The National Football League has unveiled a major UK initiative that aims to use American football to create life-changing educational and professional opportunities for young people.
The NFL Academy, which begins operations in September 2019 and has already been endorsed by some of the biggest names in the sport, will offer student athletes aged 16-18 the opportunity to combine education with life skills and intensive training in the sport under full-time professional coaches.
Supported by Nike and based at Barnet & Southgate College in North London, the NFL Academy will provide students with pathways into employment, further education and even the potential opportunity to play NCAA college football in the United States.
“This is a massive step-change for us,” NFL UK managing director Alistair Kirkwood told Gridiron, “We’ve had a few in the last 10-12 years since we’ve been playing [NFL games] over here, but this is a huge thing for us because it’s about us becoming a lot more ‘year round’ and providing a true commitment, a pathway, and also meaningful opportunities to an age group that we’ve done some work with before, but in kind of a scattergun fashion. It’s also a world first because we’ll never have one in the States; we don’t need one because there’s a brilliant high school and college system that works really well over there. There’s an immense amount of pride for us as an office that the UK is getting the very first one – and unbelievable that we’ve got the kind of ambassadors that we’ve got endorsing it, because that means it’s not a suit saying how exciting it is, it’s actually some really, really big players as well.”
The Academy is a first-of-its kind initiative that will deliver against three key elements: education, character development and football
“The inspiration for the idea was our long-term partnership with Tottenham Hotspur,” Kirkwood revealed. “As well as playing games at the new stadium, we had a desire to create something meaningful for the community on a year-round basis. “Also, we have seen from the success of players such as Efe Obada in our Player Pathway programme that, with the right kind of ambition and approach, there is potential to achieve breakthrough results. This is an opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of many young people, regardless of their experience of our sport. It is also an opportunity for us to create a pathway for players to get into the American college system and maybe even to the NFL itself.”
Barnet & Southgate College will provide the students’ education and has appointed a coaching staff who will work alongside NFL UK’s development team to create the football programme, as the new initiative joins a number of other sporting academies offered by the college. The role of the NFL will be to drive recognition and prestige for the programme, provide technical expertise from a football standpoint and develop the character development curriculum, details of which are expected to follow shortly.
Recruitment for the first class of approximately 80 students will take place over the next three months via a series of try-outs. Details can be found at nflacademy.com.
“The NFL Academy gives aspiring young American football players or outstanding athletes the chance to develop their skills and knowledge of the game, while also achieving a full-time education,” Darren Mepham, CEO of Barnet & Southgate College, said. “It really is a fantastic opportunity for young people to be able to take a step towards achieving their sporting dreams.”
Some of NFL’s highest-profile stars have already pledged their support for the Academy and will serve in ambassadorial roles, which will include regular visits to help mentor the student athletes. These include London-born two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora and his colleague on BBC’s NFL coverage, Jason Bell. However, bigger still is the recruitment of new Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, Philadelphia Eagles’ British-born running back Jay Ajayi, and the aforementioned Obada, the London-raised defensive end currently plying his trade with the Carolina Panthers. Other ambassadors will be announced in the future.
“Being from London and having spent time with so many young athletes there, I know how much the NFL Academy will mean to them,” Obada commented. “To have the chance to pursue American football while receiving an education and other life-changing skills is an awesome opportunity. The values that the sport teaches go beyond the field and can help you make more of your life. I am really excited to give the NFL Academy my support and help these young people achieve their dreams.”
Academy partner Nike will develop and supply apparel and on-field uniforms for the student athletes.
“To have Nike’s support as a partner is a massive endorsement of the Academy,” Kirkwood admitted. “Their expertise will be a valuable asset and something we know the students will be really proud of and excited about.”