'It was like a dirty secret': How NFL London games made UK fans loud and proud

Prior to the start of the NFL International Series in 2007, American football was on the fringes of mainstream coverage of British sport. The game had experienced a major boom in the UK in the 80s, but while the next two decades of World League and NFL Europe experiments ultimately ran their course, the foundations for a loyal following were starting to form.

It was, however, a shy support.

"When I started watching NFL in 2000, there was literally nobody else that I knew that watched American football," says Packers fan Ryan Peacock, a 32-year-old production manager from Bedfordshire. "I later found out that one of my friends was a Patriots fan and had been for a number of years, but we had never spoken about football.

"It was like a dirty secret. We did not want to admit to the soccer guys that we liked the American version."

New York Giants fan Andy Hunt, a 36-year-old DJ and promoter who runs fan site Grid Iron and Gravy, had a similar problem. "When I first started watching the NFL 11 seasons ago, finding another NFL fan to talk about the sport with was quite an achievement. Now it's so well known, you no longer feel like a lone wolf."

Such has been the growth of the sport since the Giants defeated the Miami Dolphins in 2007 at a rain-lashed Wembley in the first NFL regular season game to be played in Europe. Added to that core support that the league was confident existed came a new batch of converts -- including the likes of Hunt, who had "watched Super Bowls but never paid attention to the league until that point".

There has been an evolution of the support in London as well, with games also now staged at Twickenham -- the national rugby stadium -- in south-west London as well as Wembley in the north-west of the city, while Tottenham's new stadium, built with an NFL field underneath a retractable grass pitch, will begin hosting matches as of 2018.

The novelty certainly isn't wearing off -- the record attendance for an NFL game at Wembley (84,592) was set last Sunday for Jacksonville's defeat of Baltimore. It narrowly eclipsed the previous record, set in the final London game of last season, when 84,448 watched Cincinnati and Washington achieve a very British thing: a draw -- the first tied game in International Series history.

"I have watched the evolution of the fan base over the last ten years," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan Simon Alexander, a 36-year-old from Norwich who works in online marketing. "They now know when to cheer at the right times.

"A few years ago, it was just 80,000 fans in their own shirts sitting there quietly and watching the game as though it was on TV. I love the atmosphere that we [now] create at the UK games."

For some fans, though, the London games have brought about a conflict. Peacock - he of the 'dirty secret' - established a Packers fan club and is a seasoned traveller to Lambeau Field. He even led a party of 30 to the Week 1 clash against Seattle this season. He has another 'dirty secret', though: he had never been to a game in London until the Jaguars-Ravens game last weekend.

"I know that it's bad to admit for someone trying to push American football throughout the UK and Europe," he confesses. "If the Packers came to London then I am obviously going to go, but if it's not the Packers playing then I would rather put the money in my pocket and use it to go to Green Bay.

"Every time to you to Green Bay, you think that is the best trip you have ever been on. The next time you go it is ten times better."

Dolphins fan Lee Whittington agrees. "I won't go to Wembley to watch other teams when the Dolphins are playing [on TV at the same time]," says the 29-year-old marketing executive from Horsham.

Since witnessing a Dolphins loss to Atlanta in Miami in 2005, he has been hooked, and his wedding day earlier this year was almost a homage to the Dolphins.

"Being pretty obsessed, I sent [his wife] a picture of a cake topper in the style of an American footballer and said 'we should definitely do this on our cake'. I thought she would just shoot the idea down, but she said 'that's a really good idea'."

From there, it snowballed. The groom figurine on the cake wore a Dolphins helmet. So did the actual groom, after being presented with a real helmet by his wife Cassandra. Their colour scheme featured the Dolphins' famous aqua colours. The cake was lined with aqua icing. The bridesmaids' dresses were aqua. So were the groomsmen's ties.

Going the extra mile is not uncommon for NFL fans in the UK, it would seem. Houston Texans fan Graham Henderson, 35, from Scotland, incorporated the team's logo into his kilt.

"I asked permission from the Houston Texans to use their logo," he says. "They gave me permission and actually told me to keep in touch and tell them how I got on.

"The first game I went to [wearing the kilt], I was met at the gate and the Texans offered me pre-game wristbands to go down to the locker area. I got to see the players huddling up before the player announcements and I got to see them do their run-outs from the tunnel area."

It seems as though Henderson has gained notoriety with the locals of Houston, and it became apparent earlier this year when he returned to the city for the Super Bowl. "When I was walking around the events, a police officer from Houston stopped me and said 'you're the Kilted Texan! I have been looking for you everywhere! I've seen you at all the games but I have never got a picture with you'."

From London to Miami, from Scotland to Houston, the NFL has become something for UK fans to shout about, loud and proud.

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