NFL side Chicago Bears give budding Bradys a mini-masterclass in American Football in St Ives

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In the 1980s the Chicago Bears were a team that helped spearhead the popularity of American football in the UK.

When Channel 4 started broadcasting the NFL in 1982 for many people in Britain it was the first time they had been exposed to the sport outside of the movies.

Players like William ‘the Refrigerator’ Perry and his moustachioed coach Mike Ditka became household names.

Mike Ditka took the Bears to the Superbowl in 1985 Credit: PA

To this day the Bears are one of the most popular teams among UK-based fans.

Now the Franchise, one of the original founders of what was to become America’s favourite sport, has crossed the Atlantic to try and bring Gridiron to a new generation of fans.

For the first time since the team was formed 102 years ago, it has come to the UK to provide coaching clinics to children.

As well showing primary school children how to play the game, the clinics also preach healthy eating, hydration and active lifestyles.

During a two week tour, the Bears coaches, will be delivering sessions in big cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and St Ives in Cambridgeshire.

Around 240 children from 12 schools were taking part in the Mini-Monster session, one of them was Bury Primary School in nearby Huntingdon. Credit: Laura Falkes

The town was chosen thanks to the hard work of Doug Finlayson, school games manager, from the Huntingdonshire’s schools sports partnership. He explained how it all came about:

“It's a bit of fun, we've put on a lot of NFL events this year, so Huntingdonshire is a real hot bed.

A couple of years ago we had the national champions for flag football [a child friendly non-contact version of the sport]and we've thrived off that.

“We work really closely with NFL UK and they put us in touch with the Chicago Bears and it all went from there, we initially planned on doing one event, but demand was through the roof so we put on a whole day event and can't be more appreciative of their support.

"We're so lucky we've got St Ives hosting this amazing opportunity when the other venues are big cities so the kids are so lucky, I really hope they enjoy the day."

Head teacher Emma Heanes, herself a fan of the NFL and the Jacksonville Jaguars, said her children were relishing the opportunity.

“For me I think, it’s an amazing thing to come over from America and just to build a fan base over here, I talk to the children a lot about when I go to watch the NFL in London, they know that I’m a big fan and that’s spurred their enthusiasm.

“We encourage them to try lots of new sports, it’s just about finding the sport that’s right for them. Different children like different things.”

Johnny Knox says he’s trying to ‘give back’ to the sport which he still loves. Credit: Laura Folkes

Helping deliver the sessions was a former Wide Receiver for the Bears, Johnny Knox.

The Texan spent four years in the NFL before a serious injury forced him to call time on his playing career.

“I’m just trying to show Europe what American football is all about. You get to run around, you get to have fun, release some energy, showcase your skills and football has many different positions.

“You got the big guys, the small guys ,the skinny guys like me and I see a lot of talent out here and the kids are having fun with it.”

He told ITV News Anglia that the reaction to the clinics were bringing back memories of his childhood.

"Growing up in Texas, that's like the Mecca of football when it comes to the United States, it's like you have no choice but to play football growing up! It definitely brings back memories and I'm enjoying it."

Flag Football FAQ

What is Flag Football?

Flag football is one of the fastest growing school sports. It’s played in more than 300 schools with an estimated 20,000 children taking part.

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How does it work?

Teams are five-a-side. Games consist of two 15 minute halves – though the halves could be a little longer or shorter.The clock only stops for halftime, timeouts (each team has 3), or injury, making games quick and competitive. There is no contact allowed, including tackling.  Instead of physically tackling an opponent to the ground, players wear flags that hang along their sides by a belt. Defenders “tackle” the ball-carrier by removing one or both of their flags.

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Where can I find out more about Flag football?

Head to the Flag football website for more information.

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Another taken aback by the UK’s passion for the pigskin is Gustavo Silva, manager youth football and community programs for the Chicago Bears.

“Mini-Monsters is one of the most successful programs in the United States, and when we had the opportunity to activate in the UK it was a pretty quick decision.

“The first clinic we did we were commenting that if you don’t think about it you don’t know you’re in the UK because kids are kids and they’re all having a great time.

International growth is seen as hugely important for the NFL. The League began playing games in London 15 years ago.

They’ve continued to sell-out venues like Wembley, Twickenham and the Tottenham Hostspur stadium. This year the sport is heading to Munich in Germany too.

So will this be a one off for the Bears? Not if Coach Silva has his way:

“Based on the reaction and all the positivity and demand for it I would love to be back.”