LONDON – Surrounded by about 250 energetic, enthusiastic kids at Regents Park on Tuesday afternoon, Rams linebacker
“I walked over here and the kickers and punters have 30 kids with them already,” Dunbar said, laughing. “This might be my first time I’m jealous of a punter.”
As their first order of business upon arriving in the United Kingdom, the entire Rams roster plus the practice squad shuttled to the team hotel, grabbed a quick bite to eat and within about 90 minutes was on a bus to participate in the biggest NFL Play 60 event that London has seen since the league started the International series.
While Dunbar’s point that many of the more than 500 kids that participated in two sessions with the team and alumni Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Jackie Slater are more futbol focused than football focused is certainly valid, it was clear to all participants that days like Tuesday are just another step in the ever growing staircase to making American football a part of the fabric of England’s sporting culture.
“When we first started playing games here we wanted to bring teams not just to play games here but we wanted to try to integrate them into the community,” Chris Parsons, NFL Vice President of International Business, said. “So every year we have actually been able to do that. When teams are doing what the Rams are doing this year and coming over for the entire week, it’s fantastic. The off day is often used as a chance to do some things in the community. So every year we find the kids are much more engaged and much more interested and want to be more involved. So this is our biggest effort yet getting 500 kids out. And the Rams have just blown us all away with the fact that they sent the entire team down here. We couldn’t be happier.”
Tuesday’s event served as a sort of keystone to an on going effort to expand and grow the NFL game into the international scene each year. Two years ago, San Francisco hosted a Play 60 event for about 100 kids before Tampa Bay took part in an event that doubled that number last year.
This year, though, the NFL and Play 60 curriculum has become far more expansive. A total of 600 kids from five different schools, many of which are in low-income areas were vetted out and agreed to take part in a program that wouldn’t be a simple one-off event.
Instead, this year’s version of the program will last six weeks and involves a weekly Play 60 class at each school where one day of gym takes on an American football bent with lessons on strategy and the basic X’s and O’s of the game.
The normal Play 60 emphasis is simply on kids remaining active by taking part in some physical activity for an hour a day and teaches good nutritional habits. But in a market where the game has yet to fully take hold, it also provides a chance to give kids a more in depth introduction to the game.
“It’s definitely a challenge getting them to understand the basics,” Erin Casey, NFL Events Coordinator, said. “I think the biggest hurdle getting kids excited about American football is they are not used to the breaks because in English futbol it’s 90 minutes of pure activity so getting them to understand the strategy behind it, the X’s and O’s of our game, this kind of interaction with the players helps a lot. It makes them understand. We’ve done some events in the past with rugby players and English athletes but I think having the whole St. Louis Rams team is making quite an impression.”
Indeed, it was quite clear that both groups, each with more than 250 students participating, was ready and willing to get some instruction from NFL players. While the game had made great strides in London since the start of the International series, American football teams and players don’t quite carry the cache they do on American soil just yet.
For the Rams, that actually provided a little bit of relief, especially on a day when they were coming off an eight-hour flight and were pushing through the early impressions of jet lag.
“You love to kind of feed off the energy of the kids,” punter Johnny Hekker said. “They’re all having fun out here, learning a foreign game so they are all kind of buying in and trying to soak up some knowledge so it’s a lot of fun for us.”
After arriving at Regents Park, the Rams wasted no time breaking up into position groups and teaching the kids position specific skills. From Hekker and kicker
And while soccer remains unrelentingly popular, Rams running back
“They have some very talented young lads here,” Jackson said, embracing the local lingo. “You know what? They have extremely good feet and hand-eye coordination. No shock, the game of soccer here is huge. It can translate to football; you have just got to put on the pads now.”
As the Play 60 initiative continues to grow and integrate with the on going efforts to increase the sport’s popularity here and other countries abroad, so too will the days like Tuesday.
This year’s group is three weeks in to the six-week program but the plans for the future of the program will continue to go beyond even this year’s expanded program.
In terms of television ratings, American football has moved from 11th to fifth since the International series began. Likewise, the metrics are showing growth across the board though the NFL remains just outside the five most popular sports here, a benchmark it hopes to pass in the near future.
With two games coming to London next year and a Play 60 program that aims to eventually have year-round events rather than ones just centered on coinciding with the games, the rise of American football abroad seems to be just scratching the surface of what it will be.
Having teams like the Rams willing to show up in full force and share their knowledge goes a long way toward reaching that breakthrough.
“It’s amazing,” Parsons said. “What’s great is they obviously know this is a famous American football team but they are probably not as familiar with some of the players so seeing the kids work with these guys and being around them even if they may not be as big superstars as they are back home, it’s great. The kids just have so much energy and when you bring the players down, it doubles the energy. It just creates a completely different vibe.”