American football is the United States’ most popular sport and the NFL obtains the highest television ratings among major sports nationwide.
Even though the United Kingdom has its own beloved, proper shaped, football equivalent, the American version of the game has had a fairly substantial following in Britain since broadcaster Channel 4 began showing weekly NFL highlights in 1982. An estimated four million people tuned into watch Super Bowl XX between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots in 1985.
A year later Wembley Stadium hosted its first ever NFL game between the Bears and Dallas Cowboys.
The World League of American Football (later renamed NFL Europe) took off in the early 1990s with the London Monarchs and Scottish Claymores holding UK fans’ attention.
In recent years, the NFL International Series has peaked further interest, with NFL regular season games being played at Wembley since 2007.
From next season games will move to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, while there has long been speculation that London will be chosen as the home of an NFL franchise one day.
In another positive move ahead of the new season, which begins in September, the NFL Academy will launch during the same month, aiming to create a pathway for a British kids to make it to the NFL.
The ‘NFL Academy: Stadium Showcase’ was held at Spurs’ new home earlier this month, with 150 teenagers taking part.
Although its aim is to create opportunities for future British talents, it might surprise you to know that the UK has actually already produced some excellent NFL gems. Six have even won Super Bowls.
Let’s check out some of the most successful, short-lived and weirdest British NFL exports:
New York Giants 2003-2012, Atlanta Falcons 2013-2014
Umenyiora can be considered right up there among the true modern great defensive players – perhaps not quite alongside the likes of JJ Watt and Brian Urlacher, but certainly a level down.
The elite pass rusher had 85 sacks during his career, 75 of them with the Giants, which places him fourth on the franchise’s list, trailing only Hall of Famers Michael Strahan (141) and Lawrence Taylor (132), and Leonard Marshall (79).
Overall he recorded 261 tackles in 161 games and forced 35 fumbles, recovering 13. He also holds the Giants’ record with three touchdowns on fumble returns.
London-born Umenyiora, 37, moved to Nigeria when he was seven, before moving to Alabama when he was 14 to live with his sister. Despite only receiving one offer of an athletic scholarship, he excelled at Troy University, moving from nose guard to defensive end. He was not invited to the 2003 NFL Draft Combine, yet was drafted in the second round (56th pick overall) by the Giants.
He was a part of two Giants Super Bowl-winning teams when they beat the Patriots both in 2007 and 2012, the first time a huge upset as they ended a previously unbeaten 18-0 season for Tom Brady and Co.
Miami Dolphins 2015-2017, Philadelphia Eagles 2017-2018
The 26-year-old running back was born in London to Nigerian parents and, despite moving to the States as a seven-year-old, is a lifelong Arsenal fan.
Ajayi was a high school star before attending Boise State from 2011 to 2014. As a junior in 2014, he became the first Boise State player to rush for 100+ yards in 10 games in a season.
He was drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft with the 149th overall pick by the Dolphins. He scored his first NFL touchdown in a 30-14 loss to the San Diego Chargers, playing in nine games and posting 49 carries for 187 yards in his debut season.
He featured in all but one of Miami’s 16 games the following season, rushing for 1,272 yards and scoring eight TDs. He was then traded midway through his third season to the Eagles, scoring a TD on his debut against the Denver Broncos and adding two more as the Eagles reached Super Bowl LII.
In one of the most spectacular Super Bowls in recent memory Ajayi rushed for 57 rushing yards as the Eagles beat the Patriots 41-33, giving them their first title in franchise history.
After his 2018 season was cut short by injury Ajayi is now a free agent and looking for a new team.
Kansas City Chiefs 2001-2002 & 2004-2006, New York Giants 2007-2012, Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2013
Tynes has lived an interesting life. Born to an American Navy Seal father, Larry, and Scottish mother, Margaret, in Greenock, the family lived in Scotland until Celtic-mad Tynes was 10.
They then moved to Florida where Larry became a policeman, while older brother Mark got sentenced to 27 years in prison for smuggling drugs.
All this and we haven’t even mentioned the fact Tynes swapped the UK for the US version – eventually leading to two Super Bowl rings with the Giants.
He contracted MRSA due to unsanitary conditions after surgery to remove an ingrown toenail following a 2013 move to the Buccaneers. It ended his career and he received a settlement in 2017 from the Bucs.
Tynes’ road to the NFL was an arduous one. After attending Troy State he played in NFL Europe and the Canadian Football League before signing with the Chiefs. He made 190 of his 233 field goals attempted for an 81.5 per cent success rate.
Tynes is the only player in NFL history to have two overtime game-winning field goals in the playoffs. He kicked a 47-yard effort in the 2007 NFC Championship Game.
He’d previously missed two fourth quarter tries but crucially kicked the longer attempt to beat the Green Bay Packers 23-20 and send New York Super Bowl XLII.
In 2011, Tynes kicked another field goal in overtime to beat the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 and again send his side to the Super Bowl.
New England Patriots 2001-2003, Carolina Panthers 2004, Kansas City Chiefs 2006
Today the New England Patriots are the NFL’s dominant force and their Super Bowl win last season over the Los Angeles Rams drew them level with the Pittsburgh Steelers on most titles in history – six.
But, prior to 2001, they’d not won one. Tom Brady was an emerging but unknown talent, but not quite as unknown as wide receiver Scott McCready, who became the first British national to win the Super Bowl when the Pats defeated the St. Louis Rams to lift their first Vince Lombardi trophy.
He was only a member of the practice squad so never actually saw any action during his two seasons with the Patriots – but the 42-year-old London-born receiver turned pilot at least has a ring.
Interestingly, McCready turned to aeroplanes after his career ended and actually became a pilot in the UAE for Etihad, graduating through their cadet programme in Al Ain.
He flourished as a rugby player in the Garden City – appearing with Al Ain Amblers at the 2009 Dubai Rugby Sevens.
An alternative career in the air force is perhaps not that surprising considering McCready is the son of an F-15 pilot who was in the British Royal Air Force and, growing up in London, he played for a junior side called the Heathrow Jets.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2006 & 2008, Miami Dolphins 2007
A distinguished career in the country of his birth didn’t’ quite equate to the NFL for Allen, who is a three-time BritBowl champion and also played in NFL Europe with the Frankfurt Galaxy, Rhein Fire and Amsterdam Admirals.
But the wide receiver was part of the practice squads for both the Dolphins and Steelers – he even earned a Super Bowl ring with the storied franchise in 2008 as they beat the Arizona Cardinals, even though he never saw any legitimate NFL playing time.
American football certainly runs in the family. Allen’s dad Tony is arguably the most successful coach in British American football history and the former director of international player and football development for NFL Europe. He is actually the new UK NFL Academy’s head coach.
Domonique Foxworth was born to American parents in Oxford, where his father was stationed with the US Army. Foxworth moved to the States as a child before going on to enjoy a six-year career in the NFL as a cornerback with the Denver Broncos, Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.
Graham Gano, who was born in Arbroath, where his father was stationed with the US Navy, has been the Carolina Panthers’ place kicker since 2012 and has kicked 224 of 273 career field goals. Appeared in Super Bowl 50 as the Panthers lost to the Broncos 24-10.
Visanthe Shiancoe, born in Birmingham, became a tight end for the Giants and latterly the Minnesota Vikings where he enjoyed a purple patch, scoring 24 TDs in five seasons. He had 27 overall in a career which yielded 245 receptions for 2,679 yards.
Born in Manchester, Menelik Watson’s first love was football before turning to basketball, moving to college in New York and California to play, only to then turn to American football and get drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2013 as an offensive tackle. Currently a free agent.
Linebacker Tim Shaw was a special teams coach’s dream, named in USA Today’s All-Joe Team, honouring the NFL’s unsung and underrated players, in January 2010.
Born in Exeter, he made 127 total tackles in his career with the Panthers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Bears and Tennessee Titans. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2014.
Mick Luckhurst was one of the earliest British-born players in the NFL, playing for the Falcons from 1981-87. The Hertfordshire native scored a rushing touchdown on a fake field goal in their 1982 playoff game against the Vikings and retired as the team’s all-time leading scorer with 558 points, before being surpassed by the legendary Morten Andersen in 2000.
Currently the number four leading scorer in Patriots history, Oxfordshire-born John Smith played in New England from 1974 to 1983, the placekicker leading the NFL in scoring in 1979 and 1980.
Jack Crawford recorded 112 total tackles, 15 sacks, forced two fumbles and collected one interception during seven seasons in the league. Signed with the Falcons in 2017 after being drafted by the Raiders and then spent three years with the Dallas Cowboys, he was born in London.
A gifted rugby player in his youth, Lawrence Okoye was a member of both London Irish and London Wasps’ academies before turning to athletics. He represented Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics, making the final and finishing 12th.
He was signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 but, after failing to establish himself, flitted around numerous other teams’ practice squads before dropping out of the league.
Born in Oxford, running back Sammy Morris put up impressive career numbers without ever really settling at a team. He had 3,053 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns, with one receiving TD from 166 receptions and 1,258 receiving yards.
Obi Melifonwu became the sixth UK-born player to win a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots last year – appearing in two regular season games.
The London-born strong safety was selected by the Raiders in the second round of the 2017 draft, but was cut and signed with the Patriots in November last year.
Also born in London, Jermaine Eluemunor grew up playing rugby and cricket but became interested in American football after watching the 2007 Miami Dolphins v New York Giants game at Wembley on television. He moved with his father to New Jersey and was drafted as a right guard by the Ravens in 2017.
Prolific former Wasps winger Christian Wade left rugby union last October to pursue a career in the NFL. Capped by England twice and a member of the 2013 British & Irish Lions squad, the Slough-born winger was signed as a running back by the Buffalo Bills in April this year.
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