The NFL's worldwide popularity continues to grow, and that was on stage this week in London, England, where they hosted NFL Academy: Stadium Showcase, with one of the league's top players, JuJu Smith-Schuster, serving as an Ambassador for the Academy.
His smile and engaging personality were a perfect fit for teaching the game, as well as for spreading the excitement of the NFL to a country that has been hosting games since 2007.
"They invited me out here," said Smith-Schuster. "It was amazing. When they told me about this, I accepted right away. Giving back to the community, especially the young kids out here starting American football and teaching them at the NFL Academy and what (the game is) all about and being a part of it, it's amazing."
The Stadium Showcase is a part of the first-ever NFL Academy, recently launched by the NFL UK and set to begin in September. It will offer student athletes, ages 16-18, the opportunity to combine education with life skills and intensive football training by full-time professional coaches. The Stadium Showcase wraps up the two week tryout for those fighting to earn a spot in the first Academy class this fall.
"It's super exciting," said Smith-Schuster of working with the kids. "It's been an all-day process. They had 1,000 kids sign up. We started today from the morning until the evening. It's so cool to see the interest, the eagerness in their eyes and how much they want to learn about American football and the whole process."
Smith-Schuster was joined by other NFL players at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the new site of future NFL games in London, to take the kids through Combine like drills. He spoke to the kids, providing them inspiration, served as a mentor, and helped the coaches with some of the drills.
"Being here mentoring the young dudes is awesome," said Smith-Schuster. "They are super excited to learn the game. They get the technique down. They execute it. They are really good listeners. They dominate in what they do. It's exciting to see them out here doing a lot of work."
Smith-Schuster gave advice to the young athletes taking part in the final day of tryouts, including encouraging them to "Show up early, show up on time. Be a leader, be vocal. Show you can lead. That goes a long way."
Smith-Schuster's popularity isn't limited to the fan base in the United States. That is for sure. The people in London know who he is, from the kids taking part to people on the streets. Steelers' tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson, who is from the UK and is part of the NFL's International Player Pathway Program, also took part in the Academy, and Smith-Schuster joked that they are both equally recognized by the fans and the kids, many who follow him on social media and keep up with his fun dance moves.
"I was surprised how many guys know me. It's even with Christian," said Smith-Schuster. "In the states people come up to me and show some love. But here, when I walk down the streets of the UK and they come up to me…that is really shocking to me. It happened four, five, six times the first day here. They show so much love. It's awesome."
It's the fun-loving side of Smith-Schuster, the social media presence combined with the football talent, and the willingness to reach out to do things such as the Academy, that have attracted people worldwide to him, and he hopes they get to see what he is all about.
"(I want them to see) a guy who is super authentic, who gives back to the community and can help out a lot," said Smith-Schuster. "Whatever he can do to give back is what he is about. To be out here with the kids and show them I care so much. They want to learn. I am able to show them I care about them and American football."
This is Smith-Schuster's first trip to the UK, and while he hasn't had much free time, he did get to see "Big Ben," which he plans to take a picture with to send to Ben Roethlisberger, and has enjoyed the beauty of the area.
"It's amazing. I love the buildings," said Smith-Schuster. "I love the old buildings. The architecture and how detailed they are. I wish I had the chance to see more. Tottenham Stadium is beautiful. It's such great scenery. I can't wait to see the fans in London get super excited for a game."