The NFL’s first official academy, based at England’s Loughborough University, is becoming a powerhouse that is sending more and more athletes to Division I colleges in the United States. With hopes that 2023 will break records and send up to half a dozen students from the U.K. to the U.S. via this direct pathway to the NFL, M&F caught up with Chris Baird, the strength and conditioning coach, and head of performance services at the NFL Academy, to find out why talent shines best when the fundamentals are covered.
With a background in swimming, soccer, and rugby, Baird has worked with a number of elite athletes, but in his current role as head of performance services for the NFL Academy, he has seen the program grow bigger, and quicker than anyone could have hoped for. On a freezing Wednesday night, more than 50 young hopefuls who are enrolled in the NFL Academy don their kit and give it their all to hone their skills.
“A lot of these kids have never played football before,” explains Baird. “So, we’ve got to catch up to the American competition.” The Academy itself was designed to find great athletes from outside of the United States, while offering young people another option for gaining an education. Alongside dreams of making it as a football player are regular classes and the chance to master qualifications that will make them employable in the outside world. As it turns out, the athletes entering the NFL Academy are really holding their own on the football field. “We are fortunate that we can go look across (continents like) Europe, Africa, and we can find some of the one percent (in terms of) stature, attributes, whatever… but they’ve got to work hard. Smart but hard,” says Baird.
Last year, M&F talked to a number of NFL Academy success stories, including Efe Obada, the Nigerian-British defensive end for the Washington Commanders, as well as some young recruits that were diligently working their way through the system, pursuing Division I college scholarships in the U.S. The athletic criteria of Division I is different in each school but will often include a timed 100-yard-dash, vertical jump, and other performance metrics. In terms of their educational requirements, individuals must have graduated from high school and receive a minimum GPA of 2.3. “These guys, they are up at 6.30 a.m.,” explains Baird. “They are in the gym, and then into recovery, breakfast, schooling, because obviously they are a student athlete as well. School’s probably the most important thing before they do anything else, because without the GPA they can’t get into colleges.”
NFL Academy Training Division I is About Taking Care of the Athlete’s Fundamentals
At around 1 p.m., Baird says that players will study football by watching film. “And then, they are out here, making the magic happen,” explains the S&C Coach. When the students exit training, they will head back into recovery, watch more film, get to bed, and repeat. The recovery aspect is essential, and Baird shares that ice baths and Game Ready therapy systems are utilized here. “We try and keep the guys sharp, just on sleep, nutrition, and those big fundamentals,” he explains.
“I’ve been here for a year and a half, and even in that year and a half it’s been an absolute whirlwind in terms of development,” says Baird, noting that training sessions have increased from 3 to 5 times per week. Directors and senior staff in the NFL Academy include Lamonte Winston, who serves as head, and Steve Hagen who is the head coach. “Those guys are really driving this program,” says Baird.
— NFL Academy (@NFLAcademy) November 10, 2023
The results are speaking for themselves. “In terms of exciting prospects, there’s obviously people like Daniel Akinkunmi heading out to the states soon.” Akinkunmi joins a growing list of NFL Academy athletes like Peter Clarke, who saw limited playing time with Temple University this past season. Excitingly, Clarke will be eligible for the NFL draft once he’s completed 3 seasons. The official number of players expected to join US colleges on scholarships in 2023 will be released later in December. In terms of the growth of the NFL Academy, Baird is just as eager to improve his game as his young hopefuls are. He recently traveled to Seattle in order to learn from the Seahawks’ own S&C team. “It’s exciting,” he says of the future of the academy for producing Division I athletes. “I think we’re just at sort of at the tip of the ice berg of it all.”
For more information on the NFL Academy and the enrollment process click here