America’s National Football League (NFL) to many a Brit, including me, is an unfamiliar, unexplored and misunderstood phenomenon. So when the Jacksonville Jaguars decided to travel across the pond, make London’s Wembley Stadium their honorary home and play host to the Dallas Cowboys, the opportunity to delve into this world was one that I wished to grasp fully.
After the long trip, first on the agenda was participation in the renowned ‘tailgate party’. A plethora of food on grill, drink on tap and live music very much lived up to the American cinematic stereotype. The rowdiness of traditional sports fans was non-existent however, this occasion was good-natured with many different NFL team supporters collaborating in one communal area. The sheer amount of merchandise, entertainment and fanatics enjoying the game before it even started, put into the context the scale of the event I was attending.
Pre-game in the stadium was possibly the most fascinating aspect of the entire experience. With the introduction of the live percussion band ‘D-line’ and the cheerleading squad ‘The Roar of the Jaguars’ (the cheerleaders, rather unsurprisingly, receiving the biggest cheer of the night), the few already seated were thoroughly entertained before even catching a glimpse of a player.
When the public announcement system rang through the stadium, what seemed like a never-ending flood of players streamed onto the pitch for the warm up. The seriousness displayed with elaborate exercises and team-wide helmet alignment during floor stretches was emblematic of the level of discipline these athletes have. A truly remarkable sight for any sports enthusiast.
The seriousness displayed with elaborate exercises and team-wide helmet alignment during floor stretches was emblematic of the level of discipline these athletes have
A short while after the teams had warmed up, they were reintroduced to an abundance of glimmering lights and scorching pyrotechnics, striding through a people-tunnel of waving flags, banners and preppy cheerleaders.
Former Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams’ rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was simply spine-tingling. Having spectators break into thunderous applause as she sang, purely to show appreciation for her vocal acrobatics, was a sure-fire way to warm the crowd up as they awaited our own national anthem. ‘God Save the Queen’ roared throughout Wembley as 90,000 individuals, alongside Laura Wright, unified in a sea of voices, rivalling the passion seen by England’s football and rugby fans.
Although not being an American tradition, the game being played on Remembrance Sunday was rightly and appropriately acknowledged. Red, black and white bags being scattered on the seats which, when held up, formed a mesmerising field of poppies.
Adrenaline pumping, testosterone raging, the Cowboys and Jaguars were now raring to go.
Kick-off, and it swiftly became apparent that American Football is a masterclass in tactical play. For those who haven’t watched the sport, it’s a stimulating juxtaposition of artistry and brute force, sleight of hand and crunching hits, strategy and work-rate.
It swiftly became apparent that American Football is a masterclass in tactical play
With play-books the length of short novels, radio communication direct to the players’ helmets and a level of analysis that puts Neville and Carragher to shame, the variety of plays chosen by the offensive team to achieve the seemingly simple objective of gaining 10 yards up the pitch is immense. Moves practiced in the warmup were replicated during the game with stunning precision, allowing the quarterback to pass to empty spaces into which wide receivers appear at precisely the right moment.
There is a vast contrast in physiques and skills between teammates. Some of the forwards are among the biggest men you’ll ever see and the impact they deliver can have severe consequences – two players were forced to leave this game with concussion, despite the helmets and body armour. At the opposite extreme, the kicker (and yes, that’s his only job in the team) is diminutive – though of course this may be an illusion given the company he’s in. Yet others in the team have the speed of Olympic sprinters and the clever footwork of dancers – the pace and skill of the wide receivers to beat the defence to the end zone is electrifying.
Reflecting over the Dallas Cowboys’ 31-17 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, it became clear to me that when you go and see the NFL you’re in for more than just a game of sport. You’re in for a show.