During their recent visit to the UK ahead of the new season NFL Players Menelik Watson (Oakland Raiders), Cameron Wake (Miami Dolphins), Osi Umenyiora (Atlanta Falcons), Stephen Tulloch (Detroit Lions), Will Blackmon (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Brandon Carr (Dallas Cowboys) took part in an evening of NFL fun and chat at the latest NFL UK ‘International Series Fan Night’.
Held over two hours at the prestigious ‘King’s Place’ venue in North London over 6,000 NFL UK fans applied online and a lucky 250 were successful to attend the night hosted by Sky Sports NFL Pundit and the NFL UK’s-own Neil Reynolds.
View the NFL UK photo gallery HERE. All photos used here courtesy of NFL UK.
The night followed in the footsteps after previous successful events which started back in 2007 and have continued many times a season since.
The evening kicked-off with an introduction from Neil, running a tongue-in-cheek ‘Neil’s News’ featuring a highlight of Luis Suarez being added to the Dallas Cowboys roster to give them some “added bite” before the first of three pairs of players, each reflecting the Wembley match-ups in 2014, was introduced.
Menelik Watson and Cameron Wake
First up was the Manchester-born tackle Menelik Watson (Oakland Raiders) and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake (Miami Dolphins).
Neil started proceedings off before opening the floor to fans.
“I’m carrying the British flag out, no-one else better reach for it,” said Watson when asked by Neil about the traditional pre-match flag-carrying duties.
“I never got the opportunity to come and see something like this when I was growing up and I can’t wait for it. As soon as we found out we were playing in London everyone was coming up to me and asking me about it and finding out what I know, but I told them I was from Manchester, so it is was a bit tough.”
Menelik, a big Manchester City fan then went on to praise the Raiders fans, describing them as “something else” before saying that he expected “big things” from 2014 Raiders draft Khalil Mack.
Watson admitted that he had also taken it upon himself to help him and the other new drafts through the OTAs and Training Camp which he described as “no-one hooting or hollering, everyone is focussed; it’s silent which is important and necessary to stay focussed on the tasks ahead.”
The big Mancunian also admitted that it had been “a very physical off-season, with fights,” and he was “guilty of at least one,” and then admitting “at this level you’ll never get a day off, even the third-string guys don’t give you a break.”
Watson then gave an insight into how he first heard about Gridiron in the UK, through his basketball career in Manchester.
“When I was growing up we didn’t have any games on TV. Americans used to come and play basketball and tell me about American Football and I was like ‘well it’s not better than rugby’ – that was my opinion. I never thought when I was young I would play American Football, but it’s growing and there is room for it to expand across the globe.”
Cameron Wake was asked about what he called his “uncommon journey” to the NFL which he described as “a struggle but it’s made me who I am and it shows with hard work and dedication you can achieve anything.” He also referred to his excitement at playing “football in Canada, in the US and now I am set to play in London, so three different countries doing what I love.”
He talked about a highlight of his career being the third overtime safety in NFL history last Halloween against the Cincinnati Bengals. “All quarterback sacks taste delicious, but the one that stands out the most was Cincinnati – that was a lot of fun.”
Whilst Miami is a favourite destination for many British tourists, it is certainly not a holiday for the Dolphin players. “In south Florida it is 110 degrees every day,” said Wake. “It’s always funny as new guys come and say ‘it’s hot from where I am from and you say ‘no, it’s not’ – Miami is hot, no matter from where you come from – we pray for rain but you have to deal with your environment.
“In some places the weather changes a lot but in Miami whether it’s August or January we still have to deal with heat.”
Cameron was also in no doubt about how gruelling pre-season is. “In training camp there’s no rewards so to speak – it’s five weeks of straight grind. There are 90 guys on any team at the start, but once we start playing only 46 guys put on the jersey.
“You have to ask yourself, what are you going to do which sets yourself apart from that guy over there or the guy on the other team that is going to try and kick your butt in three weeks?”
Cameron went on to discuss when the TV Series ‘Hard Knocks’ visited Miami, his pre-match routines involving a call to his Grandmother and how pre-game he “reflects about a lot of things I went through, the time I wasn’t playing and relishing the opportunity of the position I am in” he also said he wished he could have been coached by the legendary Don Shula.
Following the Q&A both players then took part in a ‘Finish that Sentence’ quiz with the audience.
Menelik said Sio Moore (Raiders linebacker) was the ‘one guy I never want to sit next to on a flight’ because he is “crazy”, called kickers “interesting”, said he would streak if he ever scored a touchdown and gave a dignified “no comment” when asked about his opinions on Manchester United.
Cameron Wake referenced his “normal” job when he was making his way to the NFL, admitting he could get the audience some “good deals on mortgages”. He was quick to describe the post-match locker room smell as being like “old hot dog water” and revealed he “dreams about sacking Tom Brady every night”.
Osi Umenyiora and Stephen Tulloch
Next up was the London-born Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora (Atlanta Falcons) and linebacker and team captain Stephen Tulloch (Detroit Lions).
Osi was asked about playing at Wembley in the inaugural International Series game at Wembley back in 2007 for the New York Giants against the Dolphins. “It was awesome,” he said.
“The fans showed us a lot of love and respect and appreciation for the game which was terrible because the Dolphins sucked at the time and the weather was bad but other than that the whole experience was great and we had a good time.”
When asked about who influenced him in the early days, Umenyiora was in no doubt. “When I got to the NFL I had the privilege of playing under the tutelage of such a great Hall of Famer in Michael Strahan,” he said. “I learned a lot of things from him; how to carry myself on and off of the pitch.”
Umenyiora also told a story about his rookie year when Tra Thomas from the Philadelphia Eagles ran him ragged and whenever he blocked the young Usi he would hand gesture to “cock a shotgun and shoot me with it. From that day on it has stuck in my mind throughout my whole career; watching that guy just shooting me with the shotgun.”
If Usi was not an NFL player he was certain he would be “the starting striker for Manchester United.”
Much has been made of the inconvenience for teams to play in London but the New York Giants went on to win Super Bowl XLII in 2007 following their Wembley appearance and Usi was asked about the effects of that trip.
“We came out here a couple of days early” he explained. “But we bonded as we spent a lot of time together outside of the confines of the Giants facility. It played its part because we just had fun together and all the good teams I’ve been on have really enjoyed being together outside of the facilities. London was something we really enjoyed doing.”
Neil and the guys then talked through some Xs & Os as Usi talked about the basic rules of pass-rush including ‘the chop’.
“Once you get a good read of the ball the quarterback is going to get scared and start jumping,” said Usi. “Every move you have, you have to have a counter-move to confuse the opposition line. You have to have everything look the same because if you keep doing the same thing they will cotton on.
“You have to be able to switch up,” he continued. “The first step is the most important thing for a defensive end, these offensive linemen are 6”8 tall and 300 pounds. They are some of the best athletes on the football field; the left tackle especially. If you don’t have a good first step then you are just wasting your time.”
The Detroit Lions captain then admitted “due to my size I am able to engage quicker than those who are taller so I am able to attack the ball carrier as the offensive line scrimmages.
“Leverage is everything. If the ball carrier is coming to me I have to get lower than him. If I am higher than him and he is lower than me then I am getting run over.
“To play football you have to have that mindset. You have to flick that switch. It’s totally a mind game. If you go out there and your mind is not ready, you’ll get exposed.”
Both players then answered true or false to five facts about their teams with Usi answering “true – anything about him making people angry is true,” before Neil could finish asking a question about Falcons coach starting “Brian Cox once angered…”
Stephen Tulloch then talked about the pressures of being a leader on the field. “As a captain people are looking at you for answers and you don’t want to let them down,” he explained.
“You find a way to get through and in the nine years I’ve been in the NFL both and off the field you go through so many challenges in life. You’ve got to dig down deep and find a way to dig yourself out of it.”
Tulloch then talked about how he had trained with Frank Gore in Miami and his pre-season routine. “I love doing Bikram yoga in the off-season, three days a week, Pilates twice a week,” he said.
“I train every day in the morning for three hours and have a massage once a week. The process during the off-season is very gruelling but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Football is the best sport in the world; it’s wonderful. I live and I die by the game.”
The 29-year-old then admitted that there was extra pressure of playing for Detroit due to the current economic issues within the city. “They are diehard fans,” he explained. “Detroit is such a sports city; they love the Redwings, they love the Lions, they love the Tigers, they love the Pistons.
“Winning the Super Bowl for Detroit would change their outlook forever and that’s something we know, each and every week. Each and every season we go out there, we talk about it and what it would be like if we won; how downtown would be.
“It’s a great deal playing in London for the Lions fans. It’s a tough economic time in Detroit so to have the game in London and give the fans something to cheer about is great.
“I went to New Orleans when they went through Hurricane Katrina. I saw how that city was in turmoil and how they won that Super Bowl for their city and I can honestly say that we are in a good position and have a lot of good weapons this year to make a run.”
“As long as they pay I am going anywhere,” said Usi when asked about if he would play for any future London NFL franchise, whilst Stephen said “football is getting bigger in Europe and every game is sold out. It is just a matter of time before Roger Goddell and the owners get together to find a way to work it out.”
Both players lamented the changes in tackling but admitted that it was for the best and will protect them and future players. “Getting down and dirty, those days are kind of over,” said Tulloch. “Issues post-career cannot be taken lightly and need to be addressed. The days of ‘get back in the game’ and ‘toughen up’ are over.
“The NFL do a good job protecting the players and we are beneficiaries of that, we are all looking for a long-term solution.”
“The changes are necessary,” said Usi. “To be honest with you we’re dying from these things. The players are fighting some of the rules and they say ‘you cannot take away my football’ but at the end of the day I want to be able to walk and be healthy when I am in my 40s like a normal person.”
Stephen Tulloch went on to reveal that London Fletcher was his idol growing up “on and off the field – in the community he was a role model. He never missed a game and played 251 games straight – he speaks volumes about what professional players are all about.” He also said the so-called ‘snow-bowl’ he played in was “terrible,” but that it was “a game I won’t forget and a learning experience going forward.”
Will Blackmon and Brandon Carr
Neil Reynolds then introduced the “last but by no means least” final pairing of defensive back Will Blackmon (Jacksonville Jaguars) and defensive back Brandon Carr (Dallas Cowboys). The pair made for a comedic double-act at times, engrossing the audience with their anecdotes and stories.
Neil asked Will to reflect on the Jaguars’ previous Wembley experience. “It was tough last year,” admitted the 29-year-old.
“The 49ers are always in contention for the Super Bowl every year, and we were just getting started but I was fortunate enough to play with Usi in Super Bowl 46 and it was the same atmosphere there as Wembley – the whole week; the media stuff, the fun stuff, it was just like it.”
“I am a fan of Brandon Carr,” answered Blackmon when asked about who is the best cornerback in the NFL. “He’s very, very consistent and he gets rewarded for it – I watch and study his game. He’s a technician.”
Blackmon said that Calvin Johnson was easily the most difficult opponent he has faced, admitting “it’s almost not fair.” Carr echoed his thoughts saying Johnson “has all the intangibles” but said that former player Steve Smith was a rookie assignment of his and that he “baptised me and pretty much taught me the game.”
The Cowboys player then said “guys are getting bigger, faster, and stronger – the league is changing. I don’t know what they’re drinking or eating, but I’ve got to get some of that.”
Third pick overall in the 2014 NFL Draft and Jaguars’ rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has fitted in “perfectly” and reminded Blackmon of a “young Ben Roethlisberger” but gave a note of caution about the 22-year-old’s other sporting prowess. “You’ve seen Forrest Gump?” he asked the audience. “Right now Blake is destroying everybody in ping pong – I would not go on that table, you will get embarrassed.”
Will and Brandon then went through some Xs & Os with Neil Reynolds and two audience members on stage where Will took time to explain man coverage.
“I like to play man coverage,” he said. “I try to keep my cushion and don’t want to look foolish and be on YouTube. You follow him everywhere. If he goes to the bathroom, you go to the bathroom. If he washes his hands, you give him tissue.”
Brandon was quick to back this up. “I’ve got to mirror everything he does. I’m going to stare at his hips and stay away from all what is going on upstairs because he is lying. Your feet can win you the game but your hands can finish the player when you get the jam on him.”
Both players were asked by Neil Reynolds about how important communication was in this scenario
“It’s big,” said Brandon. “The reason why Seattle has had the success it has had in the secondary is because it is a brotherhood. Within a brotherhood everyone knows each other like the back of their hand. When you get in those tough situations they work it together because they know each other so much, they don’t miss a beat. It takes time for the four or five of your guys to grow into one cohesive unit.
“If we mess up on the back end, it’s a touchdown. If they mess up with the defensive line or linebackers you can make big tackles to cap it. If we mess up you see it on Sports Center.”
Former Seahawk Blackmon agreed. “They are truly best friends,” he said. “When the season is over, everybody goes to their homes and they come back when the season starts. But the Legion of Boom goes everywhere together and you cannot separate them.
“Being that they have that close relationship you can see it on the field which is the biggest thing.”
Both players then played a game with two fans on stage as they had to guess from clues an NFL personality on the screen behind them but it went to a tie-break and the players played rock, papers and scissors to decide the winner.
Both players admitted they were quite happy in their current playing position and would not necessarily want to play anywhere else. “I like my position, it feels safe,” said Blackmon. “Think about it. Quarterbacks get killed. Running backs get killed. Wide receivers catch the ball then get killed. So defense. I would play defensive end.”
Brandon Carr revealed that he was “always a big Darrelle Revis fan growing up in college” and that “Richard Sherman has had a good run the past couple of years.”
Blackmon let slip that his pre-match superstitions include “yoga in my room with the lights off” and that he uses mouthwash at half time because “of the sugar from my Gatorade.” Whilst Carr, who admitted that playing for the Kansas City Chiefs was an honour and a privilege, said the he brushed his teeth sometimes but sometimes he didn’t brush his teeth as the NFL is “a nasty game and I want to be nasty.”
The night was rounded off with a question about how both players manage their family gatherings around the season and following that all six players were brought to the front of the stage to rapturous applause and the fans inside awaiting the next night.