The Combine will see up to 44 invited players taking part in a series of physical challenges, similar to those used to assess America’s leading college talent ahead of the NFL Draft.
Each are hoping to earn a place on the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, a initiative launched in 2017 and designed to give athletes from outside the United States a route to a professional career in American football.
Among them is running back Tyrese Johnson-Fisher. Prodigiously gifted as a young athlete, Johnson-Fisher was a national champion sprinter at age-group level and turned down a place in Crystal Palace’s academy in order to take up a boarding school scholarship to play rugby, which he later went on to do professionally, for Premiership side Bristol Bears.
A video of a 15-year-old Johnson-Fisher playing rugby for Oakham School, physically dominating and out-stripping his peers with ease, went viral and attracted the attention of American football scouts across the Atlantic.
“The video makes me look twice the size!” Johnson-Fisher, now 23, tells Standard Sport. “I’m a small guy, I’m 5’10’’. I’ve been the same height for years! I just saw rugby as track - just get the ball and run.”
At 17, Johnson-Fisher was invited to the US to participate in the prestigious Under Armour All-American Game, an all-star match for the country’s top high school seniors. His class included current NFL stars Justin Fields, Kyle Pitts and Ja’marr Chase, but Johnson-Fisher had, remarkably, never played a game of American football in his life.
“I worked hard, got my body ready, learnt a lot with some of the London Warriors coaches,” he says. “I was never going to be as good as the guys there but the whole aim was to get to a level where I could compete because physically, they’re not better than me.”
Off the back of the game, in which he did not even get a carry, Johnson-Fisher went on to play college football in the US, then returned to England and to rugby in Bristol, before settling definitively on American football and joining the Istanbul Rams.
“As soon as I left rugby, I knew that was the last time,” he says. “I think it was one of the best things to happen to me because it was then that I realised I actually loved American football. I’d always played the sport because people told me I was good at it but now I wanted to play the sport because I actually loved it.”
Born in Hackney, linebacker Emmanuel Falola is another of the young Londoners hoping to make an impression on watching NFL scouts this afternoon.
Like Johnson-Fisher, he excelled in a host of sports as a youngster, but became heavily interested in American football well before he had the opportunity to play it himself.
“I remember watching the 2013 Super Bowl, Ravens against 49ers, and from then I was hooked,” he says. “It’s the reason I play linebacker now because the two star defenders on each team were Ray Lewis and Pat Willis. They’re two of the best linebackers of our generation and that’s what drew my attention to the sport.”
Falola, though, did not pick up the sport until arriving at Coventry University in 2017.
“It felt natural, I fell in love with it straight away, the first time I set foot in it,” he adds. “I haven’t stopped loving it. I just loved the trash-talking, hitting people, smacking people.”
The 24-year-old also looked to senior football on the continent to gain more experience after graduating, but had a planned stint in Poland cut short after a month after the Covid-19 pandemic began and has instead been playing in the British league while working as an accountant.
“It was an experience to say the least,” he adds of his brief stay in the small Polish city of Opole. “It’s not glamorous American football, it’s not the States, but it’s a learning experience. You learn how to play the sport from people who have played in the States. It gave me the ability to focus on the sport away from everything else and make sure I was getting better.”
Both Johnson-Fisher and Falola had English football as an early sporting love, the latter a Manchester United supporter, the former a huge Arsenal fan, who will stroll into Spurs today with bragging rights after Saturday’s derby win at the Emirates.
“It’ll be nice running at a beautiful stadium but it’s still a bit like... this is the enemy!” he laughs.
Today, though, it is simply a stage that could prove a springboard.