It's nothing like Miami. The skies are overcast and gray, it's windy, and the first cold winds of autumn are blowing through the Selhurst Boys School. "It was almost 50 degrees hotter when we left Miami," laughed former Dolphins safety Shawn Wooden. From inside his wool cap, another former Dolphin, linebacker Twan Russell, nodded agreement. "It's a long way from Florida, that's for sure."
While the giant animatronic Jason Taylor moves around London, and photos of the Dolphins cheerleaders appear in the pages of the august Times and the even more conservative Daily Telegraph, Russell and Wooden are part of a group of Dolphins alumni who are quietly going about the business of teaching football to British kids whose only exposure to the game has come on television or in the movies.
"Football has potential here," said Russell, who played seven seasons in the NFL and is now Miami's director of youth programs. "Soccer's a great sport, but like soccer, we're a total team sport, and we offer a lot of things to kids who aren't suited for soccer. Our organization really wants to grow the game, which I guess is why the team is here, and why we're here too."
The four-day clinic coincides with this Sunday's Giants-Dolphins game at Wembley Stadium, the NFL's first regular-season game played outside North America. It is part of an NFL initiative to promote flag football in after-school clubs in a country whose school sports are almost non-existent. "Sport is offered almost on a school-by-school basis," said Simon Newnham, who has worked in game development in the U.K. since the early days of the London Monarchs (an original NFL Europe franchise). The Dolphins cheerleaders performed Tuesday night at nearby Selhurst Park Stadium, where Crystal Palace Football Club plays soccer. "Usually, it's soccer or nothing in the inner cities," Newnham said, "and often they focus only on elite players. Rugby tends to be available only through clubs, and they don't reach into these areas, so the cities have always been where the best British players have come from."
So there ought to be an opening that the NFL's flag football programs, played by boys and girls, could fill for schools. But today, these boys, aged between 14-18, are in full pads, and learning the game for real. It's the second day, and 54 of the 63 kids who showed up Tuesday were back. "We'll lose a few more, especially when they discover they don't like being hit," said Newnham, "but in the end we may get 30 to stay with the game."
Staying with the game is relatively easy at Selhurst, because this school ground is also the practice field for the London Cobras, a newly-founded American football club looking to enter the British Amateur League. Its coach is Jeff Brown, a British defensive back who was good enough to play two seasons for the Frankfurt Galaxy in NFL Europe. "We might be able to get 15 or 20 players for our youth team, the Warriors, and there's one guy I think might suit our senior team right now," Brown said.
That senior prospect is an 18-year-old Albanian-born kid who jumped up when Russell asked for a volunteer to go one on one. "How much do you weigh?" Russell asked. "Sixteen-and-a-half stone," he replied.
When Russell asked what that meant, Tanny Fernandez, a longtime NFL Europe equipment manager, did the multiplying in his head - "230 pounds, or so," said Fernandez.
"Okay, you're bigger than I am," Russell said. "But if I get lower, I can move you," and he proceeded to demonstrate. "Whoever gets lower wins the battle."
Russell's used to this. He works for the Dolphins, and runs 160 clinics a year. Usually, the kids are younger, sometimes as young as seven. "This is great, because it's communication at a higher level," he said. "These kids start from scratch, but they learn much quicker. Even after two days, you can see some of them starting to get it."
The clinics are organized like a practice, with whistles going off to stop each drill and the players moving from one drill to the next. Five-on-five scrimmaging will bring the day to a close, but first Russell has another job. He's watched 15-year-old Kevin Chima get manhandled in a one-on-one drill. "He got broken down," Russell said, "but he's got promise."
Russell approached Chima. "You're an athlete," he told him. "You can attack your opponent. If you attack, you can beat him, okay?" Chima nodded. Later, during a break, Chima said he was enjoying the clinic and planned to continue. What's it like getting coached by a pro? "He makes it seem easy," Chima said. "And fun."
Russell was already busy taking another boy aside. "Don't coast on me now," he said. "Whatever you do, don't coast on me."
He sounded just like a football coach, and these kids were starting to look just like football players.