Last month, the NFL UK launched the first-ever NFL Academy. Beginning in September of this year, this program will offer student-athletes ages 16-18 the chance to train under professional coaches while also taking on full-time education duties. The NFL Academy will also provide students with pathways to employment, higher education, and even the chance to play college football in the United States.
Superstars around the NFL are supporting the initiative, including the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Odell Beckham Jr., Jerry Rice, and Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“Giving back to the community, especially the young kids out here, and starting american football/teaching them the NFL Academy and what it’s all about and to be a part of it is amazing,” Smith-Schuster said on a conference call from London.
The NFL started playing regular-season football games in England at the start of the 2007 season. Pittsburgh has only played once in the NFL’s international series, a 2013 battle with the Minnesota Vikings in London. Smith-Schuster, who was just entering his senior year of high school during that time, now finds himself across the pond for the first time.
When asked if he’s seen Big Ben, Smith-Schuster responded “It’s my first trip here to the UK, and I saw Big Ben, but it’s under construction. I was gonna take a picture of it and send it to Ben (Roethlisberger)”.
As far as English food goes, Smith-Schuster didn’t hold back: “Man, definitely the fish and chips are not good (laughs). I think for myself, the steak was really good. The breakfast, the English breakfast? Fire. So good.”
As Smith-Schuster starts to gear up for the season, the AFC North welcomes the unworldly talents of fellow NFL UK ambassador Odell Beckham to the Cleveland Browns. Smith-Schuster is ready for the challenge of facing him and the rest of Cleveland twice a season.
“I haven’t really seen him out here, but he’s awesome,” he said. “Him being with the Browns will be super cool. We’ll go back and forth.”
The sport of American football has seen continued growth since the league first began play overseas, and Smith-Schuster believes the sport has a chance to become prevalent in England.
“It’s so cool to see the interest and the eagerness in their eyes,” he said. “How they’re ready and how they want to learn. Being out here and mentoring the young dudes who don’t know football has been awesome. They get the technique down, they execute it. They’re very, very good listeners, and they dominate at what they do. It’s pretty cool to see them out here doing a lot of work.”
It probably helps to have a player of the caliber of Smith-Schuster teaching the young players, especially for those in England. He is rapidly seeing himself increase in popularity, and he wants everybody outside of the states to know exactly the type of person he is:
“I’m a guy who’s super authentic. Pretty much a guy who gives back to the community, who can help out a lot. Whatever he can do to give back, that’s what he (JuJu) is all about. I care so much that they (the kids) want to learn. I was surprised how many guys knew me. It’s pretty interesting. Here I walk around the streets and they’ll come up to me. It happened like four, five, six times my first day here. They show so much love, it’s awesome.”
JuJu has now taken over London. Is a place like Mexico next?
“I’ve been offered to go to Mexico, I couldn’t go this year because of my schedule, but definitely that’s a place I would love to go. … That’d be super cool.”