hockey and baseball.
There is also a possibility of an expansion team. This is basically where a new team is created. The last time this happened in the NFL was in 2002 when the Houston Texans were created.
It may seem like the easiest option if Britain were to get a team, but it brings about its own issues. From how you fill out the roster to what division and conference that team would go into. It is something that is difficult to see happening in the foreseeable future.
If, and of course it is still a massive if, we got a team, then it would almost certainly be from a team moving from a city in the US to here. Jacksonville have been seen as the most likely team to make the move. Firstly because of their presence in the UK. In 2012 the Jags signed a deal to play one of their home games here for each of the next four years. That deal has since been extended to 2020.
Secondly, the team struggles to sell tickets in Jacksonville. This is probably the main reason why a team would move here. In Florida the team have empty seats at most home games. In London, they regularly sell over 80,000 tickets.
As well as this, owner Shahid Khan owns Fulham Football Club. A team based in south London so he already has a good idea about the UK and London in particular.
They are starting to turn things around on the field though. They have an exciting young team that in five years time, or however long it may be, could be in a very different situation to what they are now.
When Eluemunor first started playing at Finsbury Park all those years ago, he could have had no idea that one day he may have the opportunity to represent his home city in the league. That could be the case though and Reynolds believes that it could happen sooner rather than later.
Speaking ahead of the 2016 games in London, the Sky Sports pundit boldly claimed: “We will have a team here that we can call our own within five years.”
Roger Goodell, the league’s commissioner, has seen global expansion as part of his plans since getting the job shortly before the first London game. Reynolds believes that a London franchise is something he wants to be remembered for.
“We’ve got government support. The powerful support of NFL owners and the commissioner. It feels like he wants to make it his legacy.”
Jeff Fisher, the now former LA Rams head coach was excited at the prospect of a British based team.
He said: “The enthusiasm and the support is clearly here. There’s no doubt about that. I think it will be great for the National Football League if it happens at some point.”
There are countless arguments against a team here. Imagine how Premier League fans would react if it was announced that Crystal Palace were now going to be based in New York from now on. There is also the issues around taxation, visas and passports and whether players would even want to play in this country full time. Even why should London get a team when there are plenty of cities in the US that do not have a team.
However, the main issue that came up from players against a team being based here was the travel. Players are used to spending large amounts of time on a plane but the added distance of a trip across the Atlantic is too much according to some players.
Luck was the first to bring up the issue. He said: “You try to prepare as best as you can. It’s not ideal.”
Anthony Castonzo, Luck’s teammate, was less diplomatic with things. When asked how he was feeling after arriving in London he said: “I feel like death.”
Their teammate Kendal Langford seemed to share their doubts over the viability. When asked if he thought that a team could work over here he responded: “That would be tough. For me anyway. Especially when you have to go to the west coast and places like that.
“But anything is possible in this league.”
And as we see time and time again in sport, one thing that makes things possible is money. According to Bloomberg, London is one of the five largest markets in the NFL, and that is without a team even being based here.
There is an argument that an expansion of the International Series in the current format, with different teams coming over each year could be a better solution. However, by having an actual team here it allows for more money to be made. A team with its own jersey and all the various merchandise that comes along with a sports team is a huge moneymaker.
Another big positive for the NFL is the increased advertising revenue it could provide. A team based in London can offer that. Over the past couple of years the league has experimented with earlier kick off times for the London games. This allows around four extra hours of television coverage and of course, the additional advertisments that go along with that.
This season, three of the four games will kick off at 2.30pm(BST) with games from America not starting until 6pm on a Sunday. While it may cause some collateral damage moving a team here, the possibility of increased revenue for the league is the big argument for it, and perhaps the most important one for the decision makers in the NFL.
One player who was more positive about a London based franchise was Victor Cruz, a former New York Giants receiver, who even claimed that the travelling is not as big of an issue as some make out.
“I don’t think it is that bad. I think that the flight in itself is similar to flying to Los Angeles from the New York, New Jersey area, six hours.
“The only difference is your body clock, adjusting to that time frame and adjusting to that difference in time, but I think it is doable and I think it is just a matter of schematically how the NFL decides to do it.”
Advances in technology in air travel could ease the strain. A new version of the Concorde is being developed and could be brought in by 2023. It is expected to be able to travel between London and New York in a little over three hours. Something that would make playing in London a lot easier.
The International Series is continuing to expand, and with it more people are being exposed to the game that could hardly be more American. With it, more people are playing and that is only going to mean more people wanting to follow in the footsteps of Eluemunor.
Whether we will one day have a team to call our own as Reynolds says remains to be seen but the future development of American football and the NFL on these shores is an exciting prospect.
One way or another, American football is here to stay in Great Britain.