From Sussex to Oklahoma – Tom Wort is on the verge of NFL stardom

As a teenager growing up under the Gatwick flightpath in Crawley, Tom Wort would stay up late watching the Oakland Raiders and harbour unlikely dreams about playing in the NFL.

As one of the leading linebackers in US college football, turning out regularly in front of 85,000 people for the Oklahoma Sooners, it does not seem nearly so far away. His coach and team-mates say they would be surprised if the 20-year-old did not make it in the pro league.

The scale of college sport in the US, and the resources and stakes involved, is rarely glimpsed this side of the Atlantic and has to be seen to be believed.

"The passion for American football here is the same as for the Premiership back home. Fans are diehard about this and we have 85,000 people show up for every game," says Wort. When his extended family come to visit, he says, their "jaws drop" at the intensity and fervour of the fanbase.

"When you run out for the first time and hear how loud it is, it's special," he adds. "When you're in it it's something you're never going to forget. Taking it all in can be breathtaking at times."

Everywhere he goes on campus and around the city, Wort is recognised – the union flag and St George's flag tattoos on his bulging biceps make him fairly distinctive. But when he returns to west Sussex to visit family after the concluding game of the season, the Insight Bowl against the Iowa Hawkeyes on 30 December, he will walk down the street unrecognised. Wort has his heart set on being one of just a handful of British-born players to make it in the NFL and, beyond that, selling the sport back to his homeland.

Inspired by his father, who played for the domestic amateur sides the London Olympians and the Crawley Raiders, Wort grew up hurling an American football around the school playground but could not find an organised game. Instead, he played football (or soccer as he now inevitably calls it) and rugby.

When Wort was 14 his father moved the family to America for work reasons – first to Rhode Island and then to Texas where Wort went to high school – and it became clear he had the explosive speed and formidable strength required to excel in the defensive line. By the time he was in his senior year at high school it "blew up extremely fast" and most of the major colleges were jockeying to offer him a scholarship.

"In England, playing soccer I was a defender and I loved running into people and being physical. As soon as I moved out here and started playing I just knew this was my sport. I liked playing rugby back home but I loved having the pads on and just being able to go for it," says Wort, fearsomely built but softly spoken in a strange accent that starts out as broad Texan but acquires more of a mid-Atlantic British twang the longer we talk.

Although most of his team-mates had been playing since they were toddlers, he had no problem catching up: "I just picked it up so fast. I had a passion for the game. Ever since I was young, I dreamed of playing but never thought I'd have the chance. As soon as my dad mentioned moving to America, it was the first thing that came into my mind."

Despite homesickness – and pining for his friends, fish and chips and Arsenal results – Wort said his natural sporting prowess inevitably made it easier to assimilate. "You're in a new school in a new country. It's different, you're away from all your friends and everything's new. For me, the main way of making friends was playing football and getting that teamwork going. That's how I assimilated into an American way of life."

A handful of other Brits have made a modest success of this most American of sports but they have tended to have only spent a short amount of time in the UK or have had specialist kicking roles – with the obvious transferability of skills from rugby and football.

Wort is determined that if he succeeds he will make a difference to the profile of the sport in the UK. A fad in the 1980s, the popularity of the sport declined when Wort was growing up in Crawley but over the past decade has begun to grow sustainably, aided by the annual NFL game that has become a fixture at Wembley.

"In the 80s and 90s when my dad was playing it seemed like it was catching on. But when I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s, I just couldn't find it. I wanted to play but I just couldn't find the groups or the teams," says the 20-year-old.

"I like the fact football is picking up in England and it's something I'd like to be a part of. I wish I could give the opportunity to kids in England. That would be one of my dreams, to bring football back to England. It's something I would like to do."

Oklahoma University is traditionally one of the most "storied' college sides and their set up, from the cavernous changing facilities and trophy room to their 85,000 capacity stadium, are easily the equal of many European professional soccer clubs. But the college has struggled to live up to expectations in recent years and the 2010-11 season ended on a sour note when bitter local rivals, Oklahoma State, comprehensively defeated the Sooners in the traditional end of season "Bedlam" derby.

For once in American sport, the hyperbolic tag is more than apt. Oklahoma State, traditionally seen as the upstarts from upstate, have come on in bounds since the billionaire corporate raider and former student T Boone Pickens II began pouring $400m (£250m) into facilities and coaching at the university. Having not beaten their rivals for nine seasons in the fixture, Oklahoma State this year trounced them 44-10 to seal the championship – prompting a rowdy pitch invasion that saw 13 people hospitalised.

It was, says Wort, a crushing way to end a bruising season. While Wort had personally impressed, elevated into a leadership role after an injury to one of his more influential defensive team-mates, the team endured a rollercoaster season.

With wildly fluctuating highs and lows in performance terms, it was also marked by personal tragedy. Austin Box, one of Wort's fellow linebackers, died in May of an overdose of painkillers – plagued by injuries, he had been secretly taking a cocktail of five different pain management and anti-anxiety drugs.

"With his passing, we were down and we were hurt. But we had to come together and lean on each other," says Wort, who was particularly close to Box on account of hours spent together in drills on the training field and in the video analysis room. "We got through it and we try to instil his character and his work ethic in everything we do. He's not been forgotten, we just try and honour him in the best way possible."

Wort was chosen to honour his friend in the first game after his death by wearing his jersey to lead the team out. "Being able to wear his jersey and being picked to be the first one to do it was a great honour. Most importantly, we were friends. Seeing how the crowd lit up, it was a special moment," he said.

Having torn his anterior cruciate ligament before playing a game in his freshman year, Wort sat out his first season at Oklahoma. But in the two since, he has been widely praised for his rapid progress. He will spend one, or more likely two, more seasons in the college game before entering the NFL draft that will decide where he will begin his professional career. "In a way, it's a roll of the dice – you don't know where you're going to be drafted," he says.

Wort will take inspiration from an unlikely source – a hokey professional wrestler with a nice line in motivational pep talks known as the Ultimate Warrior, who one of his defensive coaches threw into conversation during a pre-season training camp and has since become something of a totem. "He's a wrestler, he's crazy, intense. As a linebacker you need that mentality. I ended up getting in touch with him and talking about it, and it's something we brought to the linebackers. It's good fun."

Wort has to balance what is virtually a professional sportsman's schedule with his study. Observing the effect of serious injuries to highly regarded team‑mates at close quarters has left him with a keen appreciation of the fine margins at play.

"You can't play scared, you can't play with fear. It's a known risk playing the game. If you're scared, you're not going to be all out," he says. "I know it could all end in the blink of an eye, but that's got to be a risk you're willing to take. This game won't last very long and there's no guarantees."

But for all that he speaks lucidly and professionally about his pathway to the big time, there is still something of the 12-year-old in Crawley about the enthusiasm with which he considers his ultimate dream – to win the Super Bowl with the Raiders. And despite the opportunity that unexpectedly came his way at 14, he has vowed to retain the unique perspective his British roots and unusual entry route have afforded him. "I've always viewed playing football as a privilege because I never thought I'd have the chance. I never take anything for granted, I go full speed, every time, every play."

Powered by article was written by Owen Gibson, for The Guardian on Tuesday 20th December 2011 19.29 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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