The NFL truck in Victoria Square, Birmingham, England.

The NFL truck in Victoria Square, Birmingham, England.

It’s not every day that you take your train commute to work in the West Midlands of England and find a giant NFL branded truck parked outside your place of work, but that’s what happened to me this morning in Birmingham city centre.

I knew the NFL were touring the Midlands and the South of England, but have to admit I forgot what day they were coming to Brum (as it is affectionately known by local residents).

I walked past the truck before 9am this morning, and waited until my lunch break before coming out to see what the NFL had in store for the workers and shoppers in Birmingham.

Gotta love getting close to Vince

Gotta love getting close to Vince

The highlight for me was to see the Vince Lombardi Trophy (for the third time). It was situated in a perspex cabinet inside the truck, watched over eagerly by a rather large and burly security guard. I had my picture taken with the trophy, and also the lady taking the pictures took a few extra for me using my own iPhone.

This truck was at Wembley a few weeks ago for the Vikings v Steelers game, but at that time there was a one-hour queue to get the picture. Much better that I could just walk straight up the steps today and get within inches of the famous silver-mounted ball.

Denard Robinson, the Jaguars rookie signed this helmet

Denard Robinson, the Jaguars rookie signed this helmet

Along with the trophy was a signed Jacksonville Jaguars helmet, also in a perspex case. The helmet was signed by rookie OW (offensive weapon) Denard Robinson. As a huge NFL fan I was tickled that it was Robinson’s signature, as I had drafted the former Michigan quarterback in both of my 55 man roster fantasy leagues.

Colin Kaepernick signed a ball. He played in his first Superbowl earlier this year.

Colin Kaepernick signed a ball. He played in his first Superbowl earlier this year.

There was also a ball in the truck display, this one a San Francisco 49ers branded ball signed by its Superbowl losing quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The two pieces of memorabilia were on display to pre-promote the Jaguars upcoming ‘home’ game at Wembley against Kaepernick’s 49ers, taking place later this month. Unfortunately I will not be there as the budget only allows me to attend one NFL game in London a year, and I would always select seeing Adrian Peterson over Maurice Jones-Drew. Sorry Mo-Jo, I still love your little legs.

I was disappointed that there was not that much to do, and the freebies handed out by the NFL were ok, but not amazing. They gave out Football 101 guide books which I have to say are a cracking introduction to the NFL for new fans. I also helped myself to a couple of sets of under-eye stickers that were NFL branded.

IMG_2192There were no NFL players there when I attended (not that I expected anyone apart from maybe a retired or injured player), instead the NFL All-Star cheerleaders were there, probably wondering why they were performing to about 50 men with iPhones held aloft.

They were offering signed pictures of themselves, which was a nice touch, but I did not recognise any of them and did not really want a signed picture of some random women, who for all I know could be the American equivalent of a Pineapple Dance troupe.

IMG_2203There was a rather bemused DJ spinning some cheesy tunes, and a few inflatable NFL displays where you could throw a pass or try a kick, but they were a bit undermanned and looked a bit unwelcoming with no sponge or turf floor around them.

Overall a half-hearted effort by the NFL to try and spread the message about the greatest sport on the planet. I would have made sure schools were invited to take part and had some flag football displays, not just cheerleaders. Also some spot-prize giveaways would have been good, as would have been an ex-player or coach.

IMG_2197Don’t get me wrong it was special to see the Vince Lombardi trophy in the city I work in, but more could have been done to get the message across that this sport will soon (by 2020) have an NFL franchise situated this side of the pond.

My pic of Adrian Peterson taking part in a pre-game prayer (that was answered)

My pic of Adrian Peterson taking part in a pre-game prayer (that was answered)

Having found my seat in the Club Wembley level (thanks again to my gorgeous wife for the ticket) I realised just how old I actually am (39), after I did the maths in my head and discovered it was 25 years ago that I first came to Wembley Stadium to watch some NFL football.

The game back in 1988 was a pre-season thriller between the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49ers, won by the Fins courtesy of a perfectly executed bootleg from backup quarterback David Archer. That was my first live NFL action – on my 14th birthday.

A quarter of a century later and I am at the first of two regular season NFL games at Wembley, featuring one team who has won six Super Bowls and another who has the previous season’s most valuable player. OK the teams did arrive in London this September without a win between them,  but the opportunity to see Adrian Peterson in the flesh was worth the ticket price alone.

AP and his fellow Vikings backfield get together to compare fantasy picks.

AP and his fellow Vikings backfield get together to compare fantasy picks.

Having spent a good 15 minutes papping AP (but maybe not as closely as the snapper in the picture I took above) I tried to find Big Ben Roethlisberger. This was not a hard task. Big Ben is a beast of a human being, who would be my choice to be a pantomime giant in Jack and the Beanstalk once he passes his final pigskin.

I suspected the UK fans would be witnessing a declining Steelers team before the season began, but not a 0-3 team. I still found it novel to find Big Ben and Troy Polamalu warming up. If you look hard enough you can find them both near each other in the bottom picture of this post. Bit of a Where’s Wally situation.

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#69 Jared Allen scratches his sweaty mullet - what a romantic image eh!

#69 Jared Allen scratches his sweaty mullet – what a romantic image eh!

Bit far away but here are the Steelers warming up

Bit far away but here are the Steelers warming up

DSC04213 Making my way towards Wembley Stadium for the first time in three years was a bit odd, as it was my first trip to the stadium without my wife for many years.

Instead I had ventured to London alone, but had the privilege of meeting up with a Minnesota native and Vikings season ticket holder for over two decades.

After some early confusion regarding car-parks we agreed to meet outside the giant inflatables. It was great to meet my pal Scott, who I had only ever know through playing an online american football game called Action PC Football.

Scott was a little shorter than I had thought from his Facebook pictures, but he certainly looked like he had been entertained by the day and nightlife of London during his week in the capital.

We walked to the NFL truck that had the Vince Lombardi Trophy inside, but the queue was over an hour long so we abandoned that and I was then forced by Scott to watch the cheerleaders who were performing outside.

After that Scott made me feel very humble as he had bought me an Adrian Peterson shirt and a Vikings top for my daughter, as well as a book on his homeland. All I could do was get him a beer, but I will be making up for this very kind gesture in the near future.

As we went to get a beer Scott told me he had spotted the Mayor of Minnesota – looking very ordinary – and took great pleasure in fist-bumping him when he walked past. Not sure I would have the courage to to go “Oi Johnson – wasuuup!” if Boris walked past.

During the beer queue Scott and I had a great NFL chat, and I said we should get our picture taken by the Booby Moore statue. It was at that point that he made me chuckle after he explained that Vikings legendary wide-receiver Ahmad Rashad who was actually born Robert Moore, but was known as Bobby Moore before he converted to Islam. Things get more bizarre when you read Rashad was married to Bill Cosby’s on screen wife from ‘The Cosby Show’ in the 1980s.

BREAKING NEWS – The NFL today announced THREE NFL games in London in 2014 – a home game for the Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons. DSC04237

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The Vikings and Steelers season had been like these inflatables - full of hot air.

The Vikings and Steelers season had been like these inflatables – full of hot air.

Streaking, not a man with a shaved head and his shriveled tackle swinging side to side as he gets chased by stadium security, but the ability to do something consecutively.

Streaking is something I like to do, so it was with regret that I missed the NFL regular season games played at Wembley Stadium in 2011 and 2012, after watching games in the flesh between 2007 and 2010. I was unable to attend as I had more important matters to attend to, namely the birth of our daughter in October 2011, and her development as a 1 year old in 2012.

Going back to Wembley this year was a 2012 Christmas present, that I had to wait ten months to unwrap. I also had the rather unwanted gift of travelling down from Birmingham by coach alone, as my wife and almost two-year-old daughter were not going to have as much fun on the M6 with me.

After getting to Birmingham’s revamped coach station an hour before the coach arrived I was then told the departure time had moved and the coach would be leaving an hour after it was scheduled, so I had to take my time sipping my cappuccino, munching on some Polo mints and listening to the latest Rich Eisen podcast.

Wembley Way was packed.

Wembley Way was packed.

I didn’t open my mouth during the journey to Wembley, as the guy I sat next to looked rather angry and wanted to sleep. I listened to a few more podcasts, the latest ESPN Fantasy Focus Football podcast and Tuesday Morning Quarterback. I ate some Wine Gums and almost choked as the man beside me scoffed not one but two rather bulbous scotch eggs.

Arriving at Wembley was a bit frustrating as we drove straight past what I thought was the coach car park, around the back of the stadium, and to what must have been a smaller over-spill coach park.

As I arrived about 3.30pm the place was buzzing and there was an eclectic range of NFL shirts, worldwide NFL fans and sellers of unauthorised and inappropriate (as in irrelevant) dodgy game day scarves.

My first task of the day was to find my internet friend from Minnesota.

Big opportunity for Tom Brady's former backup on Sunday

Big opportunity for Tom Brady’s former backup on Sunday

Well, we are under 24 hours away from the NFL returning to play its 7th annual regular season game in London, England, and I am excited, despite both visiting teams being winless.

The biggest storylines are going to be the performance of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel, making his first start for an NFC franchise, and his first appearance for his third NFL team.

For the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers the headlines will be dominated by former Michigan State rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who will be making his regular season debut. The Steelers are 0-3 for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest is the abysmal rbbc (running back by committee) approach by Pittsburgh.

There is a lot of expectation on Bell to become the next big Steelers tailback, but he has a long long way to go before he can even shine the shoes of former Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, a Super Bowl winner who was in London today to take part in the festivities on Regents Street.

Common wisdom says the game tomorrow will be a high scoring affair, as both teams have superstar defenders (Jared Allen for the Vikes and Troy Polamalu for the Steel Men), but this is a team game, and the 11 starting defensive players for both teams are simply not collectively two of the better units in the game.

Some players I will be paying extra special attention to include;

  • Steelers tight-end Heath Miller. The Vikings have been slayed by big athletic tight-ends (Martellus Bennett and Jordan Cameron) and I don’t see too much changing tomorrow; and
  • Vikings rookie wide-receiver Coradelle Patterson. With a return touchdown already under his belt in just 180 NFL minutes this is one guy who could find an immediate spark with veteran quarterback Matt Cassel.

Prediction

I am going to be a Vikings fan for the day, not because Minnesota are the ‘home’ team, but because I will be meeting a friend from Minnesota for the first time. These are dark days for the Pittsburgh Steelers and it is not the time to expect a rookie running back to shoulder the load. Adrian Peterson is not human, he is built from the same stuff as the Terminator, and I see him gunning down the Steelers for four quarters.

Vikings 27-10 Steelers

2 rushing tds from AP and a Kyle Rudolph catch for Minny and a consolation Jerrico Cotchery td from Big Ben Roethlisberger. AP to be leading rusher, Antonio Brown to lead in receiving yards. Jared Allen to get one sack – driven by his lovely mullet.

See you all there on Sunday – and Scott the first round is on me !

A picture I took from the last NFL game I attended in London (2010)

A picture I took from the last NFL game I attended in London (2010)

It has taken a few years to say the least but I am now starting to mix in some more influential NFL circles….well almost.

I was approached by USA Today’s London based reporter Kim Hjelmgaard by email earlier this week to see if I would offer my opinion on the NFL in London and the game this weekend. Kim had found my blog which made me very proud considering it is non-commercial and I have written every word of copy on it myself.

Kim asked me a number of questions, none any surprise, and she even looked me up on Linked In – where I have a minimal but functional profile.

I was told the article would appear on the USA Today website today, and lo and behold when I got back from work this afternoon I checked my recently downloaded USA Today app (a very easy to navigate and user-freindly app) and there was the article that I featured in.

Was very proud to think that some people will read the quotes that Kim decided were worthy for her article.

To read the full article CLICK HERE.

See you in London on Sunday – I’ll be wearing my white #81 Art Monk shirt. If you spot me come and say hello.

One little extra bonus on Sunday will be meeting a virtual friend for the first time. I run a few web based NFL game leagues and this chap Scott is a Minnesota native. I just hope I spot him as he will be one of hundreds of people wearing an Adrian Peterson Vikings jersey.

He told me that he had some Fish n Chips today near Liverpool Street Station – now all he needs to do is have a Doner Kebab with extra chilli sauce and he is in the club.

Two 0-3 teams going nowhere - oh wait going to London this week

Two 0-3 teams going nowhere – oh wait going to London this week

The Steel Curtain prevailing over the Purple People Eaters – no not the name of two fantasy football teams that squared-off on Sunday, these were two of the most dominating defenses in NFL history.

For the Steel Curtain, a Pittsburgh Steelers team led by the likes of Mean ‘Joe’ Greene, there were four Super Bowl wins. For the Purple People Eaters there were an equal number of Super Bowl contests fought, but for the Minnesota Vikings no wins.

That was the 1970s when sideburns ruled and disco dancing was the thing you did on a Saturday night.

Fast forward to the 21st century and these two teams are again under the media magnifying glass, but this time it is for two reasons, and neither of them are anything remotely to do with winning football games.

The 0-3 Steelers travel to London this Sunday to lock horns with the 0-3 Minnesota Vikings, in the first of two, yes two regular season NFL contests being played on this side of the pond.

Both teams sit at the foot of their respective divisions, having failed to muster a victory between them in six contests.

The Vikings, the home team in London, have conceded 31 or more points in each of their losses, and the Steelers have managed to score just 42 points in three games. The Denver Broncos managed 49 in their FIRST game of the season.

When I saw the two games announced last year that were to be played in London this year, the other being the San Francisco 49ers against the London…I mean Jacksonville Jaguars, I was like the majority of UK and European fans, most excited about seeing the six-time Super Bowl winning Pittsburgh Steelers play the Minnesota Vikings.

I did think at the time that the Steelers were on a downward slide, after two Super Bowl wins in the last 7 years (2006 and 2009) and an additional Super Bowl loss in 2011. No team in this modern age of free agency can sustain winning and winning big for such a long period.

I also thought that it would be amazing to see Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the leading rusher in the NFL in 2012, live in front of me, just two hours away from where I live. I had a bad feeling he would be injured before the game, but thankfully he made it through a week 3 loss against the Cleveland Browns in one piece.

One thing is certain on Sunday, one team will be travelling back over the pond with their first win of the 2013 season, and one team will have reached the quarter mark of the season with no wins and a rather embarrassing 0-4 record.