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A London rugby star who dreams of playing American football in the NFL

A slew of international athletes will put their NFL dreams on the line this afternoon as the league hosts its annual International Combine at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Up to 44 invited players will participate in a series of physical challenges similar to those used to evaluate America’s top college talent ahead of the NFL Draft at the Combine. Each is vying for a spot on the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, a program launched in 2017 to provide athletes from outside the United States with a path to a professional career in American football. Several Londoners are among those hoping to follow in the footsteps of Washington Commanders star Efe Obada, who came through the IPPP before launching a successful NFL career. Tyrese Johnson-Fisher, a running back, is one of them. Johnson-Fisher was a national champion age-group sprinter who turned down a place in Crystal Palace’s academy 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 and easily outstripping his peers went viral, attracting the attention of American football scouts from across the Atlantic. “The video makes me appear twice my size!” Standard Sport spoke with Johnson-Fisher, who is now 23. “I’m a small guy, 5’10”. For years, I’ve been the same height! “I just thought of rugby as track – get the ball and run.” Johnson-Fisher was invited to the United States at the age of 17 to play in the prestigious Under Armour All-American Game, an all-star match for the country’s top high school seniors. Current NFL stars Justin Fields, Kyle Pitts, and Ja’marr Chase were among his classmates, but Johnson-Fisher had never played a game of American football in his life. “I worked hard to prepare my body and learned a lot from some of the London Warriors coaches,” he says. “I’d never be as good as the guys there, but the goal was to get to a point where I could compete because they’re not physically better than me.” Johnson-Fisher went on to play college football in the United States after the game, then returned to England and played rugby in Bristol before settling on American football and joining the Istanbul Rams. Tyrese Johnson-Fisher was a professional rugby player for the Bristol Bears / Getty Images “I knew as soon as I left rugby that was the last time,” he says. “I believe it was one of the best things that could have happened to me because it was then that I realized how much I loved American football.” I’d always played the sport because people said I was good at it, but now I wanted to do it because I enjoyed it.” Linebacker Emmanuel Falola, who was born in Hackney, is another of the young Londoners hoping to impress NFL scouts this afternoon. Like Johnson-Fisher, he excelled in a variety of sports as a child, but he developed a strong interest in American football long before he had the opportunity to play it himself. “I remember watching the 2013 Super Bowl, Ravens vs. 49ers, and I was hooked from then on,” he says. “It’s the reason I play linebacker now because each team’s two star defenders were Ray Lewis and Pat Willis.” They’re two of our generation’s best linebackers, and that’s what drew me to the sport.” Falola, on the other hand, did not begin playing until he arrived at Coventry University in 2017. “It felt natural, and I fell in love with it the first time I set foot in it,” he continues. “I’m still in love with it.” I just loved the trash-talking, hitting, and smacking.” After graduating, the 24-year-old looked to senior football on the continent for more experience, but his planned stint in Poland was cut short a month after the Covid-19 pandemic began, and he has instead been playing in the British league while working as an accountant. “To say the least, it was an experience,” he says of his brief stay in the small Polish city of Opole. “It’s not glamorous American football, and it’s not the United States, but it’s an educational experience.” You learn the sport from people who have played in the United States. It allowed me to focus on the sport and forget about everything else in order to improve.” Both Johnson-Fisher and Falola grew up loving English football, the latter a Manchester United fan and the former a huge Arsenal fan who will walk into Spurs today with bragging rights after Saturday’s derby win at the Emirates. “It’ll be nice to run in such a beautiful stadium, but… this is the enemy!” he laughs. Today, however, it is merely a stage that could serve as a springboard.