The NFL is the most high profile sport in the US. I take a look at where it all starts. This is my journey, from across the pond, into the American college football phenomenon contested in front of colourful, partisan crowds, either on hot southern Saturday afternoons in the SEC and Big 12 or on blizzards in the ACC, Big 10 and Pac-12. Those Saturdays feed my soul.
My love of the NFL, like a lot of British fans, found its early roots on Channel 4 in the early to mid 1980s. Monday nights were my time with Dad. Mum headed out for a yoga class and some precious “me time” while Dad and I tucked into the remnants of Sunday lunch and the highlights of the game of the week in the NFL.
Dad was a man of few words so bonding for us had traditionally revolved around fishing. Him sat on one bay on the riverbank, and me a few yards away in the next one. A 6am Sunday start meant being loaded down with 30lbs of kit that we lugged across various Wiltshire fields to the water, picking up the pace if an overprotective bull took exception to us disturbing his herd. We would have spoken only occasionally.
I’m not really sure how it all started, but Monday nights very quickly became an immovable fixture in the Evans household and the anchor of my relationship with Dad over the appallingly early Sunday mornings. Monday nights became sacred. Quiet reflection and occasional chat by the river was replaced very quickly by mutual celebration at a Walter Payton run, a Lawrence Taylor sack or Dan Marino pass, and excitable discussion afterwards.
Marino had been part of the great draft class of 1983, which also included fellow Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and two-time Super Bowl winner John Elway. Marino is arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks to never win a Super Bowl (that said, he did appear in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). His only appearance came in 1985 when his Dolphins were outclassed by the San Francisco 49ers and the then peerless Joe Cool… Joe Montana.
These guys very quickly became household names, in our house and across the UK. We saw The Refrigerator, Ditka and the Chicago Bears, the great 49ers teams of Montana, Young, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott. Then there were my favourites - the Mississippi gunslinger Brett Favre and the storied Green Bay Packers, the only small town team in the league and owned entirely by their own fans.
Unlike the English Premier League, the teams with the most money could rarely dominate. The salary cap and shared revenue (NFL teams take an equal share of all merchandise revenue and TV rights) helped level a competitive playing field, so it’s harder for one team to win year in, year out (take a bow, New England Patriots!).
The NFL Draft is the great equaliser. I love this. Every year the NFL team with the worst record has the first pick in the draft, and the opportunity to pick the best player in college football to strengthen their ranks. For a comparison, imagine Norwich signing Sadio Mane. But where do these guys come from?
College football to me was almost like a secret, multidimensional sheet under the blanket of the NFL. Teams wear bright colours, have crazy fans and nicknames like the Longhorns, Tar Heels, Spartans and Crimson Tide. The more I learned, the more I became hooked. It was exhilarating to watch.
There were wild scorelines - shootouts of 74-72 (Texas A&M vs LSU) and 76-61 (Pitt vs Syracuse) amongst others. Of the largest ten sporting stadiums in the world, eight are the homes of college football teams – all holding over 100,000 people! There’s something worth exploring here.
This is about sharing my journey to a new world, played out on Saturdays in the fall. Those Saturdays feed my soul.