In an understated announcement that much of the community may have missed, the Touchdown Football Programme, brainchild of former school teacher Rob Rooksby, has been further legitimised with the news that the governing body had offered Rooksby a one year contracted role to continue the work he has been doing in spreading American football throughout schools in the UK.
In short, the programme aims to empower teachers and staff to facilitate flag and contact football programmes within their school, with both Rooksby and BAFA offering support including training, and networking schools with each other and local teams.
“Seven years ago, I did not know a quarterback from a quarter pounder. I was not a fan and did not have a sport background” said Rob Rooksby. “But the more I became aware of the sport, the more I realised it was ideal for a school. So, I got my BAFCA Level 1, got a £10k award from Sport England and set-up my own Programme at Exmouth Community College.”
With American football being delivered in Exmouth for several years, in both extra-curricular and core PE forms, hundreds of students were exposed to the sport in an organised and structured manner. Thanks to Rooksby and others, with a little help from the NFL, they even managed to secure a new 3G pitch for the college, with the only permanently marked 5 v 5 field in the UK.
In 2015, Rooksby took early retirement and an opportunity to use what he had learned and achieved in Exmouth and take it nationwide.
“Two years ago, sitting in my new flat, I had only three things: The Touchdown logo, a copy of the NGB national strategy and time” he told us.
In 2017, thanks to Rooksby, there are now three school-based initiatives, all integrated with each other; the Touchdown Programme offering flag and kitted football, a place in the £280 million funded School Games, that is delivered to 21,000 schools in England with the help of 450+ paid School Games Organisers, and up-to-date American Football content in the new AQA Technical Award in Sport that any school in Great Britain can deliver.
“Possibly the best that could’ve been hoped for has initially been achieved: a modern and deliverable content into the new Technical Award in Sport that is linked to the School Games and Touchdown Programmes that gives BAFA the most far-reaching, integrated and established presence in mainstream school sport that it has ever had.” said Rooksby. “I would argue, however, that the real work is yet to begin. Having established this opportunity, the next challenge is to make sure that it is delivered in the most effective way for the benefit of the sport’s future.”
Rooksby funded his activities from his retirement settlement, only claiming expenses, despite BAFA’s pressure for him to do so from the start, after some 6 months. “At that time, I felt I’d not done anything to deserve that support” said Rooksby.
After two years, he faced a problem that many in the community can sympathise with. The money was running out. As such, the news that BAFA was willing to fund Rooksby for a year came as a huge relief to him, although the thrifty Manager for Schools, who still drives his trusty Y-reg car, is hoping to stretch it out for two.
“If the work I am doing continues to develop and becomes commercially successful, maybe my contract will be renewed” he said. ” My hope is that I can keep-up this life-style for another two years and in the third year succession planning takes over when BAFA should look for my replacement to take these developments to the next level.”
Initially supported by then-BAFA director Andy Fuller, Rooksby admits the NGB have “let [him] get on with it from day one.” With the sport still dipping its toes in the water when it comes to schools, deferring to somebody with Rooksby’s experience of successfully introducing what can be an inaccessible sport to schools was the right move.
The work that Rooksby has done, assisted by Roger Smithies, a former teacher and quarterbacks coach for the Redditch Arrows, feels like something worth shouting about. The more outspoken members of the Britball community are not shy about bemoaning the state of youth football in the UK, so the governing body recognising the work the Touchdown Football programme has achieved should, more than anything, allay some of those fears about the future of the game.
The potential reach that something like the School Games, backed by the NFL, Change 4 Life and Sport England has in engaging schoolchildren in intra-school, inter-school, regional and national competitions could be revolutionary for all levels of the sport. Rooksby sees the School Games as the Britball equivalent of the NFL’s Play 60 programme.
“The School Games alone will inspire a whole new generation into the sport. University will see the greatest impact, when students turn up for freshers’ week, already with eight or nine years playing experience and skill development” Rooksby suggests. “If clubs really get on-board with [the initiatives] it should encourage much better youth recruitment to the national league clubs.”
Rooksby believes these steps are essential for investors and bodies such as Sport England to take British American football more seriously, and will foster a more professional attitude across the sport. Many involved with the sport have near enough begged BAFA to take on full-time, paid staff to further the game in the past, and will be hoping that Rooksby can blaze a trail, convincing the governing body that by shelling out a little money, the future of the sport at all levels can be secured in the long term.
Rooksby can’t work his magic at every level of the sport, but it seems that schools will benefit more and more from his work in the future, perhaps to the point that he’ll need further help.
“There is an underlying commercial model linked to the initiatives that will hopefully generate an income to start paying more staff. That is one aim I’ve been working toward. We must make the sport at school level financially sustainable to truly secure its future” said Rooksby.
“My job has been to establish it in schools and make them secure, I’ve achieved one of these aims so far, my focus now is realising the second.”
To learn more about the Touchdown Football Programme, see the Teaching Football section of the BAFA website.