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Life on the road: NFL UK Live

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  • By Chris Pilcher NFL.com
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The NFL UK live tour bus is on the road this week travelling around the UK - stopping off at Southampton, Birmingham and Liverpool - meeting UK fans and celebrating an exhilarating 2018 NFL season that approaches its climax with Super Bowl LIII on February 3rd.

DAY 3

The final destination on the 2019 NFL UK Live Tour brought the team to Liverpool, where another audience awash with colourful NFL jerseys awaited their heroes, Once again hosted by Sky Sports' Neil Reynolds, it was an unchanged line-up on the panel with Ryan, Mo, Dallas and Jeff all in position to share more anecdotes, insights and, for one lucky fan, two tickets to Super Bowl LIII.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, provided one of the most memorable storylines early in the 2018 season. Filling in for first-choice Jameis Winston who'd been suspended for the opening games, 'Fitzmagic' became the first NFL player ever to throw more than 400 yards in three consecutive games. Having played for 7 different sides across 14 seasons, he says it's a particular highlight from a career that he "wouldn't change for the world".

"Personally for me, the amount of relationships that I've made in this business - whether it's players, coaches, kitchen staff or people in the equipment room - it's absolutely unbelievable," he says.

"So over the last few nights, we've had questions about whether I'd trade my career for somebody else's and I definitely wouldn't because of the people I've met and the relationships that I'll have for the rest of my life."

Ryan also says the variety of teams he's played for has had a positive impact on the field too: "To have a catalogue in my mind of, 'Boy, he reminds me of this receiver,' those things help me get on the same page quickly and I think that's helped me as a player. I get to Tampa and Jameis (Winston) goes down, it's my first year and I've never really thrown a ball to DeSean Jackson or Mike Evans and I've gotta go out there and do it."

Mohamed Sanu has been one of the most highly rated wide receivers in 2018, during a season where his Atlanta Falcons side finished runners-up to arch-rivals, New Orleans Saints. Nevertheless, Mo is optimistic for the future, crediting his side's positive locker room atmosphere and brotherly ethos.

"The Falcons' locker room is very unique, it's fun," says Mo, "You have your different areas where there are guys playing ping-pong, guys playing basketball, guys just sitting there talking. But everybody's close, everybody loves each other, it's a tight-knit group."

Throughout this week, despite being NFC South divisional rivals during the season, Fitz and Mo have formed a close friendship while on tour. Speaking to Neil on stage, the pair agree that team spirit is a crucial ingredient for a successful NFL franchise, but can sometimes be overlooked."

"At Cincinnati, it wasn't like that. As soon as practice was gone, guys would go home, guys would go with their wife and kids, young guys just going back to their place and play video games... that isn't the case at the Falcons. We've put an emphasis on going out and being with the guys not only in the facility but outside the facility."

Dallas Clark is a former Tight End for the Indianapolis Colts who won Super Bowl XLI in 2007. With fans' attention turning towards the NFL off-season, Dallas is quizzed by a member of the Wirral’s audience on trade rumours surrounding the future of Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver, Antonio Brown: "I'd love to see him back in Pittsburgh because he's just a Steeler," says Dallas, "I see him in that uniform so I hope he stays because him and Ben on the field have a special thing but off the field it sounds like it might be a little rocky."

With several players around the league potentially weighing up their options over the coming months, Dallas offers some words of caution: "When you go to a new team, it's just that chemistry the guys were talking about, having that chemistry with the receiver and how he's gunna be used and hopefully utilised with his strengths."

"Alot of teams are proven when they have great athletes, great players," he says, "but somehow those personalities find a way of screwing things up. So if they can find that camaraderie they would be dangerous."

With just 18 days until Super Bowl LIII, all eyes are on this weekend's NFL Conference Championship fixtures - New Orleans Saints vs Los Angeles Rams and Kansas City Chiefs vs New England Patriots - to determine who will grace the ear-deafening surroundings of Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on February 3rd.

And that's a wrap! The 2019 NFL UK Live Tour team bid farewell to their final audience on Merseyside, having spent the week meeting, greeting and entertaining the UK's most dedicated NFL followers in Southampton, Birmingham and Liverpool. With the 2018 NFL season heading towards its exhilarating climax in Atlanta - as Fitz, Mo and the rest of the guys can now testify - the excitement here in the UK is palpable.

DAY 2

On Day 2, NFL stars Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Mohamed Sanu of the Atlanta Falcons were joined by two new special guests: former Indianapolis Colts Tight End and Super Bowl winner Dallas Clark, and Neil Reynolds' fellow Sky Sports NFL pundit, Jeff Reinebold.

For Mohamed Sanu, the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver is extremely familiar with this year's Super Bowl venue, the Mercedez-Benz Stadium, and indeed the showpiece event itself, experiencing defeat in 2017's Super Bowl LI. But fast forwards to this year, if there's one team Mo doesn't want to see lift the Vince Lombardi trophy on February 3rd, it's the Falcons' NFC South divisional rivals, New Orleans Saints: "I just don't like one particular team in our division," he puts it simply.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who announced himself to the Birmingham audience with a 'Theresa May walk-in' on stage, has so far played for 7 different sides across his 14-year stay in the NFL. "Throughout my career, there's been so many ups and downs, so as you go through it you just learn to enjoy the ride, you just learn to enjoy being there."

With audience members coming on stage for a touchdown-celebration competition, Neil Reynolds plays a clip of Ryan's own excitable high-pitched celebrations, after throwing a last-minute winning throw for the Bills against the Raiders in 2011; "As bad as the losses are and as low as you feel when you have a moment like - that last play of the game, when you go ahead and make the throw and you win the game, that's just what comes out."

"That jubilation, that excitement, that energy, that feeling I get in that moment is why I still wanna play the game, why going into my 15th year, I still feel like a little kid when I'm out there because I get to do that."

Former NFL hero Dallas Clark was part of the Indianapolis Colt side that won Super Bowl XLI in 2007 defeating the Chicago Bears 29-17. Now retired, Clark is asked about the next generation of potential NFL starlets and how much young hopefuls should be training and practicing.

"The one thing I see back home in Suburban America is that all these kids are being made to feel like they have to pick a sport in 3rd grade and they have to specialise in basketball or football or tennis or whatever, that’s my biggest pet peeve."

"I think that's so wrong because I played all four sports through high school and I feel like hitting a baseball helped me catch a ball or boxing out helped me get up against defenders."

So what is Dallas Clark's advice to young players? "I think just be a kid, go out and run and do different activities and do it as much as you can. But then when you get older and you start finding that passion and that love of the game and you start specialising."

Jeff Reinebold agrees with Dallas and points to the NFL's ever-growing stature in the UK as priceless inspiration for future players to follow; "You know when we were together and working for NFL UK here and you started the player development programme? There were no opportunities and there was nobody that they could aspire to. Now there are guys playing - Jack Crawford, Efe Obada - guys like that have gone on and done that."

With successful shows in Southampton and now Birmingham all done and dusted, Neil Reynolds and his team depart once more to head for their final destination on the 2019 NFL UK Live Tour: Liverpool.

DAY 1 

On Day 1 of the tour, NFL UK arrived on the south coast at Southampton FC's St Mary's Stadium with a packed audience eagerly awaiting Sky Sports' Neil Reynolds and special guests - Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mohamed Sanu, Jason Bell and Phoebe Schecter - to share their insight, their anecdotes and their NFL trivia.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, provided fans around the world with one of the stories of the season back in September. With first-choice quarterback Jameis Winston suspended, Fitzpatrick sensationally stepped in and became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 400-plus yards in three consecutive games.

The first of those victories came against the New Orleans Saints - who play the LA Rams on Sunday for a place in this year's Super Bowl. The Kansas City Chiefs face the New England Patriots in the other fixture. Host Neil Reynolds poses the question to Fitz - who is he backing to go all the way? "Well I went up against New Orleans in the first game of the year and they have vastly improved since Week One," Ryan says modestly, but it would take a special quarterback to put up 48 points against them!"

"Now I'll also say at the other end - three seasons ago I went up against the mighty Chiefs and even though some of the players are different, I didn't have the best game. I threw zero touchdowns and six interception," he says. "So they can certainly seize the opportunity if you've got an inexperienced sloppy Quarterback!"

"But I'll say New England - not necessarily because of the talent - but because of their scheme, being able to control the ball on offense and the pressure that they put on you."

Mohamed Sanu of the Atlanta Falcons has been one of the NFL's highest rated wide receivers in the NFL this season. Much more remarkably, his habit of making huge touchdown-scoring throws has seen him become 'officially' the highest rated quarterback in NFL history. Neil Reynolds asks Mo the burning question - has he ever considered going full-time with the role?

"Sometimes!"says Mo. "Honestly sometimes - I get it all the time from my family and friends. Fans often say 'Bro come here and play quarterback' and I'm like - 'It just doesn't work like that! I'm still under contract, I'd have to put in years of work - I haven't played quarterback since High School!"

Sat on stage beside him, Ryan interjects to explain the idea isn't actually all that ridiculous; "For me, the furthest I can throw a football is 65 yards ad that's it," says Ryan. "I could stand in midfield, give it my best throw and I can hit the goalposts or make it just over. Mo's furthest throw ever is 83 yards which is a full 18 past mine - so in terms of arm talent he definitely has the arm to do it."

Jason Bell, another of the evening's special guests, not only a former cornerback for the New York Giants, but is of course well known to UK NFL fans as co-host of the BBC's hugely popular 'The NFL Show'.

With the end of this NFL season fast approaching, not only does attention turn to Super Bowl LIII, but also to the off-season's scramble for players at the NFL Draft. Jason is asked by a member of the audience about the possibility of his beloved former team needing a replacement for legendary Quarterback Eli Manning this Summer...

"Oh man, I love Eli Manning," says Jason. "But they're gunna have to do something... the Draft class as far as quarterbacks isnt't that great I think, not like last year. But they're gunna have to get somebody, it’s the nature of the business and you have to move on."

"I'm very happy they got Saquon Barkley last year, I'm glad they didn't go for a quarterback then. It sucks, but yes, they're gunna have to pick somebody, they're gunna have to move on eventually."

Phoebe Schecter was also in Southampton with the team, following her recent return from the United States' east coast where she'd finished her first season as an interim coach for the Buffalo Bills. After previously working for NFL UK on community projects - as well as being captain of the Great Britain American Football team - her season has been closely followed with great interest as only the third woman to ever work as an NFL coach.

Phoebe spoke about her recent experiences as a female coach and also answering a question from the audience - could there one day be a female head coach in the league?

"Yes, absolutely," says Phoebe. "I think the NFL and, really, any organisation that wants to be successful wants to have a bigger pool to pick from. At the moment, you have a lot more females and minorities getting in the sport and into the NFL. From my example, I've been at training camps and now a whole season - that's like Football 101 in a very short period of time! If you can get the experience and work hard then you have every chance of one day having a female as a Head Coach or an OC or DC."

"At the end of the day, I think women minorities, whoever you are, you don't want to be considered female or male, you just wanna be a coach and I think that's the end goal for everyone."

As the first stop on the NFL UK Live Tour draws to a close, Neil and special guests Ryan, Mo, Jason and Phoebe bid farewell to their captivated Southampton audience. Next stop - Birmingham.

Super Bowl LIII will be live on BBC One, Sky Sports USA and NFL Game Pass on 3rd February from 11pm.

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