On Sunday, the Denver Broncos defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley in the final game of this years’ NFL International Games in the UK. This was the Jaguars’ tenth anniversary of NFL UK Games (missing one season due to COVID) and was seen by the largest European audience for an NFL fixture to date. Dom Allin guides us through the British NFL fan experience and probes you to give it a go.
American Football in Britain is no longer an outsider’s sport; however, it is treated like some sort of dark secret by everyone who isn’t in on it. No one discusses it and a question you ask when you first meet someone is never ‘What’s your NFL team?’ For those part of the world of running backs and cross routes, it does feel like a society hidden from others.
However, it is not very well hidden. No matter where you go in Britain someone will be consciously (or unconsciously) wearing NFL Merchandise. A jersey, a jumper or maybe even a bobble hat openly breaking the code of silence about our sport. The secret isn’t even well-kept by broadcasters! The NFL is a mainstay of sporting coverage across television, with more live NFL fixtures on terrestrial TV than Premier League football and Test Match Cricket.
Their eyes are asking a thousand questions: ‘is there a convention?’, ‘what sport is everyone going to see’, ‘do they play NFL games in London?’
An event like Sunday, where 86,000 fans in jerseys descended on the capital, still garnered puzzled looks from other tube passengers. Their eyes are asking a thousand questions: ‘is there a convention?’, ‘what sport is everyone going to see’, ‘do they play NFL games in London?’ Yes, there are! For 15 years NFL teams have come to London and played at Wembley, Twickenham, or The New Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. But people are still surprised.
It is one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar which most British sports fans dismiss or simply don’t know about! It is often degraded as a soft sport. It’s just rugby with pads on… How many times have I heard that simply non-sensical remark? The pads are on the shoulders, those pads are made out of hard plastic, and the helmet allows for tackles to be nearly anywhere on the body. But you are right, pads and protection only make the game weaker…
A mosaic of jerseys; home, away, thirds, and retros from every franchise in the league hits you like an Aaron Donald sack
NFL in the UK is much maligned and overlooked. But that only makes moments like Sunday better for us fans! Making your way to London, jerseys begin to spring up in stations and services. The secret begins to unravel more and more as you get closer and closer. After hours of travelling and months of waiting, you finally make it to Wembley Way. A mosaic of jerseys; home, away, thirds, and retros from every franchise in the league hits you like an Aaron Donald sack.
This feels like my Diagon Alley. The secret is allowed to be openly out, you can be the person you have always been on Sunday nights at home. It allows a sort of freedom of expression for people like me. There isn’t the pent-up tension reserved for football games (not calling it soccer, don’t worry).
Loud music, kiss cams, and competitions galore
The razzle and dazzle can only be slightly offset by the prices of seemingly everything. Come on Wembley and NFL… £4.10 for a bottle of Coke! You’re better than that! Despite these simply sobering prices Wembley is still an enjoyable experience. Loud music, kiss cams, and competitions galore! It feels more American than apple pie!
There is not a moment the NFL has you in its hands that it is not trying to entertain you. The fixture almost becomes secondary to the legends brought out to discuss the game on the big screens, followed by the acrobatic cheerleaders and the cinematic recaps produced to the standard of an Oscar winner.
The game between the Broncos and Jaguars was filled with exciting plays and smash mouth defensive football. The Denver Broncos grew into the game after a first quarter that can only be blamed on jet lag. Russel Wilson, Superbowl winning quarterback, is certainly no longer in his prime. But Wilson glided through men desperate to hurt him to make passes only his class of quarterback could complete.
Trevor Lawrence, on the other end of the scale, struggled and often found himself picking grass out of his helmet. Travis Etienne was the standout player for the Jaguars; their entire offence ran through their running back.
As a stadium experience, the announcer informing you of the ball carrier, distance gained, and the tacklers gives the attendees a TV informative experience. The in-stadium content, unlike the Hundred, does not patronise or overdo it – you don’t feel overwhelmed but simply engaged with the production.
Despite the pick ‘n’ mix bag of teams represented in the stands, the noise for touchdowns, sacks, and interceptions was incredible. The game dragged us neutrals in as it does every year. I’m not missing a snap. You don’t want to leave to get the tube and that pint can wait till the third quarter… going on your phone, no thanks!
The game ended with a Trevor Lawrence interception at the start of a two-minute drill which left out just that little extra NFL drama in a last gasp winner. But you can’t have it all – after all the production and enjoyment you realise that this is not actually a movie.
The day was not perfect: for instance, the prices and interminable queues for NFL shops were frustrating. It was only offset by the conversations had with fans around us, the screens provided for fans to watch their teams after the game, and the pub chats with bars close to the train stations with people you will never bump into again.
By the time you are back in the world of inflation and housemates, the wonder of the NFL once again feels continents away
The way back is certainly drowsier, darker, and seemingly longer. The secret society begins to disperse into the mundanity of soggy British Autumn. By the time you are back in the world of inflation and housemates, the wonder of the NFL once again feels continents away. It won’t be till next year till you can wear your NFL gear with pride amongst like-minded people.
I don’t know how to end this little guide to being a British American Football fan, unfortunately unlike Sunday I can’t be intercepted, and the words just stop from here. I think I should end it with by saying give American Football a go, it’s not about adverts and padding, it’s about the community and experience.
Featured image courtesy of Dom Allin. Permission given to Impact to use. No changes were made to this image.
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