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The International Series should never be taken for granted

Posted Oct 1, 2016

My all-time favourite football quote is not one of the famous utterings from Vince Lombardi or something that fell out of Deion Sanders’ mouth in one of his stream-of-consciousness moments. Number one on my list came from Al Davis.

The now-departed Oakland Raiders owner was renowned for being able to start a fight in an empty room, and cherished his club above most things in life, turning football into an ‘us against the world’ battle from which his team had to emerge victorious.

His famous club motto “Just Win, Baby” was further embellished on the day he revealed another Raider belief. “Professional football has a maxim of ‘take what they give you’. We have always operated under a different philosophy of ‘take what we want’.”

But as the NFL celebrated its 75th season, the league’s chief irritant for many years said something that perhaps gave notice of a truer feeling.

Davis said: “I’ll always see professional football as a brilliant, shining light for the world. You could call it your field of dreams. It’s tradition, history, loyalty to the great players who came before us. We owe a debt to all of them, in whose glory we all share.”

That quote was on my mind at Wembley on Sunday as the Jacksonville Jaguars held off a late Indianapolis Colts rally in front of a raucous crowd. It is sometimes easy to overlook how we arrived at a situation of filling the national stadium with NFL fans for a regular season game, thousands of miles from American shores.

A few months ago, I was on the London Underground late at night when I became aware of the man sitting opposite me looking in my direction more than once, and that I was sure I knew him. It had been many years but when he introduced himself with the words “remember me? Joe St Louis”, I spent the rest of the night wondering if it is just age that kept me from knowing him instantly.

Joe was a running back with the London Ravens more than 30 years ago when football was still in its infancy in this country and in those days, Joe was not afraid to introduce himself to anyone. Joe played for what was the best team in the country at the time and he also represented Britain.

He had that cocksure belief or arrogance that we see in a lot of NFL players. He was good, he knew he was good and he wasn’t afraid to let others know it, even if he risked a fall.

One night in 1988, I was sitting in the stands at a Leicester Panthers Friday night game when Joe and three other Ravens walked in, all wearing black Ravens jackets with their names scripted on the back in gold lettering. Joe walked to the front of the stand and stood facing the field so that every Panthers fan could see who he was. It was typical Joe and a statement to Leicester that they were going to have to come through him to be champions.

When I asked what he was up to these days, Joe told me he is still involved in football, coaching kids. Perhaps he is lighting a fire under a youngster who 10, 12, 15 years from now will be drafted in the NFL. If that sounds ridiculous, how mad would it have sounded 15 years ago to say that we would soon be selling out Wembley on a regular basis?

Two days before the Colts and Jags played last week, I ran into an old friend who used to play against Joe St Louis and the Ravens. Gerry Anderson started his football life back in 1984 as a tight end for the Streatham Olympians, who eventually became the London Olympians. Over the years, Gerry switched to the dark side and became a defensive lineman. Eventually he went on to play for the London Monarchs.

Since he stopped playing, he has been working for the NFL in London, helping to nurture the game as a UK development officer, going into schools and encouraging youngsters to take up the game in its flag football form. That early exposure to the sport, played at times as a form of exercise as much as it is a sport, is the sort of vital spark needed for growth. You have to capture hearts and minds before you can advance.

Nowadays, Gerry works in logistics for the league, helping to smooth the way for the transatlantic transfer of an NFL game from one continent to another.

And so as the Colts and Jaguars stood and observed the national anthems and marvelled at playing in front of a crowd bigger than either of them can command in their own home towns, I thought about how we got here.

I thought about Gerry Anderson and Joe St Louis three decades ago, turning up for practice in a local park, struggling to buy decent equipment, trying to organise travel for away games to places in Britain they had never seen before.

But I thought about more than them. David Tossell has been championing football’s cause in the UK from the league office in London for 21 years but still holds fond memories of playing on the amateur fields of British football.

Neil Reynolds, who worked with me at First Down for many years, and now fronts Sky’s coverage of the NFL, can still take longer than is sociably-decent to describe a touchdown pass he caught in his Britball days.

Steve Livingstone was a decent linebacker in Glasgow but a much better organiser of, and ambassador for, the sport when he ran the Scottish Claymores before leaving to work in America for the Jaguars.

Around the country, and in that Wembley crowd on Sunday, were plenty of people who could tell similar stories – players, coaches, referees, statisticians, those who helped out on game days where 200 people might turn up to watch. Or might not.

I remembered not just the big names of the time but those such as Jeff Rutter of the Washington Presidents, Leeds Cougars’ Tiggy Bell, Dave Munn of the Luton Flyers and Roger Hedges at the Oxford Saints. No national acclaim, no great personal reward, but all building blocks of what we saw on Sunday.

And after all that, I thought of Al Davis and that quote. Football has come a long way in Britain. Many of us dreamed of seeing a ‘field of dreams’ like Wembley last Sunday and there are many people who are still involved in football in some form and many more who are not but who all have the right to take a bow for what has happened since the Ravens first organised a throw about in Hyde Park while I was still a teenager in 1982.

In the words of Al Davis “we owe a debt to all of them, in whose glory we all share.”

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