30 years of NFL games live in England

Posted: October 27, 2018 in Uncategorized

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My NFL love affair officially began at Wembley in 1998.

Back in the Summer of 1990, aged just 15, I left secondary school (high school for you international readers) and a girl in my class called Sophie Henn wrote in my yearbook ‘Good luck Lawrence I hope one day you grow out of American Football’.

I have no idea what happened to Sophie, but I do know that at aged 44 I have not yet grown out of my love of all things gridiron.

Tomorrow (28 October 2018) I am heading to London to see the current Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles play the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third of this year’s International NFL games in England.

It will also be my 30 year anniversary since I first went to see an NFL game at Wembley, a pre-season contest between the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers.

I just cannot comprehend it is 30 years since that game.

The 1988 game, my first live NFL game, was incredibly held on my 14th birthday. I took two school friends with me, one a Buccaneers fan and one who was ambivalent to the sport. My dad drove us up from my old home in Surrey and I was so excited that I got a migraine headache on the way and had to try and sleep with my head on my pillow against the window as we all sat in silence on the motorway.

Memories of the early part of the game are quite fuzzy now, but I still remember vividly how Dolphins backup quarterback David Archer ran in the winning score in the final two minutes, executing a sweet bootleg that fooled the 49ers third-string defenders.

Seeing real NFL players was a huge buzz, and even though I knew how seeing Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Dan Marino live in the flesh was incredible at the time, when I think about it now I’m not sure I realised how incredible it really was.

Tomorrow’s game will be my 10th International Series game, my first being the inaugural regular season NFL game played in Europe, the 2017 bog-fest between Eli Manning’s New York Giants and the Cleo Lemon, yes Cleo Lemon led Miami Dolphins.

Overall Sunday’s game will be my 17th NFL game in London (15 at Wembley Stadium and 2 at Twickenham), as my first six NFL games were part of the ‘American Bowl’ series of pre-season games. I went to the ‘American Bowl’s’ from 1988 to 1993.

I remember being one of thousands and thousands of by then ‘educated’ NFL fans from England and Europe attending the 1993 game, who were sick of seeing sub-par talent playing walk-ons at an abysmal tie between the Dallas Cowboys and the Detroit Lions.

The NFL got the hint after this game, as fans had spent two years (1991-92) appreciating their own London Monarchs in the WLAF (World League of American Football) and knew when a third-string QB was throwing to someone who had no chance of making a regular season NFL roster, as they decided to end the annual pre-season contest at Wembley.

At the time the London Monarchs and the WLAF was in year one of a two-year sabbatical (1993-94) so gridiron fans like me faced an uncertain future, with no NFL or WLAF games in 1994.

Who on earth could predict 24 years later we would have had 23 (24 by 5pm UK time tomorrow) regular season NFL games played in London, and ever growing talk of a London based NFL franchise becoming more and more a reality.

Tomorrow I get to see the current Vince Lombardi Trophy holders the Eagles, and Carson Wentz (bizarrely not the Super Bowl winning QB earlier this year) square up against the erratic Jaguars gunslinger Blake Bortles, a man who has few fans, but somehow elevates his gameplay when he comes across the pond.

The Jags will be playing in their sixth consecutive London contest tomorrow, and currently come back to their spiritual home on a three-game ‘International Series‘ win streak, after obliterating the Baltimore Ravens 44-7 a year ago at Wembley.

I will be travelling alone from Birmingham on a coach tomorrow (providing I make sure I get my head around the fact the clocks go back tonight) for my first Wembley game in two years. I had fun going to two games at Twickenham in 2017, but Wembley is my true NFL home.

Part of the fun for me is getting inside the stadium early to grab some pictures of the players warming up, as well as autograph hunting before and after the game.

My favourite autograph memories include getting Tim Tebow to sign my Redskins hat in 2010 after he headed back to the locker room following warm-ups, and in 2016 when I snuck behind the stage outside the stadium before the game to get Redskins Super Bowl winning QB Joe Theismann to sign my #21 Sean Taylor shirt.

I then managed to catch ANOTHER Redskins Super Bowl winning QB, Doug Williams, on the same day, this time after the game, as the Redskins players and staff came out of the stadium heading for the coaches.

Food wise I try to avoid Wembley burgers, but might try something like a pastie or some Chow Mein tomorrow. After all I deserve a treat on my 30th anniversary since seeing my first live NFL game in London.

P.S – I just realised there is an Eagles connection between the first NFL game I saw in 1988 and tomorrow. The QB that replaced Dan Marino at Wembley that day 30 years ago was Ron ‘Jaws’ Jaworski, back then playing in his 14th NFL season. Jaws played 10 seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles, including taking his team to Super Bowl XV in 1981 (a loss to the Oakland Raiders).

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