Riding the Tube and teaching football to the Brits

Note: Michael McKnight, a producer for NFL Network, is in England to cover the Giants-Dolphins game this weekend. He filed this report from in and around London:

Since we've been here, the skies in London have looked eerily similar to the gray ones we left behind in Los Angeles. But the pall here is explained by cold and moisture -- as opposed to the hot, dry ash of our wildfires. Look at London from a distance this week, and Wembley and Qualcomm stadiums could be brothers (if you remove the thermometer and barometer from view and add a few restrooms and a dazzling arch to the Q). The NFL, meanwhile, is hoping that fans here in the Old World will feel a passion for this game that at least partially resembles that felt by resilient Charger fans.

There are more than a few clues to American football's newness around here; such as the huge poster in our hotel lobby this week which features an American quarterback, rearing his arm back to pass. It was quite obviously an England-based model in a football get-up (complete with ill-fitting helmet and Prince Harry-esque rosy cheeks). And he had the tip of his index finger on the nose of the ball, a grip that, to my knowledge, only Terry Bradshaw was able to turn into a spiral. What truly gave him away as something less than D-1 material, however, was the number on his jersey: 48. Details ...

You ever walk past a guy in the States and you can just tell he's European? Even if he doesn't speak? I suppose it's something in the way they carry themselves, or that they all seem to have some variation of a faux-hawk. Whatever the case, I can assure you that the inverse is true here. For whatever reason, people here can tell I'm a Yank before I even open my mouth.

Ah, you an American? they ask, smiling but tentative.

Here for the footbol ah you then?

The greatest part of London? Without question, the Tube. If I weren't already spoken for, and if the London Underground were a woman, I would propose marriage to her. Although I've been here before, I never get tired of traveling at rush hour across one of the world's most vast urban sprawls in just 20 minutes. It's like time travel. Back home, 20 minutes on a freeway at rush hour might get you from one exit to the next. Between assignments this week, I might start riding the Tube like a roller coaster, just for fun, although it has very recently been made clear to me that trying to raise one's arms outside the train is not acceptable.

When I asked a young man on the Tube today who he'd be pulling for on Sunday, he answered Liverpool (Arsenal plays the Reds on Sunday at the same time the Giants face the Dolphins). When I told him I was asking about the NFL contest, and told him who was playing, he said: "I'll support Giants then. Although that bloke Bonds plays for them dunn-he? Don' care for him, really."

I spoke to the local doctor the Dolphins have hired to serve as a medical assistant this week. He had scant experience with our game, so he asked me about our rules regarding tackling. What's allowed?

I told him everything's fair game, except leg-whipping.


Or pulling players' facemasks.

Or the horse-collar tackle (which required an explanation).

He asked about helmet-to-helmet hits.

Nope, I said, not that either.

By this time, he was probably wondering whether tackling was allowed at all. And it didn't help that there was a team of padless rugby players nearby, slamming into each other in ways that violated all of the above no-nos (Miami practiced at the home of the famed London Wasps Rugby Club).

And I didn't even get into spearing.

As jet-lagged NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told us earlier this week, his biggest challenge in selling the game worldwide is education. Try explaining American football to someone who has never seen it before. You're right, nearly impossible in the States. This then: Try explaining American football to someone as if they've never seen it before. If you're like me, you last about 10 seconds before you start bookmarking things that you'll come back to later (the concept of first downs, for example, or pass interference), but never do. Today I pulled off a pretty decent explanation for the first time in about 20 tries, although I didn't cover extra points or the fact that we can lateral at any time.

Set your stopwatch and try it. Do it at parties. It's hard.

English football? Not so hard.

It's been said before that what Americans are best at is spectacle. Wembley Stadium (a dazzling spectacle itself) will certainly see plenty of that on Sunday. But these are bright people used to showing up in massive numbers to see world-class football players compete. On Sunday, the heart of American football -- its speed, contact and the fascinating strategy that encourages them -- is what must resonate with London's fans for this to work. The final score will be forgotten soon enough. But if Londoners choose to follow up on Sunday's game with a quickly-gained understanding of what they saw, then the true winner of this Giants-Dolphins game will be the league.

As Alistair Kirkwood, managing director of NFL UK, said, the impact of this game won't be decided this weekend, but three years from now. What will it have led to?

Contact Michael McKnight at Michael.mcknight@la.nfl.net

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