A true football mixer

LONDON – The NFL’s International Series is now in its ninth year at London’s Wembley Stadium and ahead of the Buffalo Bills taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, all indicators show that, along with popularity, respect levels for the NFL are growing in the land where another type of football rules the roost.

At the training ground of Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday, the Bills and Spurs were part of an NFL community event that invited schoolchildren from London to take part in American football and soccer drills with superstars.

One of those stars — Belgian international and Spurs central defender Jan Vertonghen — believes the NFL is capturing the imagination of younger fans in Europe, especially in the U.K.

“I know my brother absolutely loves it, you feel that it is coming on more and more. It is on television a lot more in the UK, with live games. It is a bit like soccer in the States,” Vertonghen said. “Maybe soccer is bigger in the States than the NFL is here but these events help the NFL to grow here … You feel it [growing] in our dressing room, some of the guys absolutely love the sport and these games will help people to actually know the sport. I think the crowd has to first know all the rules and once that happens, it will continue to grow.”

Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus was the star of the show, showing off his soccer skills, laughing and joking with kids and showing them how he lines up at the line of scrimmage. Off to one side quarterback Tyrod Taylor was teaching young English kids to throw a football. On the other side cornerback Ron Brooks was showing them how to tackle, and in the far corner of Spurs’ indoor training facility two club legends came together to chat, laugh and goof around with a football.

Buffalo’s legendary quarterback Jim Kelly and Tottenham’s legendary defender Ledley King exchanged jerseys and chatted. The mutual respect and appreciation the two teams had for one another was clear, despite coming from two different sports on opposite sides of the pond.

Rex Ryan was in attendance too, but the Bills’ head coach cleverly stayed away in one corner laughing and joking with school kids as the U.S. media lingered to ask him about Buffalo’s 3-3 start to the season. As the schoolchildren walked out to meet the players, they sung the famous Bills anthem “Let’s go Buffalo!” to the theme of “Shout!” and Kelly revealed he’s enjoying being an ambassador for the NFL in a foreign land.

“I love traveling and for me this is a pleasure. That singing is great, I like that,” Kelly laughed. “We need about 80,000 of them cheering like that on Sunday. I don’t know whether we will get it but it is cool that they get a chance, as young-uns, to see NFL players and to visit with them and have us here with them… Football is the Grandaddy of them all and we were talking to some locals here in London, and they want a team here. Whether that happens, I think in due time it probably will but I think it is important that everyone gets to see what we see and love in the United States.”

Many agree that London is a phenomenal base for the NFL to grow its worldwide fanbase, but as has been widely speculated, is London the right place for a future NFL franchise?

“When I played in Amsterdam for Ajax in Holland, they had a team in NFL Europe but after a couple of years they stopped it,” Vertonghen explained. “I would love to have a team here. In London there is lots of potential. It is the biggest city in Europe and if they have to start somewhere I think it will be here. These games that will be played in Wembley and hopefully in Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground in a couple of years, they will help it to grow.”

That growth is visible.

In the UK they now show the NFL Redzone channel on Sundays. They also broadcast all the main games from 1 p.m. ET up until Sunday Night Football, which often begins at 1 a.m. local time the next morning. Thursday night and Monday night games are also available to watch and highlights can be seen on most major networks in the UK. The attention from the UK media on the NFL, and most American sports, has sky-rocketed in recent years. Major League Soccer has been shown in the UK live on TV for the first time ever this season on Sky Sports, and Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld believes that the soccer-football crossover could be key in attracting more fans moving forward.

“I watch MLS from America a lot and I am going to watch American sports a lot more. I want to learn more about [American football],” Alderweireld said. “[The Bills players] are very nice guys and I am going to try and follow them more now. Here on television there are now more American sports and people are watching. This is why the NFL comes to London and to Europe, to showcase their sport. It is the same with MLS, which is growing because those games are shown in Europe this year and it makes a big difference. I think it will grow in England.”

There’s an underlying notion in the UK among 18-30 year-olds that American sports are “hip” and “trendy” and those are the people fuelling the sell-out crowds at Wembley each and every season. Fans travel from all over the UK to watch the games, plus all over Europe and make a weekend trip of seeing an NFL game at the famous Wembley Stadium. The expats living in London or Europe also make up a big percentage of the crowd, and they aren’t necessarily fans of the particular teams in action, just fans of the game as jerseys from all 32 NFL teams can often be spotted at Wembley.

Will that dissipate if there is a franchise in London? Right now, the model of having a few games a year at Wembley, then two more at Tottenham’s new stadium — when that is expected to be finished in 2018 — seems about right. But in the future, who knows how far the NFL can reach?

“The NFL is trying to broaden the reach,” explained Bills kicker Dan Carpenter, who used to play travel soccer until he was 18 while growing up in Montana. “There was an NFL Europe before my time but they are trying to reach out and obviously soccer is a worldwide sport so I think the NFL is just trying to broaden their horizons and reach out to the whole world as well. If we want to broaden the NFL to be worldwide, there is no better way than to get out here and meet the kids and try to have an influence on what they’re doing in their everyday life.”

Kelly added that although American Football will never replace soccer in England, it still has a part to play in the future.

“Soccer is number one over here and it probably will be forever,” Kelly said. “But the experiences they get from the NFL teams coming here, I think it will have a great impact on where I think this will go in the near future.”

Bills cornerback Brooks was at the forefront of interacting with youngsters as he juggled the soccer ball and showed off some considerable skills. He also mixed in with the Tottenham players –getting nut-megged by Vertonghen — as he and Dareus spoke to Mousa Dembele, Vertonghen and Alderweireld about what it is like to play in the Premier League and the NFL.

Brooks even laid a modest hit on Vertonghen as he was holding the pads, and the Belgian defender revealed how much interest he has in the sport.

“I think I can throw a ball but I just got a big hit from one of them,” Vertonghen said when asked if he would like to play in the NFL. “I have to train a bit more, I think, and spend some time in the gym … Why not? If I was born in America I would have played American football. I am not going to show you what I have hit but he was very friendly with me and just gave me a little hit. You can feel the strength and power, it was unbelievable.”

As for the man who delivered that hit, Brooks believes soccer’s popularity is rising in America and especially among his fellow Buffalo Bills.

“When I was growing up I liked to play soccer, be athletic and play sports. It is one of my hobbies which I picked up,” Brooks said. “It is definitely growing. I know in our locker room we have Playstations and an Xbox, we play FIFA all day and have big competitions. It is definitely growing in America. I play create-a-player on my [EA FIFA] season and he actually plays for Tottenham. There are a lot of people who have a favorite player, with the generic Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and all those kind of guys. They are all great players but I don’t really have a favorite.”

The respect between both NFL and Premier League players was evident and as they spoke about the crazy amounts of snow in Buffalo, and the Spurs players explained what it is like to be a soccer star around the globe, there was a real connection and plenty of respect.

“There is lots of respect. I think between athletes there is always lots of mutual respect,” Vertonghen said. “It is good. They tell us about their experiences and when they told us they have a six month offseason I was so jealous. Then they said, ‘We have to be in at six in the morning,’ so I was like, ‘Ah OK, I leave the six months to you.’”

Brooks echoed that sentiment and talked about the similarities between the two sports.

“There are a lot of similarities, as far as footwork. Those guys have to have tremendous footwork and coordination, but ours are with our hands and theirs is with their feet,” Brooks said. “There are a lot of similarities in that aspect. From athlete to athlete you are going to have respect for any other athlete. I think what those guys do is similar to [American] football. Maybe not as much as physical contact that people would think there is, but those guys are just like football players … but without pads.”

Laughing and chatting in a small group while the community event came to an end, it is easy to forget that although both sets of players are in very similar professions, they still live on different continents.

“The Bills are my team. Last year I said something different … so I have to be careful but I met some of the guys now and I have a nice shirt; for this year I will be cheering for the Bills. They told me there is a lot of snow in Buffalo and they asked me if we had snow in Europe!” Vertonghen laughed. “I said yep, we have snow in Europe. It is funny. It is like we come from a different world. It is good to share our experiences and I will go on Wikipedia and YouTube right now and start learning about Buffalo.”

That learning experience is the same for the Bills, with Brooks taking a philosophical look at how the game is growing and how fans, players and coaching staff interacting with one another on different continents is a positive thing for everyone concerned.

“This is my first time being here in London. It has been a great experience so far and a chance to go over and play in a game that is growing in popularity in another country. It is extremely entertaining and exciting, to say the least.

“Not even just with football, but with everything. People all need to branch out and get other people to see more things, different aspects and different walks of life. Coming here to London and playing footb … their version of football,” Brooks laughed. “It is definitely cool and I hope that a lot more people get a chance to do it.”

If the popularity of the NFL’s forays into London is anything to go by, plenty of new fans in countries and cities around the world will also be playing ‘the other version of football’ in years to come.

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