“We’re celebrating the 100th year of the NFL this year. Over the next 100 years, the international side will be playing a huge part in the development of the game,” Henry Hodgson, NFL’s vice president of International Marketing & Fan Development
The 2019 NFL season kicked off in the early hours of Friday morning when the Chicago Bears played the Green Bay Packers. Bears v Packers is perhaps the NFL’s most storied rivalry. It was an occasion to reflect on the game’s warrior tradition: large men in leather helmets playing a hardman's game on cold afternoons in the American midwest. But NFL 100 is also an opportunity to look ahead and imagine what one of the biggest sports organisations on Earth will look like a century from now, if we still have sports.
This evening, thousands and thousands of NFL fans across Ireland, the UK and continental Europe will re-engage with one of Europe’s great autumn sporting rituals: Sunday evening NFL (ideally experienced via the RedZone channel). The NFL’s success in attracting international fans is blatant - there are four sold-out NFL games in London this autumn - and long-standing. The sport has attracted an audience in these islands for as long as American football has been broadcast here.
The NFL is now attempting something slightly more audacious. It wants non-Americans to adopt its game. It's hardly novel for a major sports organisation to seek foreign talent. But because American football is so technical, so complex and so American (in the best and worst meanings of the word), an enormous amount of missionary work is required to spread the game.
But for a multibillion dollar business like the NFL, anything is possible. There are currently players from the UK, Brazil, Australia and Germany employed by NFL franchises. This year, high-profile rugby players Christian Wade and Valentine Holmes walked away from their respective sports to chase a dream of making the NFL. So perhaps the time has come to ask how far away we are from having an Irish-born player in the NFL. Because the infrastructure is now in place for that to happen.
Ireland’s links to American football are tenuous but intriguing. There’s been limited success in the kicking game. Neil O’Donoghue grew up in Clondalkin and ended up as a placekicker with three different teams over his 7-year career in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He’s the last Irish-born player to play in the NFL. Pat Murray, an American-born son of a former Monaghan footballer, was a placekicker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cleveland Browns this decade. Ronan O’Gara was famously ‘offered a contract’ by the Miami Dolphins back in 2003. Aidan O’Shea trained as a tight end during The Toughest. That’s about it.
This chimes with the history of the foreign-player in the NFL. Beyond a lineage of Scandanivian kickers, there’s a short list of players from abroad who’ve made it in the league. Most of them are guys like Ose Uminyiora or Jay Ajayi, players who were born outside of the US but moved to America as kids and discovered the game.
But that’s changing. The NFL has turned the development of foreign players into a major element of its growth strategy. They have teams in the UK, China, Canada and Mexico and Los Angeles working on international development. This takes the form of fan outreach, via content and marketing, and international player development, via a scouting network spearheaded by Will Bryce,the NFL’s UK Head of Football Development. The NFL’s hope is that the success of the latter part of that strategy will someday drive the first.
“Our goal is to keep our loyal fans engaged and develop new ones, all the while working with our broadcast partners to tell the compelling stories behind the game,” Hodgson says.
Hodgson will be familiar to anyone who consumes NFL Media content. Born in the UK, he is a Miami Dolphins fan who’s one of the people spearheading the drive to grow the game beyond America’s shores.
“First and foremost, I love the sport. But I’m passionate about growing football to a new audience."
If you're a 16-year-old Irish kid who wants to be the next Tom Brady, the NFL now has a career path for you. As Hodgson says, the NFL’s hope is to spot international talent at a young age, so that the players can take a conventional course to the NFL, via the American college system. This year, the NFL opened its first academy outside of the US at Barnet and Southgate College, 45 minutes north of London. The academy looks to work with around 80 16-to-18 year-olds, and mixes American football training with education. Succeed here and you might get offered a scholarship to an American university.
If you're an elite Irish athlete who wants to be the next Odell Beckham, the International Player Pathway is your route to the big time. The NFL got truly serious with developing international talent when it launched the International Pathway Programme in 2017. Foreign players who are thought to be of NFL calibre are allocated to select teams for summer training camp. Teams are then offered an extra roster spot on their practice squads should they want to continue to develop international players involved who are deemed not good enough for the 53 man roster.
With the IPP, the NFL is acknowledging that its sport cannot be mastered over night by converts. The league also proves it investment in these players by telling their stories via the Undiscovered series.
The 2019 NFL preseason was instructive in just how close, and how far, we are from seeing a major breakout foreign NFL star. Christian Wade, well-known to all rugby fans, came to the Buffalo Bulls through the IPP and created arguably the biggest viral moment of the 2019 NFL preseason with a touchdown on his first NFL carry.
— ESPN (@espn) August 9, 2019
Wade almost scored another touchdown in his second game, breaking five tackles en route to a 50-yard catch and run.
This is not a drill. We reapest, this is not a drill. Christian Wade is 🔥 right now. The Ex’s and O’s team are massive fans. 🇬🇧🏈#exsandosteam @BuffaloBills @Panthers @ChristianWade3 @NFLUK @NFL pic.twitter.com/MLqSGGHbTT
— ExsAndOs (@Exsandosteam) August 17, 2019
While it was fascinating to see Wade's rugby skills as a wing transfer to the football field, the second run also proved just how much Wade has to learn about the sport.
“If you look at that catch against Carolina where he was tackled at the 1 yard line, you could see Wade’s rugby brain driving him into open space, where he was eventually tackled. He actually had blockers who could have got him in the end zone,” Hodgson points out.
All of which raises the question: how long does it take an athlete to rewire a brain conditioned to play a similar, but also radically different, sport?
By the end of the preseason, Wade was cut by the Bills but retained on their practice squad via the NFL foreign players exemption
Valentine Holmes was an Australian Rugby League star with the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks who walked away from $15,000 weekly wages to enter the IPP. He was signed by the New York Jets as a running back. Holmes had a less-spectacular preseason than Wade, and he too finds on the Jets practice squad heading into Week 1.
Operating out of the limelight are two other 2019 IPP alumni: Brazilian offensive linesman Durval Queiroz Neto and German fullback Jakob Johnson, who find themselves on the practice squad of the Dolphins and Patriots respectively. Both excelled in their respective domestic American football leagues before being spotted by scouts.
This group all follow in the footsteps of German tight end Moritz Boehgringer, who in 2016 was the first European player to be drafted without college football experience. He’s currently on the Cincinnati Bengals practice squad.
The most successful player to come to the NFL via the International Player Pathway programme is Efe Obada of the Carolina Panthers. Obada’s journey to the NFL is staggering: he was born in Nigeria, was victim of human trafficking at 10 and moved Amsterdam and later London, and then spent a lot of his youth in UK foster homes. Obada came to the sport in his 20s and after being spotted by NFL scouts in the UK, entered the IPP and was eventually allocated to the Carolina Panthers. Last season Obada played 10 games, made 2 sacks and won NFC Defensive Player of the Week in Week 3. He was signed to a one-year contract by the Panthers back in January.
When you've had an adolescence as harrowing as Obada's, perhaps trying to crack the NFL doesn't seem so hard.
One has to admire the almost romantic love of the game and desire to succeed that Wade and these other men must have to uproot their lives and chase the NFL dream. Hodgson spoke of Wade's incredibly positivity and hunger to learn the game. But switching sports mid-career is as ambitious as it is challenging. Life on the practice squad of an NFL team is a long way from the glitz and glamour of playing on Super Bowl Sunday.
The problem with trying to imagine an Irish player in the NFL is that the template had never really existed before. Certainly, Irish athletes possess many of the individual attributes of an elite NFL player. Take the freakishness of James Ryan, the raw power of Tadhg Furlong, the athleticism of Brian Fenton. Combine all of those things into one man and you’d get an Irish NFL star.
Of course, it's easy to imagine Joey Carbery or Sean O'Shea earning their crust as an NFL punter or a field goal kicker. But there’s already hundreds of people in America who can do that job. It took a heavy metal Scot to come around and help us imagine what an Irish player could bring to the NFL.
Jamie Gillen is the son of an RAF submarine man. He played rugby in a posh boarding school before moving to the US to complete his secondary education. He was offered a scholarship to a small college in Arkansas - a state he admits he’d never heard about before the offer - over Facebook. He wowed NFL teams at the combine this winter and joined the Cleveland Browns extended roster.
Gillen claims he kicked holes in three Wilson footballs this winter. He is the first kicker to marry the raw physicality of a rugby back with the bona fides of an NFL kicker. Gillen’s kicking and tackling have gone viral over the preseason, which is a first in the history of the NFL’s digital era.
— Gridiron (@Gridiron) August 30, 2019
Gillen even received ‘Baldy’ treatment after being analysed by former NFL player Brian Baldinger on Twitter.
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) August 29, 2019
Last Saturday, the Browns cut Britton Colquitt, a 10-year pro, and announced that Gillen was their starting punter. The Browns are being talked up as darkhorses for the Super Bowl this year, and Gillen, a man who's never played an NFL game, will have a major role in their success.
Could this be the way we see an Irish player break through to the NFL? Could Gillen transform the position so radically that special teams coaches will be on the hunt for hard tackling punters? It might sound radical, but the NFL has never shied away from change and innovation.
Maybe we'll some day soon have an Irish Hammer.