Skill, strength and dedication; the three core ingredients needed to succeed in anything worth doing. This is zealously true for the conquering western sport, American football, most commonly associated with the National Football League (NFL) and its annual Super Bowl.
The opening of the NFL Academy in the UK (with classes beginning in September 2019) signifies the burgeoning presence of the American sport slowly culturing East. With over 1,500 applying for an opportunity to be part of this training programme and potentially join star-studded names on the field, like Josh Lambo, the journey to Elysium is not so glamorous. Filled with hours of dedication, a possession of natural talent, and an understanding of the business-side itself, there is a difficult road ahead that these young players must trek before they reach the heavens.
The history of the NFL stretches across decades and is engraved into American culture. Its eastward expansion should be no different. Formally named the American Professional Football Association in its founding in 1920 (APFA), the APFA changed its title permanently into the more recognizable sobriquet in 1922 for its third regular season. 97 years later, the NFL has increased to 32 teams, with the teams being divided among the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). As the highest-level of American football globally, and despite declining viewership, Bloomberg estimates that it earnt roughly $15bn from its 2018 season. This, in addition to the top-earning players receiving almost $25m, means that the pressure to find new, competitive talent is on.
The process of ‘purposeful practice’ and engagement for football, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports (USA), should begin when children are roughly 5-7 years old, exactly when Johnathan Joseph, cornerback for the Houston Texans, did. Young enough to understand the joy of sport and naïve enough to accept that progress comes without a price, many professional players have started from this age, if not earlier. This is because “realistically, you will have to make a decision” regarding the position you would want to play “at the age of 14 or 15”, according to David Pouncey, marketing professional and previous competitive football player. This is because determining a general position “will give you room to change to other positions depending on how your body continues to grow”, which greatly depends on “body size and natural athletic abilities.” Flexibility, professionally, physically, and personally, is paramount to success in the early stages.
Pouncey elaborates that “the next thing that is absolutely crucial, especially once you get to the more competitive levels of football, is figuring out what kind of diet and strength and conditioning routine you want to get on to maximize your potential.” Required for any sport,
this is vital to maintaining a physique that allows athletes to perform consistently at their best. Pouncey exemplifies this by stating that a 6 ft defensive back player would “want to put on muscle while staying lean so that you don’t get too big and compromise your speed”, compared to a 6 ft 5 player with a large frame who may not be too fast, who should “build muscle and body mass so that you can keep up with the grueling demands of playing on the offensive line.”
After determining a health regime, the player must commit and master their craft to improve themselves and intrigue the recruiters. For any position, whether they are gifted in their role or not, they must work extremely hard. In the case of a wide receiver, “there are two things that are crucial in determining how well of a wide receiver you will become”, explains Pouncey. “Those are blocking and route running” and “this will require something called purposeful practice.”
Unsurprisingly, what is foundational to becoming a top NFL player is a college, or university, level education. As college football is primarily where players begin their professional careers and get drafted, ensuring that exam results are adequate is necessary. The importance of education is not underestimated by the NFL, which funds the Continuing Education Program (CEP). Appreciating that even NFL stars may have an athletic expiry date, the programme allows those in undergraduate studies, postgraduate studies, or those wishing to utilize other educational opportunities, to receive assistance to ease the transition into being an ex-football player. Education, no matter your career choice, is fundamental.
The growth of American football will bring significant change to our sporting and social culture, and, perhaps, foster an increased competitiveness to gain a place to the highest- leagues due to increased accessibility. However, it also means that talented UK-based players, such as Efe Obada, who now plays for the Dallas Cowboys, can now have a higher chance of success in the football world. With Obada being the first international player to ascend to the NFL from the American Football Europe League, and those like him, there is no reason why talented individuals cannot do the same. The NFL has been paving the way for the birth of sporting legends, and it will no doubt make room for more of Britain’s home- grown to hold their ground in sporting Arcadia.