As Super Bowl 50 is nearly upon us, a lot of attention in the UK is on the Arbroath-born Carolina Panthers kicker Graham Gano. But just a few years ago the Panthers had another British pigskin booter; Dover-born Rhys Lloyd.
After playing as a teenage midfielder alongside John Terry whilst at the Chelsea FC Academy, Rhys emigrated to Minnesota due to his soccer-coach father’s work and during a high school trip to Disney’s (now ESPN’s) Wide World of Sports in Florida he visited an exhibit called ‘The NFL Experience’ and broke a concrete wall with one of his kicks.
“I remember being pushed into kicking at the Disney experience,” he told A Head For The Game/NFLUK.com. “I didn’t really want to kick, I only had flip flops on so had to kick barefoot.
“The rest, as they say, is history.”
History it may be, but after a successful High School and College career, ending up with the University of Minnesota, Lloyd went on to play 50 times in the NFL as well as in the NFL Europe League for a variety of teams including Baltimore Ravens, Green Bay Packers, Frankfurt Galaxy, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants – where he worked alongside fellow Brit Lawrence Tynes – and had try-outs for the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills.
But arguably his most successful period of his professional career was with the Carolina Panthers.
During the 2008 season Rhys was the kick-off specialist in all 16 games for them, reaching the end zone in 52 of 88 kick-offs, leading the NFL with 30 touchbacks that season (it was just one in the previous season before he joined), seeing none of his kick-offs returned for touchdowns and even managing to record a special teams tackle.
The Panthers finished the season in their joint-best-ever record of 12-4 (until this season) and won the NFC South, but lost the NFC Divisional Playoffs vs. Arizona.
“That was a great year,” said the 33-year-old. “We did well as a team and I performed as an individual, which is what you always want as an athlete, but unfortunately we picked a bad game to have a bad game and lost against the Cardinals.”
Despite that divisional play-off being the peak of his NFL career, Lloyd remembers a different match-up as being the highlight in his half century of NFL games.
“Against San Diego in 2008 I had my most complete game,” explained Lloyd, who now coaches the ‘other’ football in America. “I banged two kickoffs through the uprights back when it was from the 30-yard line.
“At that time as well, off of the field my wife and I were preparing to have our first child – between games – so I told her to have it on one of the days we practice so I could get a day off and, of course, she had it on my only day off during the week!”
As the Panthers of 2015/16 look forward to getting their hands on the Vince Lombardi trophy and the special one-off, ‘50’ trophy, Lloyd is rooting for his old team to and some old faces to grab the silverware.
“Can they win it? Yes, they better!” exclaimed Lloyd when asked about the chances of his former team on Sunday.
“Cam Newton is special, that’s all you can say really; he has so many amazing qualities and they will only strengthen with age and wisdom, and since moving around teams, Graham Gano has had success so I wish him well too.
“Defensive end Charles Johnson, running back Jonathan Stewart and outside linebacker Thomas Davis are all still at the Panthers from when I was there,” he continued.
“They are all great guys and amazing talents – we really had a great locker room at Carolina.”
One name that some may not know is Sam Mills III, the defensive quality control coach for the Panthers whose father Sam Mills Jr. was an original Panther – a player in their inaugural season in 1995 and later linebacker coach.
After being diagnosed with, and later dying of cancer, Sam Mills Jr. gave an inspirational speech to the squad during his treatment in 2004 where he coined the phrase ‘Keep Pounding’ – a phrase which is stitched inside the Panthers shirt and ubiquitous with everything connected with the franchise.
“Sam Mills (III) was a great guy and very good coach to me when I was there,” said Lloyd. “He learnt a lot from his old man who is a Panthers legend and we talked about him a lot.”
Since his retirement from the sport, Rhys has followed in his father’s soccer footsteps and become a coach, but despite living in Tampa, Florida, he keeps one keen eye on what is happening with gridiron across the pond.
“I came over to London for the Super Bash at the O2 in 2011,” I helped host it with Neil Reynolds and Arlo White. I would love to come back but my visits have become limited recently with my three kids who are all boys.
“You never know though, with what is happening in London and the NFL I hope there can be a NFL franchise over there. I don’t know how the scheduling would work but it would be awesome.
“I would maybe dust the boots off and come play for the London team!”
Follow Rhys on Twitter – @rhysjlloyd