It started with a pennant. Little did I know that when a family friend returned from a trip to the United States in 1982 with two in-hand, one for me and one for my brother, my young life would be changed forever.
The two pennants were the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. As the older brother, I had the first pick, and for no particular reason, I chose the burgundy and gold colours of the team that would go on to provide great pleasure (in the early years!) and unbelievable frustration (pretty much ever since 1991!).
By a happy coincidence, Channel 4 in the UK began showing American Football around that time, and a whole new world of opportunity began to open itself up to me. In those pre-internet days, the United States may as well have been on another planet, never-mind another continent. The stars of the Redskins and the NFL seemed larger than life and almost untouchable to us in our living rooms in the UK.
We were blessed with an hour worth of coverage, each week on Channel 4 on Sunday night. Typically, they would show highlights of the previous week’s action. My first Redskins heroes were Joe Theismann, John Riggins and Art Monk. “The Hogs” and the bear-pit that was RFK Stadium, made the team hugely popular.
At that stage, we rarely had addition NFL coverage, other than waking on a Monday morning to rush down stairs and turn on the teletext to see the previous evening’s results. My mood going into school would depend on the outcome of the Redskins games,and thankfully in those days, I was more often than not happy.
As the game grew in popularity, my interest turned almost into obsession, and every penny of my pocket was spent on the newly emerging magazines published in the UK. This included “Touchdown”, “Gridiron” and the weekly newspaper “First Down.” My thirst for the game became unquenchable as I sought any opportunity to improve and increase my knowledge.
Fellow fans emerged at school, and we used to have full-contact games of 7 on 7 in the school yard at break time. Other pupils would often gather to look at what this bunch of maniacs were doing, as trousers were torn and skin scraped off in our quest to emulate our heroes.
I soon learned about the Armed Forces Network, the radio station for US troops in Europe, and I somehow found the frequency on a huge old radio belonging to my parents. The signal was erratic but the buzz of live commentary interspersed with Spanish opera, local taxi firms, and who knows what else, was worth it. It made me feel alive and connected to this magical, almost mythical world that existed on the other side of the Atlantic.
Indeed, perhaps my all time favourite football memory is listening to the 4th down incompletion forced by Darrell Green on Darrin Nelson of the Vikings at the end of the 1987 NFC Championship Game. That took the Redskins to the Super Bowl. My family thought I was insane as I danced around the house, but I didn’t care as it meant that I would get to see the Redskins in an actual live game on TV. Typically, the Super Bowl was the only game ever shown live at that time.
The NFL community in the UK was very niche in those days, to an even greater extent than it is today. We heard all the jokes and barbs about these ‘softies wearing all that padding’,and ‘why does the game stop so much?’, but we didn’t care. We knew better. We understood the ferocity of the game and the technical complexity and strategy that made each and every play an event in itself.
Fellow football fans were greeted with a mixture of delight and suspicion. Did they know more than me, or have more merchandise than me? Anyone who had been to America, or seen an NFL game was treated like a conquering hero.
By 1986, the NFL had got wind of this developing market and sent over the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys, to take part in the first ‘American Bowl’ at the old Wembley Stadium. Tickets were massively oversubscribed, but somehow, I got three and went down with my dad and brother.
The “American Bowl” series lasted a good few years, and while only preseason, I can still say with great pride that I have seen the likes of Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Dan Marino, John Elway, Randall Cunningham and others play, albeit only for a couple of series. Those games were some of the highlights of my childhood, as the untouchable heroes from “another galaxy” came to the UK to give us a glimpse of their genius.
The UK football community was small, but we loved the game and we felt like we all knew something that others didn’t. It was almost our little secret. The Redskins won their second Super Bowl during those heady days in early 1988. The excitement of the legendary 35 point second quarter against the Broncos may never be surpassed. But four short years later Joe Gibbs led the team to its third title in nine years with what is regarded as one of the greatest teams in NFL history.
Life was good as a Redskins fan. Three Super Bowls in nine years, contention pretty much every season. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about the vast majority of the next three decades? There isn’t enough time, or emotional energy left to cover all of that time, but suffice to say the Redskins are overdue some success!
The popularity of the game dipped somewhat in the mid 90’s, and was dismissed in some quarters as another fad along the lines of skateboarding and BMX. However, that core community was strong and wasn’t going to allow the game to wither and die.
Sky Sports began to show the NFL and the fanbase ticked over, patiently waiting for interest to re-ignite. My love of the game never died as I got older, despite the multiple attractions of alcohol, women and partying. I’d invested too much both financially and emotionally to let it go.
The dawning of the internet, and the doors that were opened because of it, brought the NFL and the world in general much closer. Suddenly there were websites, fan forums and other opportunities to interact with fellow addicts. Jerseys, caps and other merchandise became more visible on the streets of the UK, as the sleeping giant began to awake from its slumber.
Momentum began to grow and grow, and again, it was the NFL’s decision to send the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins to the new Wembley Stadium. This time for a regular season game that saw the game become recognised as a force in the UK once again. The game sold out in no time, and this trend continued to the point where we now have multiple games, with the potential for more, and even a team of our own. Although personally that is not something I would advocate.
UK NFL fans were described by Tim Shipman of The Sunday Times, as ‘like being a member of an underground network’, in Marc Sessler’s piece on UK fans, and this was certainly true. However, such has been the growth of interest in the game in recent years, those fans are now almost starting to emerge from their subterranean depths and burst into the light of the mainstream.
The NFL is now cool. Big time stars in other sports like Harry Kane, the England soccer captain, are now avid followers of the game. Here’s a confession. A small part of me doesn’t like the fact that the game is so much more mainstream these days. I liked it being small scale, largely unappreciated on these shores and having that element of mystery that the pre-internet days used to provide. I was one of a small club and I liked it that way. I’m not going to complain too much though. UK NFL fans have access to an amount of coverage that I could never have dreamed of as a child.
I’ve been able to live my dreams by going to see the Redskins in Washington in 2013, where the tailgaters were surprised that not only was I a fan, but I could also happily discuss the concepts of our zone blocking scheme, whether we’d be better served playing a 4-3 rather than a 3-4 defense, and knew more about the teams history than they did!
We’re still a relatively small community, but we share a special bond. The late-night shift on a Sunday, Monday and Thursday separate us from the average sports fan. It’s a badge of honour, and we can sleep between February and September!
The Redskins have been an almost lifelong obsession and have brought incredible highs and depressing lows. Three Super Bowl titles in my first nine years as a fan truly spoiled me, and the subsequent 29 years have been a roller-coaster with way more “downs” than “ups.”
If you’d have told me in January 1992 that by 2020, that we would not have another Super Bowl in the intervening time I would have thought you were crazy. Let alone, not win more than 10 games in a season or get beyond the Divisional round of the playoffs.
You must be a little bit nuts to be an NFL fan in the UK, particularly a Redskins fan. When I was lucky enough to meet my first NFL hero, Joe Theismann, at Wembley in 2016, I thanked him for the selfie and told him that I’d put it with the signed photo he’d sent to me 31 years earlier. He smiled and looked at me like I was crazy. He may have been right.