#TeamDC headed along to the NFL Live Tour that travelled the Nation last month, with our BUCS 1A South East Correspondent, Hassan Rashed, and roving-reporter-ref, Roger Goodgroves heading along to the final evening in London’s Shaw Theatre.
The NFLUK Live Tour came to a close in London last Friday night, after a week of travelling up and down the country. The tour, which started in Glasgow on 16 January, passed through Birmingham, Cardiff and Southampton before concluding in the Capital.
NFL fans from across London flocked to the Shaw Theatre in Euston for the event, which was hosted by the Sky Sports punditry duo of Neil Reynolds and Jeff Reinebold. Even before the evening got underway there was a clear excitement from those in attendance, only helped by the presence of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats Special Teams Co-ordinator Reinebold could be found interacting with fans in the foyer before the start of the event, which was a great sight, even if he did dismiss my rather unsuccessful fantasy football campaign as “garbage”.
Although the hosts were without the likes of New Orleans punter Thomas Morstead and Browns linebacker Cristian Kirksey, who joined them earlier in the week, fans were treated to an impressive line-up of Miami running Back Jay Ajayi, and members of the Minnesota Vikings defence, including linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, and Pro Bowl Safety Harrison Smith.
The evening was well-organised and cleverly designed to maximise both the involvement and enjoyment of the fans present. Interviews and discussions with Ajayi and the Vikings players were broken-up by questions from the audience and a selection of games which saw members of the crowd brought on stage to compete alongside the pros.
For London-born Ajayi, the event was very much a homecoming as the crowd greeted his arrival on stage with a standing ovation. The one year pro from Boise State, who was picked up by the AFC franchise in the fifth round of 2015 NFL Draft, ended the 2016 regular season as a top five running back with 1,272 rushing yards.
Talking to Neil Reynolds about his fantastic season and the return to his homeland, Ajayi said:
“It’s amazing, I always get a sense of clarity coming back here to London, to the place where I was born.”
“I always feel like I am living a double life because I never know what I would be doing right now if I had never moved to the States,”
the 23 year-old continued.
Ajayi exhibited great modesty throughout the interview, speaking like the down-to-earth player he is, and someone who is visibly thankful of the position he finds himself in.
The running back’s standout season didn’t come without its difficulties, with the Dolphin’s acquisition of experienced rusher Arian Foster severely limiting the Brit’s carries in the opening weeks of the campaign. Starved of carries, and struggling to make an impression, Ajayi was at risk of being cut before an injury to Foster gave him the opportunity he needed to make his mark.
“When Arian came in, I was just very motivated to keep my spot and to do what I could to help the team. I just put my head down and got to the grind. I didn’t let anything else affect me and just waited for an opportunity. When it came I just had to make sure that I did what I needed to.”
“I was always confident I had the ability in me, so during that period where I wasn’t really in the team, I knew that I had to work on my mind-set and the way I play – I decided that I would work on my weaknesses and turn them into strengths”
“I am very appreciative of where I am right now, how the season went, and how I was able to persevere through everything – being a starting running back in the NFL is certainly a dream come true for me.”
Coach Jeff Reinebold, who passed up the opportunity to sign Ajayi for SMU, was full of praise for the Pro-Bowler, highlighting his importance in the Dolphins’ successful campaign which saw them make the post-season for the first time since 2008.
“For the Dolphins, the turning point in the season came when they really started to lean on him (Ajayi), taking some pressure off the quarter back,”
the Sky Sports pundit explained.
“With him, they were able to become a much more physical football team, which has been a problem for them in recent years – there is no such issue with Jay.”
“You really have to put what Jay did into context. In the history of the National Football League, what he did in having three 200 yard games has – I think – only been done by three other players,”
“You’re now talking about a guy who is up there with the best of all time.”
On the subject of his hard-hitting running style, which has seen the Londoner compared to the likes of Marshawn Lynch, Ajayi said:
“I’m a passionate player, I play with a lot of emotion – whenever I’m out there I run for my teammates – When I am running hard and breaking tackles, it’s for them”.
“Marshawn Lynch is definitely a guy I admire,” he added. “I look at his game – How he ran very angry and put his team on his shoulders – That’s something I want to do for the Dolphins, so I try to be as aggressive as I can.”
Ajayi also voiced his excitement about playing at Wembley as a starter, following confirmation that the International Series game between the Dolphins and the Saints would take place in week four of the 2017 season.
“It’s going to be amazing!” He said. “I was injured when we played there in my Rookie season, but it was amazing just looking at Wembley as I never imagined it looking like that.”
“Now I have the chance to play there as the starter, I am very excited to come back home,” he concluded.
Ahead of their side’s second London appearance, and their first at Twickenham, later this year, the Minnesota Vikings played echoed similar sentiments to those of Ajayi.
Safety Harrison Smith said,
“It’s just great to be here and to be able to interact with the fans. I’m always amazed at how much your fan base has welcomed our game.”
The Vikings players were also questioned about the development of German wide-receiver Moritz Boehringer, who became the first man to be drafted from Europe.
“It was incredible to see his transformation from when he arrived to the end of the season,”
Eric Kendricks said about the sixth round draft pick.
“He is a very hard worker and that’s how he has managed to get where he is now.”
The players also addressed the team’s recent disappointment which saw them miss out on the playoffs. Despite winning their opening five matches, the Vikings ended with an 8-8 record, coming third in the NFC North.
“We started strong and we were winning the close games. It’s not like everything completely fell apart in the second half of the season – Sam Bradford was great – We just didn’t make the one or two plays at the end of each half that you need to make to win those close games,”
the Pro Bowler admitted.
“Those plays are crucial. We win two more games and we’re in the playoffs – but that’s how it works in the NFL, It’s so competitive.”
The Vikings will be part of the 2017 NFL International Series which kicks off at Wembley on September, 24 2017 with the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Baltimore Ravens.