For kids who dream of being the next Tom Brady, their hopes no longer lie in a move to the States.
They can step onto the gridiron right here in South Yorkshire with the Sheffield Giants Academy.
Since starting in 2018, the Sheffield Giants Academy, based in Mosbrough, has grown from a dozen players to now almost 100 on their team sheets, fuelled by the rising popularity of the NFL with British sports fans.
They are the only American football club in Yorkshire to have teams for all ages and have players ranging from seven-year-olds up to adults in their 40s.
Talented young athletes in South Yorkshire have the opportunity to make it to the world stage in one of the fastest-growing sports.
Last season, seven Sheffield Giants players were selected for team GB squads, with the teens playing for their country in Norway and Italy.
And one former Sheffield Giants player is now a promising NFL star; Europe’s number one offensive linesman, Daniel Akinkunmi, signed for Oklahoma Sooners last autumn having received offers from eight US colleges.
Flag football, the non-contact version of American football, will become an Olympic sport from 2028. The head of Sheffield Giants Academy, Paul Salmon, believes there will be a further explosion of interest in the forthcoming years.
“Kids see the Superbowl on TV and love the glamour and razzamatazz of it. They’re desperate to kit up and put the helmet and pads on. But they can’t legally play American football until they’re 13. So, they start with flag football instead which really introduces them to the game,” Paul says.
Paul got involved in the club when his son decided he wanted to play American football as a teenager.
Originally, an adults’ team coach would train a handful of kids on the sidelines of the pitch. But Paul agreed to help start a proper academy to bring grassroots flag football to the club.
“It was a bit of a novelty at the start. In the first year, the under 11s were just running round enthusiastically like headless chickens, like seven- or eight-year-olds do when playing any sport. But we quickly began to see a massive difference and they’re now playing to a great standard.”
Flag football follows the same format as the contact version, with the main aim to reach the endzone and score a touchdown. But instead of tackling each other to the ground, you remove a flag that is attached to a belt around the players’ waists.
There are five players on each team and squads tend to be between 12-15 players. Paul says the sport suits people of all ages, genders, sizes, fitness levels and abilities which is unusual for team sports.
“With a sport like normal football, you need to be able to control and pass the ball to play it well. Whereas flag football is very accessible. If you can’t catch, it’s fine, there’s a position where you don’t need to. If you like tackling, great, there’s a position for that too. There are positions for catching, running, handing, tackling and blocking. Some kids will never see the ball as their job is just to block and protect those who do have it.
“We don’t have trials or squad picking. Anyone who wants to play can. There are no subs. It’s more of a roll-off-roll-on game and you can bring players on throughout the 40-minute game.”
American football doesn’t just appeal to burly men. About a quarter of Sheffield Giants’ flag football players are girls, and they’re hoping to sign their first female full contact player for this upcoming season.
As a summer sport, the season begins in April but the academy teams will start pre-season training from mid-February. They train every Saturday at 9am in Mosborough.
Their flag football teams include under 11s, under 14s, under 17s, mixed adults, and women’s. As players reach 13, they can move into the American football teams with pathways for under 16s, under 19s and adults.
People interested in trying flag football can have three free taster sessions before they need to register as a player.