An NFL game has been played at Wembley Stadium every year since 2007 and while there has been an undeniable increase in affection for the sport from fans in the UK, American Football still has a way to go before forcing it's way up the British sporting agenda. The St Louis Rams face the New England Patriots in North London on Sunday and while accepting that the frequently subtle and occasionally brutal sport will continue to be seen by the majority as Rugby's slow cousin, there are still thousands of fans-in-waiting, blissfully unaware of their impending conversion to America's game, and as long as we're consistently exposed to its raw-energy, tactical mastery and obsessive attention to detail, then American Football has every chance of progressing on these shores.
With the Rams in town for Sunday's showdown, we grabbed NFL legends Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Jackie Slater at Nike's Flagship Oxford Street Store where the trio fielded questions, signed autographs and shook hands after talking us about perceptions of NFL players, why people should be attracted to the game, what more can be done to promote the NFL in the UK and a whole lot more...
Torry Holt (Wide Receiver - St Louis Rams 1999 - 2009 / Jacksonville Jaguars 2009 - 2010 / New England Patriots 2010)
Have you been to the UK before?
What are you expecting from the game on Sunday?
I’m expecting it to be sold-out! I’m expecting fans to be rowdy, be excited, be loud. And I’m expecting it to be a physical contest. A lot more running the football than some may predict, but overall I’m hoping it’s a tight football game and a very competitive football game because I’m sure the fans here want to see the guys come out and compete at a high level and not take it for granted just because we’re over here in the UK and not in their respective home sites.
Are you a fan of the international game?
Yeah, I am!
Do you think it should be extended?
I think it would be great, I really do and the reason I say that is that I think it’s good for the guys to get out of the states and see the world and see the respect that the fans have for American Football, so if they can go all across Europe and different places. I think it would be great.
If you hadn’t had a natural local allegiance or family pressure growing up like fans in the UK, who do you think you’d have found yourself supporting?
I like tradition. I’m huge on tradition. So I would probably support The Steelers, Green Bay, Dallas, New York, St Louis and I’m leaving out a team [pauses] Redskins. Their tradition is so strong and so rich, so I would immediately gravitate towards tradition. Everybody’s different but I like tradition so I would immediately gravitate towards tradition.
It seems like every Superbowl win comes with a crazy story, do you think it’s the unpredictability of the NFL that keeps it so fresh?
It is. It’s the surprise element because every year can be a different team and then the parity that’s in the National Football League because it’s keeping everybody’s interest up. I think the players are faster, bigger, stronger and people are, for whatever reason, even here in the UK, are just tuned in to American Football. I think it’s because of the marketing arm that we have and I think this collaboration with Nike is going to continue to grow the game.
How obsessed with Football were you growing up?
Oh man, we played football every single day, every since I was four or five years old [laughs] all the way up to the pros and I was done. But in Texas, Florida, Ohio, those states are huge in terms of Football. They eat, sleep, preach football 24/7. It’s a skillful game as well as a very violent game and then it takes more bodies to play football too, so there are more opportunities for guys to make a team and possibly have some success.
With so many players in an NFL squad relied upon for every game, how hard is it to find unity in that group?
From my understanding and from what I’ve seen, every team communicates with each other. We intermingle with one another. I know when we were at St Louis and we were at the height of our game, we all hung out. We were at bars together, we were at somebody’s house together, we were travelling together. It was just a tight-nit group and you’ve got to be confident in yourself and you have to be unselfish in order to have that unity. I think all squads are intermingled but to be really good, you have to be unselfish.
Marshall Faulk (Running Back - Indianapolis Colts 1994-1998 / St Louis Rams 1999-2006)
How long have you been in London?
Six hours! [laughs]
How are you finding it?
I’ve been here before. There’s a lot of culture here, fun times, I came last year for the game and I was impressed at the fans, just how many jerseys, how many people actually have teams that they route for and like and that they buy jerseys to support. I shared back with my colleagues, I did a via satellite hit and it was hard to find a seat with a person without a jersey on, I was impressed at that.
How would you sell American Football to somebody in the UK?
It’s not about selling it. Men look at it and they’re like ‘Wow, I’d love to play something so physical’ and women look at it because it’s masculine they’re like ‘Wow, this is barbaric, these guys are really getting after it’, that’s the element of the game that attracts people’s attention because you have these massive athletes moving fast, trying to accomplish a goal which is to score touch-downs, but for me, if I had to package the game; it’s a short season, you only get 16 games, we don’t play a series of Play-off games, you get into the Play-offs it’s sudden death, you lose in the Play-offs you go home, it doesn’t matter how good you are. It’s exciting! There are three phases of the game, offence, defence and special teams, the hard part is getting people to understand the difference in all the rules, the nuisances of the game- that’s any game, whether it’s Rugby, or Soccer.
Is there anything that can happen in a game that really would draw people in?
The funny this is that I don’t think it’s anything about the actual game that draws people in; I think it’s the aspect of it being a thing that you do as a family. As a family you congigate, I mean, I became a fan because my fathers and my brothers were fans of a team, so you get raised up on this team and similar to soccer you know like; if you’re a Man U fan, your family are Man U fans, you’re a Man U fan, you don’t have a choice. That’s it! And that’s what breeds in American football as well. It’s defined by the area that you grew-up in, that’s the team that you like, there’s no switching.
It seems the best NFL players are mythologized like only a great Heavyweight boxer from the golden days would be, do you think that’s the right way for them to be treated?
I think so! I think when you’re considered the best and you maintain that level of play definitely identifying them and making sure that, that is known…football is tough because to pick-out an individual is hard, a team is 53 guys, there are 11 guys on the field for one-team at a time, so to stand-out as one guy, there are 22 players on the field and you’re that one guy, you’re standing out, you’re really making an impression, it’s not like say Baseball where the pitcher and the batter and everybody else is just kinda doing their thing, it’s totally different and in Basketball it’s 10 guys, you can be one out of 10 and be the best, it ain’t much, but one of 22 guys, if you’re the best; that’s a tough feat.
How do you see the game working out on Sunday?
Tom Brady should come here and take advantage of this young team. But I’ve watched now for the last three or four weeks, I’ve watched the Patriots get leads, lose leads, find themselves in a dog-fight with teams that are less talented than what they are so obviously traveling all the way over here is a little wear and tear on the body, so [you’ll need to] get the proper rest and if you don’t, you can be off! And The Rams are a hungry team. I expect a very close and competitive game and you guys are going to see one of our greater Quarter Backs in Tom Brady, but an upstart guy in Sam Bradford because the defence for the New England Patriots are not that good. The pass defence is very shaky, so you’ll see him and some young receivers trying to have his way with them as well. It’s going to be a pretty good game.
Jackie Slater (Offensive Tackle - Los Angeles Rams/ St Louis Rams 1976 - 1995)
Some people see the obsession with Football in schools and certain communities as a negative, how do you see it and how old were you when you realised you wanted to make it your life?
Well, when I was in the seventh-grade, I was bigger than everybody else and they wanted me to go out [to trials] but I didn’t want to go out because I thought it was too violent. So in the eighth grade everybody started getting on me again, so I went out and I said ‘Okay, if I like it I’ll play some more, if I don’t like it I’ll at least get these people off my back,’ because everybody thinks I should be playing football. So I go out and I like it so much and played it so well, the next thing I knew I played another year and another year, another year, another year and next I knew I’m getting the opportunity to go to college on a Football scholarship, because my parents couldn’t afford to pay for college for me and I got to go to college, get my education and then after four years of that ‘boom’ into the Pros and there I go. But I was 13 and I didn’t let my son play, my son actually plays for The Patriots. I didn’t let my son play until he got to be a freshman in high-school, in the ninth grade.
Why did you do that?
Because, first of all I did everything I could to deter him from playing because I didn’t think he was going to be big enough to take the pounding like I was. He’s still like a little-big guy, he’s only like 200lbs and then when he kept on expressing the desire to do it then I said ‘If he really wants to do it that bad, then I’ve got to get on board with him, get him some coaching and some support so he can grow’ and then that’s when he started playing.
You’ve got some of the most intense and fanatical supporters in the NFL, how do players cope with the pressure of playing for those guys?
It’s a lot of pressure and when you get inside of an organization like [The Patriots or The Rams] you have a role. You’re making a contribution to their success, then it becomes a responsibility that you take on, to make sure you’re doing your part to keep the cycle of success going and in that way, when I came to The Rams in ’76, the same way with my son at The Patriots right now, it’s just a great feeling, it’s a feeling. It’s a feeling of not only responsibility, but it’s a very rewarding experience because you’re on a successful team and you have a wider role in their success.
How important do you think these games are and do you think the NFL could be doing more to engage the international fanbase?
I think these games are incredibly important and I think there is a lot more that can be done and I think it could be done at a much faster pace. The world is ready for it and I think a lot of the guys who are making the decisions to expand the support need to do it a little bit quicker.
Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Jackie Slater were speaking at NikeTown London ahead of the NFL International Series this weekend between the St.Louis Rams and New England Patriots. Visit the Nike's Flagship Oxford Street store for more information as Nike continue to deliver the ultimate International football experience