We arrive in the middle of a dream.
Descending into the Heathrow morning half-awake after half a day's journey from Los Angeles.
Our task is clear. We have arrived ahead of Week 1 to meet with a loyal, growing subset of London and European culture: the NFL fan.
We had come on behalf of the Around The NFL Podcast, a seven-person traveling party from NFL Network comprised of myself, fellow football writers Dan Hanzus, Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling and our ace production staff of Mark Brady, Erica Tamposi and Todd Metcalf.
We had no idea of the impact they would make on us. Football fans from afar. Many hailing from the homes and quiet backstreets and nearby apartment houses of London, but also from points beyond -- Manchester, Gloucester, Liverpool and Leeds; Birmingham, Brussels, Surrey and The Hague -- to find others, like them, who shared this passion.
"At times, being an NFL fan in Britain is like being a member of an underground network," said Tim Shipman, a political editor for the Sunday Times. "If you know what to look for, you can identify each other with secret signs: casual mentions of Cheeseheads, scrimmage yards and Terrible Towels."
It's ill-advised for this American to write paragraphs describing anything from the United Kingdom -- especially the sensibility of its people -- based off a seven-day voyage. Still, I find myself back home touting what I saw in these fans who bring so much to an NFL that desires to be more than a pastime mired in regional Americana.
The European supporter is knowledgeable, a tangible quality alive in conversations with the fans we met. This comes partly rooted in a modern-day dynamic where the vast majority of fans are attached to one, two, three fantasy football teams at once, forcing them into a world of minutia and detail that makes the parlor hobby such a raging success.
Their knowledge, though, is driven equally by passion, perhaps in a similar way I see Americans in love with the world's football -- our soccer -- lining up at predawn roadside taverns in Los Angeles to witness footage of the Manchester derby. The NFL fan in London often doubles as a solitary night owl, huddled around glowing screens in darkened rooms to watch 49ers-Broncos kick off at 1:30 a.m. Hours later, while their coworkers bounce down hallways following luxurious dream-sleeps, the NFL fan is susceptible to hitting the office in a shattered state.
"In some ways, the time difference helps. The first game kicks off at 6 p.m. Sunday here, which allows quality time to be spent with family at the weekends before the marathon of games begins," Shipman said. "The other transformation has been Game Pass, which allows you to pretend to go to bed at the same time as your wife while watching the end of the afternoon games under the duvet."
From 38-year-old Christopher of Glasgow: "I fell in love with highlights of Warren Moon and Joe Montana on Channel 4. Now a Titans fan. I was in the U.S. last year and found I had less time to watch games because life was going on while they were on TV. There's something magical about staying up late or waking up early to watch games: You feel like it's somehow illicit, precious and entirely your own."
As sojourners from the States, our stories are different. We grew up with American football from the youngest days. The sport first seeped into our consciousness as rheumy-eyed toddlers nestled in living rooms; the comforting sounds of the television broadcast matching grainy images of mysterious men on grass fields of the autumn night.
For many of the fans we met, the siren song of the NFL came much later, as a hobby chosen at a more sentient time in life where picking a team innately becomes an individual task -- not something passed down for five generations because your entire family tree hails from Hackensack and backs Big Blue.
The European fan is, at once, individualist and part of a greater movement. Along with solo, sleep-sacrificing efforts to track one's team, these fans flock to London to sell out the NFL International Series, the annual string of showdowns that mesh enthusiasts from all corners into one.
"NFL fans in London have a singular experience," Mike Flaim, a Colorado transplant teaching high school economics in The Netherlands, said of the game-day experience in London. "Every game is about the love of the sport more than rivalry, since 'your team' is most likely not playing. There is a carnival atmosphere. You'll see all 32 uniforms and nine old NFL Europe uniforms in the stands. ... On the other weeks, it's dreary late nights trying to yell quietly so you don't wake the neighborhood!"
That community aspect is not lost on 21-year-old Jason of Suffolk, who told me he initially hooked into the NFL as a way to ignore his studies, only to become ensnared: "I managed to get a portion of my university sports team on the hype, too, and now we all stay up for our fantasy teams and the playoffs as a group. It's given me something unique -- a friendship in a way no other sport probably could."
New fans are popping up from every corner of Europe and beyond. Still, it's from London where you feel the gravitational pull. The tractor beam. A pulse felt by fans imbued with a vision that three annual games can become five, six, maybe a full slate of eight -- even if that means 16 different clubs make the trip.
There is reason to believe we will eventually see a Super Bowl in London, too, even if that feels today like a distant hopeful speck on Europe's horizon.
The answer will always be more with the NFL. More exposure, more fanfare, more growth in places once deemed as dead zones for a sport launched in the lush valleys of Pennsylvania in 1892 with a spartan showdown between the Allegheny Athletic Association and Pittsburgh Athletic Club.
One hundred and twenty-six years later, we find ourselves at a new doorway. Our little group of California travelers could feel it the entire time we roamed London. Talking with fans of American football in Piccadilly Square; in crowded taxis; in our lamplit hotel lobby; out in the sun-wet streets and where we gathered in the rowdy, glowing taverns of the night.
I didn't want to leave. I must return. And so will the NFL.