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Approximately thirty-four hundred miles and nearly two hundred and fifty years removed from the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s legendary ride, and the opening battle of the Revolutionary War, the irony is unmistakable. Not far from where King George III read the Declaration of Independence of the American colonies, Tom Brady was reading the blitzing schemes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. American football in England. It’s been more than 24 hours since the third game of the NFL International Series ended, but it still seems slightly unbelievable that such a thing would occur, especially after having spent the previous month at university in St. Andrews, Scotland, the home to golf, the alma mater of Prince William, and a place where American students crowd a small specialty shop to buy the jars of Skippy peanut butter, the boxes of Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and the sleeves of Reese’s that remind them of home.
However, American football really was played in London, England. Tom Brady really threw for 308 yards on British soil. The Patriots really won a game in Europe. And I was really there to see it. Having passed on last year’s game between the San Diego Chargers and the New Orleans Saints in London, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see my beloved New England Patriots play so close to me when I’m so far from Gillette Stadium. After the five-and-a-half hour train trek from St. Andrews, my two friends – a Green Bay Packers fan and a New York Giants fan, both American – and I arrived in London thrilled that the NFL was coming to us, a sentiment shared by the other eighty-four thousand-plus also heading to the game.
With each Tube (London’s faster, cleaner, more efficient version of the T) stop between our hotel in Collier’s Wood and Wembley, the train cars gleaned more and more football fans from all over: Patriots fans from Milton, Massachusetts and Manchester, England; New York Giants fans from New Jersey and Newcastle; Buccaneers fans from Florida and Finland; and countless other unimaginable combinations. Fans sported jerseys of all teams, with Tom Brady, the overwhelming favorite, competing with the cloth of Brett Favre, Eli Manning, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, Ray Lewis, and Tony Romo. Standing number-to-number with thousands of others on the Tube, I overheard a French couple discuss Randy Moss, while Danish, Russian, and the stereotypical English accent swirled around the cramped space. Upon hearing a few famil-yah Boston accents, I had to remind myself that I was not on the T heading to a Red Sox on the Green Line or a Bruins game on the Red Line, but was on the Metropolitan Line heading to Wembley Stadium.
Upon arrival at the stadium, juxtapositions of American and British culture abounded: fans cloaked in Patriots and Buccaneers jerseys leaning against the statue of legendary English footballer (theirs, not ours) Bobby Moore, with others eating bangers and mash while passing pigskins. During the game, British fans, influenced by their love of soccer and rugby, booed fair catches, holding penalties, and the end of the game, when the traditional handshaking began with ten seconds still on the clock. While utilizing one of Wembley’s 2,618 bathrooms, I overheard discussions concerning Manchester United’s (unfortunate) 2-0 loss at the feet of Liverpool, which had occurred just before Toni Braxton and Katherine Jenkins took to the 50-yard line to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Save the Queen,” providing a visual clash: fans created the American and British flags using colored sheets left on their seats by NFL attendants. At the same time, they eagerly cheered complete passes and mercilessly booed the one section that continuously ended the wave (you know who you are, those who entered through Gate J). Every movement by a Buccaneer cheerleader earned wild applause and the antics of Captain Fear, the Bucs’ mascot, garnered pity laughter.
While most true Buccaneer fans were outnumbered by those of the Pats, the majority of the third party fans picked up the Buccaneers flags that had been scattered throughout the stadium by the “home” team’s employees and enthusiastically waved them throughout the game (including the one fan who told his friend that the Patriots were playing the Pennsylvania Pirates). Despite this, the atmosphere was generally friendly to the Pats, especially Tom Brady. Two English women gladly held a poster asking Brady to “intentionally ground” them whenever he pleased, while a Northern Irish gentleman couldn’t believe that Brady, the demigod that he is, had thrown an interception while he had been in the loo. (The man was thoroughly dejected when Brady threw his second interception of the game.) Despite his interceptions, Tommy Boy did deliver to the fans, passing for three touchdowns in the Patriots 35-7 victory.
After the game, past when the final handshakes had been exchanged at midfield and the last Brit had gone to the pub and all that was left of the NFL was the paint on the pitch, there was a solitary reminder that the game was held in England: a display of flags hung at midfield just below the open roof of Wembley Stadium featuring three banners, one for the New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the NFL each, all flanked by the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack. While American football will never replace soccer or rugby in the United Kingdom, the sight did echo a statement King George III made to John Adams after the conclusion of the Revolution: “I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.” After the success of the most recent NFL International Series game, Americans and the NFL can be sure that they still have friends and fans amongst the Brits.