NFL Academy: Has year one been a success?
Head of student development and welfare Victor Bamigboye talks to Sky Sports about the first year of the new initiative
By James Simpson
Last Updated: 17/06/20 2:39pm
On Monday, the NFL Academy announced its 'virtual tryouts' to recruit next year's student class.
It has been a year since the initiative was introduced and this time around, the Academy has had to adapt to find its newest athletes.
During last year's June 'launch day', 150 potential students were given the chance to show off their athleticism - and character - by taking part in the 40-yard dash, broad jump, vertical jump and pro shuttle drills while coaches, ambassadors and counsellors watched on at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
JuJu Smith-Schuster was there to get the kids fired up. Efe Obada, Alex Grey, Christian Scotland-Williamson and Christian Wade - all of whom came through the NFL’s International Pathway Program - spoke and interacted with participants.
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The NFL Academy has launched a virtual campaign in a bid to find its next batch of student-athletes for the 2020/21 academic year.
Although this year's process will be different, the last tryouts led to a cut-down and selection of the final ‘roster’ - roughly 80 students - and the first year of the Academy was underway in September, coinciding with a normal school year at Barnet and Southgate College. The students continue to learn remotely now.
Victor Bamigboye, the NFL Academy's head of student development and welfare, told Sky Sports about lessons learned in year one, how they are coping with lockdown, and what the future holds.
A success so far
"The first year went really well," Bamigboye tells us. "[But there were] definitely a lot of learnings.
"It was the first time something like this had been done in the UK in terms of an all-encompassing American sports academy where equal importance is put on education and training as it is on character development."
Bamigboye's concern is the people, not just the football, but the emphasis on core values - both on the field and off it - has led to improvements in the students’ education.
What is the NFL Academy?
According to its website, it is “a unique programme that gives aspiring young American football players and outstanding athletes the chance to develop their skills and knowledge of the game.”
"All the students love American football and would enjoy skill-based practices but we had some students that traditionally didn’t do as well in education as they did in sport. The hook to really get them to focus on education was the football.
"Because of the NFL Academy and the love of the sport, we had students that ordinarily didn’t have good attendance and their attainment and grades weren't great… make great strides because of the values that we instilled into all students during the character development sessions."
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Bamigboye likened it to dangling football as a 'carrot'. As long as students knew what was required of them and what they could achieve at the end of it, it worked. The numbers reflect the improvement.
"Our students took it so seriously - their attendance figures were better and brought up some of the figures for the college.
"A lot of that is the incentive to play but at the same time, we associate education and sport together very closely so if students miss class, they miss practice as well.
"No student wants to miss practice, so they attended all of their lessons."
It also cannot have been a bad thing that students were exposed to inspiring figures throughout the year. Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice opened a new gym for the college. Senior people from around the NFL have been holding talks for students as they learn remotely this summer. Everything is designed to keep students motivated and focused.
Building the team culture
One of the challenges of bringing together a large group from across the UK and Europe was to get the different backgrounds and experiences to mesh and for people to associate with one another.
However, their 'headstart' was crucial. As well as getting to know one another during the trial sessions, Bamigboye said the Academy’s "orientation week" meant all the students met and went through upcoming sessions together before the school term.
"By the time the school term started and the other students in the college came back, we had seen that the NFL Academy students were really a tight-knit group.
"I imagined that would happen maybe a few months in, but it literally happened a few weeks in and it was impressive to see."
As Bamigboye explains, "[those relationships] got stronger over the year."
"They started before they’d even started playing and practising as a team. And playing American football - I played the sport for 10 years at a reasonably high level for a player in Britain - being in the trenches, you build a lot of camaraderie that way.
"When you really struggle and fight for someone, that's when some of the strongest bonds are built.
"So we saw as the year progressed, those bonds getting tighter and tighter and you started seeing the offense come together, the defense come together and it only increased."
As a team and a group, they made great strides. But how did all of these young men handle the year individually?
A tough age
At 16-18 years old, it is hard enough to adapt to local school life, let alone moving locations and starting fresh - and ultimately, some students left the Academy before the end of the year. But the numbers were promising.
"We lost about six or seven students and that was down to a number of different reasons," Bamigboye says.
"Unfortunately, we had a few students with mental health concerns. We gave them a level of support to try and keep them through it but the elite nature of the sport combined with the education, combined with moving hundreds of miles away from home, it limited how they could cope - so the parents decided it was probably best if they went back home.
"But we do still keep in contact with those students as well.
"Once you're in the Academy, you're in the Academy."
This edict of belonging and togetherness is something Bamigboye preaches all throughout the interview. The students ultimately want to become American football players and, potentially, reach the NFL, but right now the Academy aims to give them as much off-field support as possible.
"We take it for granted how old they are," Bamigboye explains. "They are very young men and before they go to university, they are upping and leaving where they're from.
"Some of them are from different countries, others smaller towns and counties. They are not used to being in an area like London which is very diverse and very busy all of the time.
"And on top of that, they're starting school, practising three times a week, lifting weights... it's a lot to throw at them. So we give them as much support as we can give."
It is clear the Academy is not only concerned with finding the best athletes and football players. Bamigboye - and the rest of the staff - have created an environment for these young men to grow, and the initiative has enjoyed a promising start.