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American Football: Warriors' Way: From gangs to top of British Gridiron

London club which boasts a Super Bowl winner amongst its coaches has used game to turn young lives around. Nick Szczepanik reports

Nick Szczepanik
Saturday 24 September 2011 00:00 BST

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 16-19 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.

"There's a small group who play for the senior team who were part of a gang. We pulled them away from that but there was still a little gang mentality, they're still not necessarily angels off the field but we're conscious of it and we're working to influence change in their lives. Even one or two of our coaches when they were younger were not sure where they were going, like a lot of these kids, so they recognise that, and how we can help other than on the field."

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. They've excelled at a professional level and are our role models."

NFL players have not always set shining examples. Michael Vick was jailed for running a dog-fighting ring, Plaxico Burress for shooting himself with an unlicensed firearm – the list of NFL misdemeanours is a long one.

Allen's players, though, are not NFL bad-boy wannabes, and not only because of the Warriors' positive influence on character. "They are not so aware of the personalities, some of them because it's on Sky and they don't have cable at home. When we watched some film in class, one of them said, 'I've never watched the game before'. Getting these kids to admit they don't know something is difficult. And a classroom is an alien environment to some of them."

How does he know, though, that players are not sliding back into the wrong sort of company during the week – unless he has a Sir Alex Ferguson-level network of informers? "We check their Facebook pages," he says. "We try to help, to counsel, but if they're not changing their ways, we'll let them go.

"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 coach them hard. 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. I could have gone downhill, been a troublemaker, but this club has helped me become the person I am, a people person, someone who can communicate and work in a team.

"It makes you more of a man, shows you more, teaches you things about yourself as well. You've got to do everything right in the week, run, lift, eat right and still do your normal job [he works for a well-known mobile phone company]. It's a sacrifice."

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, who played the game as a youngster and asked to try out after working with Allen and his coaches on a programme. Both will enjoy the cheerful confidence of outside linebacker Moses Sangobiyi, who says: "It's won already."

Sangobiyi originally tried out as a wide receiver. "I was watching TV and I thought: 'I could do that, catch a few balls, do a few celebrations'. I came down and I was trying to catch balls but they were bouncing off my hands, off my chest. The coach said: 'No way you're a receiver'. Then I tried tackling someone. Football was something different and luckily for me it has taken over my life. I always say it is like human chess. It's all about strategy, even though it does look brutal and it is physical."

But not as brutal as life on the streets. "I grew up in Tower Hamlets and I've seen friends, real close friends, and family, go down different routes. A problem is that a lot of youth don't have anything to occupy their time. After school there's nothing, they turn to their friends and get caught up in whatever. As a young man you want to know who your friends are. But on the streets the only two routes are ending up dead or in jail. Here you know you can achieve. The sky is the limit."

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