Believe it or not, it's been 10 months since the NFL Academy opened its doors in London. While the world in which we live in has dramatically changed, our academy students have been continuing to put in the hard work.
The NFL Academy, the first of its kind outside of the US, is based at Barnet and Southgate College in north London and gives student athletes aged 16-18 a life-changing opportunity to combine education and life skills with intensive training in the sport under full-time professional coaches.
This Summer the NFL Academy launched its first ever virtual tryouts here in the UK to find the next generation of talent. Applications have now closed for this year but before we begin with our next chapter, let's look at where we've come from.
The NFL Academy started its journey back in July, when 150 teenagers took part in the NFL Academy: Stadium Showcase
The trialists were put through a series of NFL Combine-style drills under the scrutiny of NFL Academy head coach Tony Allen and NFL UK head of player development Will Bryce.
As the start of a new academic year rolled around, the NFL Academy brought together the first group of selected players and began the journey of giving UK teens the chance to chase their dreams.
It's a day head coach, Tony Allen, remembers well:
"From the 90 players we got, we had about 30 that were cross-over athletes, guys from other sports. The younger they were, the less football they had been around. I don't just mean by age but also football in the domestic game. 11-man football was a first for pretty much all of them. We aimed high in terms of where we thought their skill level and understanding of football was but it became very evident during our early practices that we needed to go back to fundamentals and basics. They took on everything we asked them to do and worked hard every day to improve. It's not an easy regime at the academy, the demands of the football side alongside your academics is very tough. It's not for everybody, but this group of lads took on the challenge and just get better and better."
After a few sessions and a lot of hard work, the new group had walked the walk and now it was time to look the part too. The academy students got their hands on their purpose-built gear that was made to measure…
When the London Games came around in October, Academy students made sure they got the most out of every opportunity that was given to them. They got to spend time learning from the Los Angeles Rams when they joined practice ahead of their game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Wembley.
And when the Jacksonville Jaguars came back to their second home, defensive end and NFL Academy ambassador Calais Campbell took some time out of his busy schedule to give the students a pep talk.
Moving onto November, it was time for refurbishment at Barnet and Southgate College, where an old drama hall was changed into a fully functioning NFL gym.
And when it came to its opening, only an NFL legend would do! Hall of Fame wide receiver and NFL Academy ambassador Jerry Rice travelled from the US to give the Academy team a training session they would never forget:
The Goat wasn't the only NFL player to take an interest in the NFL Academy. Current UK NFL players Efe Obada, Christian Wade, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Jamie Gillan have all been to train with the players and are excited for the future of the academy.
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Scotland-Williamson said:
"Having the opportunity to watch this group of young men grow on and off the field has been a real privilege. Watching them fall in love with every aspect of the game of football – the culture, the brotherhood, and the hard work, fills me with a huge sense of pride.
"It wasn't long ago that I was in the same position, learning the game for the first time and having to greet every challenge the game presented with alacrity. So, to see them going through the same process at an earlier stage in their development makes me confident that this special group of young men are destined to make the most of every opportunity. Improving themselves as both people and as athletes. That is the beauty of this game, it gives you the chance to challenge yourself to be better - every single day."
Throughout the winter months the Academy team carried on working hard come rain or shine.
And it was these times that have head coach Allen feels some of his proudest moments as he saw the players go from strength to strength:
"The proudest moment for me was when we started to achieve the team period and actually got them playing 11-man football and executing the plays. The students really came into their own. We didn't know what we were going to get until they started getting into contact play. They were fighting in the trenches and battling and chasing for passes. Watching the running backs carrying the ball and making big plays. That's what you want to see, that's what we're trying to get them to do. For me, that was one of the highs."
The winter season ended with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the 2020 NFL Pro Bowl, where the students got to take part in a Skills Showcase and met up with the NFL all stars:
Carrying on the journey
So, what next for year two? Allen has already set his targets:
"Without stating the obvious these are tough times, not just for the academy but globally. Whilst we're still working remotely in classrooms and still have our classroom sessions and can give guidance on how players can keep in shape, there is a lot we are missing. We can't wait to get back with the guys. On our return there will be some changes but there is a lot we feel we can do, even with the restrictions. Hopefully, things improve, and we can come back and hit the ground running. That is important for us, we are looking to play some friendlies and the guys need to play games so they can show their ability. So, my targets are playing games, picking up where we left off, bringing in talent and let's see where we can go."