American football is a violent activity. There can even be times in its NFL homeland that it can appear legitimised gang warfare. Yet meet the London Warriors and you will believe the exact opposite.
Among the Warriors are a number of young men who have been taken out of London gang culture and shown a different way of channelling their energies. And the team's success can be judged by the fact that, this evening, they are competing for Britbowl XXV – the UK's equivalent of the Super Bowl – at the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. The Warriors were formed six years ago, initially to give a game to 16- to 19-year-olds when a number of other London clubs temporarily folded. "Some of us in the NFL London office got them to send us the kids they had, recruited some others while the teams got themselves sorted out and the idea was that eventually we'd hand them back," Tony Allen, the head coach says. "We won a national championship, built relationships, some of the teams didn't get back together, so guess what – we were now a team. The ones who graduated from the 16 to 19 age group pestered us to form a senior team."
Players are drawn from all backgrounds, and there was never a plan to become a rehabilitation centre for gang members. "We just did what we did, partly for the love of the sport, partly to get kids off the street and it evolved," Allen says. "In the early days we had two or three kids who were electronically tagged and we had to deal with the authorities because they weren't allowed out after 7.30 so they couldn't train and we had to get the appropriate permission. That hit home. We were proud that we were able to influence two of those kids. One didn't work out."
Allen received an NFL UK Lifetime Contribution Award after playing for the London Ravens, coaching at British, national and European level, and heading the NFL International programme aimed at bringing players from outside the US to American high schools, colleges and the NFL. He now leads a team of over 20 volunteers coaching around 130 young Warriors at four different age groups: 14 to 16 is seen as the age where the club can be most influential.
"We've had kids who have gone on to the US and college football, GB programmes. One of our coaches [Marvin Allen] played NFL Europe, went on to the NFL, got a Super Bowl ring with the Pittsburgh Steelers, another [Aden Durde] was a professional with Carolina and Kansas City."
"When we break from the huddle, the chant is 'Family'. We give them something else to be a part of. But like any good family we push them. We don't take any messing about."
Gangs also claim to offer an alternative family, but the Warriors were more of an attraction to safety and linebacker Ariel Mofondo, 24, now a defensive captain and who, Allen says, would be playing professionally if NFL Europe were still in existence. "Coming from Hackney, it's not the greatest place, it's rough," Mofondo says. "If you're easily influenced, especially at a young age, you want to have what everybody else has, games consoles, bikes, everything.
"I was on the fringes of a gang, knowing people in gangs who were trying to entice me to come in. But because of the Warriors, I turned them down, football stopped me."
It will be worth it when he lines up today against city rivals London Blitz alongside team-mates who include Vernon Kay, the TV and radio presenter, and outside linebacker Moses Sangobiyi, who says: "It's won already."
Sangobiyi adds: "I grew up in Tower Hamlets and I've seen friends, real close friends, and family, go down different routes. But on the streets the only two routes are ending up dead or in jail. Here you know you can achieve."