When you talk to people in the UK about American football, they often joke that it’s just “rugby with pads and helmets” and they find it “too boring and slow”, which is their way of saying they don’t understand one of the most complicated sports in the world. But the sport is growing on these shores, with more and more people involved in American football year on year in the UK.
Places such as the NFL Academy (London) and Filton Pride (Bristol) provide opportunities for young people to compete, with many NFL Academy products seeking college scholarships in the United States. Others might not return to sport until university, as in the case of Glen Toonga and Chad Walrond, two of the UK’s top American footballers who put their names on the European Football League (ELF) card. .
The ELF is one of Europe’s biggest summer sporting spectacles and is made up of 12 teams from five nations (Germany, Austria, Spain, Poland and Turkey). Each team can have up to four American, Canadian, Mexican or Japanese players alongside eight other foreign players, so competition for spots is intense. In addition to immense playing talent, there are coaches in the league who have served in NFL organizations, the most decorated being former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula, who is currently in charge of the German Rhein Fire team.
After stints in the German and Polish national leagues over the past four years, running back Glen Toonga joined the ELF for the first time this season. It was not a straight path though, with unsuccessful tries for the Canadian Football League draft along the way. But that setback saw him bounce back with a strong enough 2021 with the Allgau Comets in the German GFL to earn him an ELF spot with the Hamburg Sea Devils for 2022.
“Right before we went to Allgau, we had the CFL Draft, which I didn’t do well, but looking back, I feel like it did,” Glen told The Sportsman. “It’s no disrespect to the CFL, but in reality, I wouldn’t have gone to sit on the bench like a lot of guys have been and I wouldn’t want to spend my prime or the peak of my career on the bench. . I feel like it would have made it harder to come to the ELF and get a job on one of the imports because people wouldn’t have seen my tape in Allgau which was probably the one of my best years, apart from this year. ”
In this 2021 season, Toonga has rushed for 1,099 yards – the second-best in the league – and 13 touchdowns, and so far this term in Hamburg he has had an incredible 881 yards and 10 touchdowns in just six games. With the season half over, he’s all but guaranteed to have his most productive year ever.
“For me personally the season seems to be going well, I’m the best rusher and stuff like that but I feel like it can always be better, I’m always striving for perfection. Hopefully the second half of the season will be better than the first.
GLEN HAS BEEN ON THE EUROPEAN TOUR FOR FIVE SEASONS (PHOTO: MICHAEL FREITAG)
At 23, Chad Walrond is four years younger than Glen, but his rise to fame is worthy of admiration. Having never played the sport before going to college, Chad started as a wide receiver before moving into defensive back and safety in his second season, helping Hertfordshire to a final. national. In his third year in the sport, he was part of the British national team and his aspirations for further success were firmly in place. In 2021 he ventured to Allgau to play alongside Glen in the German Football League. He credits Glen’s presence as a crucial aspect of his first season in Europe.
“This experience has been amazing,” exclaims Chad. “I always told people that Glen was my big brother. What he did for me last year just helping me through things but also teaching me the game and how things are in Europe was more valuable than getting paid more to be in a different situation.
After his first season in Germany, Chad was fortunate enough to participate in the International Players Pathway program, an NFL initiative that aims to increase the number of non-American/Canadian players playing in the NFL. Unfortunately, he wasn’t successful this year, but he wasn’t deterred from pursuing his goal of reaching the NFL. Now playing for the Cologne Centurions in the ELF, Chad is hoping to help his team qualify for the play-offs, and while it has been far from straightforward this year, he remains optimistic about their continued performance in the second half of the season.
“I’m not playing as I would like, even removing the team record,” he explains. Sometimes when I watch a movie, I think to myself, “I should have done this play, I should have done this, I should have done that”, but at the end of the day, I always improve. I still see myself as a rookie in this game, I haven’t played it for a long time and it’s a new level so I have to adapt. Now, in the second half of the season, there are no more excuses. I know what to expect.”
AT 23, CHAD IS A REAL PROSPECT
Back home in the UK, American football is becoming an increasingly popular sport as the quality of the game, the level of training and the attention given to it improves. But Glen and Chad are adamant that sport in the UK is nowhere near the level required to make it competitive enough to prevent the country’s top talent from seeking opportunities on the continent.
“I would say there’s probably more talent in the UK than any other country I’ve played in, but I feel like the setup just doesn’t allow the guys to thrive,” says Glen. “If I’m 16, 17 or whatever, why would I want to play in the UK? It doesn’t really offer much. Many young kids are looking to go to the NFL Academy or college [in the USA] because the UK simply doesn’t offer anything worth staying.
“Even guys my age, I feel like, what’s the point of playing if the London Warriors are still going to win, if the league doesn’t have a setup that allows football in the UK to be competitive They need to do a better job of advancing the sport, even the fact that the sport is still classed as an amateur sport is crazy.
Chad totally agrees, adding: “The UK has so much talent, man, we have so many athletes. But that’s the coaching and structure of American football [in Europe], that’s the difference. So yes, we have more talent, but it’s about resources and having the people that will really help the game grow.
It’s fair to say that they are not alone in their opinion. Many UK-based players are disappointed with the British American Football Association for their handling of the structure of the sport in the UK. Poor officiating standards, a lack of guidance and unclear in-game progression plans have been disappointing for everyone involved, and beyond the Premiership there is a sharp drop in quality.
Cost is another reason players like Chad and Glen go overseas, where they can get paid to play rather than pay hundreds of pounds in team fees and equipment that they have to fund themselves. same. This makes the decision easy for any British player who has the option of playing in the GFL or ELF, with offensive linemen like Lewis Thomas and Francis Bongwalanga and wide receiver Montel Patterson also plying their trades on the continent.
The good news is that this country is producing top athletes in a sport for which the UK has not always been a notable breeding ground. The next task is for the UK system to catch up with the quality of its best players.
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