EDINBURGH Napier Knights, the university’s American football team, aims to inspire the next generation to turn professional following the success of their star quarterback.
Cameron Dunn (20), who started the sport with the Knights youth teams at Sighthill, is embarking on a scholarship with St John Fisher University in upstate New York, which is officially due to start next month.
After arriving in the United States, he said, “The move has gone well so far. We’ve just settled into the pre-season camp schedule now. With training underway, each day is busy, but exciting.
“The Knights have really helped prepare me to compete at this level with the quarterback coaching I received last year.
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“Being able to compete against Americans who have played their whole lives is really special.”
The Napier Knights were founded in 2004. Initially, only students attending university could make the team.
However, in 2017, youth teams were created, with the youngest group being for people aged 11 and over.
Speaking to The National, Pete Laird, Head Coach and Club Chairman of the Youth, Junior and Cadet Team, said: “In terms of attendance, the sport has been on a bit of a roller coaster ride. What’s happening now is we’re seeing growth because it’s started to connect with kids and there’s an opportunity for young people to play the game.”
Laird became obsessed with sports as a youth in the mid-1980s when Channel 4 was showing NFL games.
He first volunteered as a coach, but later gained qualifications and spent a few years in Pennsylvania.
“I ended up realizing that I didn’t want to work there. I slept under my desk, went to bed at 2 a.m. and started at 6 a.m., ”he said.
“I love my sport but I needed a bit of balance.”
Laird also worked with the Scottish Claymores who competed in the American Football World League until they closed in 2004.
He knows it’s crucial that anyone hoping to follow in Dunn’s footsteps start playing at an early age.
The coach said: “When I started here we had kids who had never played before at 18 and we had to teach them the game in five weeks.
“Now we have the cadet team which is for 11-13 year olds. It’s non-contact but we teach them all the basics and terminology.
The club also runs an under-16 side and then an under-19 side for anyone in between the two age brackets.
Although not everyone is successful in the professional game, Laird is well aware of the power of sport.
He said he didn’t want the campus to be just in Sighthill, they want to “be part of the community”.
Laird added: “We are in an area of great deprivation in Scotland so we want to encourage children in our part of town and give them a pathway into sport to give them an alternative.
“I’m a local kid and I want them to have that opportunity.”
Although American football is popular at universities across the UK, it remains somewhat of a ‘cult’ sport, says Laird.
He added: “It is important that children passing by do not see us as aliens playing a strange sport.
“I think people put together a block that it’s complicated. People should think of it as a game that is no different from rugby in many ways.
“The main difference is that the forward pass makes it an exciting sport to watch. I’ve actually converted people from rugby but I haven’t lost anyone in return.
As a coach, Laird couldn’t be more proud that his star player Dunn has made it big in the United States, although he remains modest about his own involvement.
“It’s one of those things where our team got weakened because he left but I’m so proud of him,” he laughs.
Laird continued: “Ultimately my job as a coach is to get them to this point. I shouldn’t be the best coach they’ve had, I should be one of many in their lives.
“For someone like Cammy, I’d like to say it was all up to me, but he’s a hard working kid, he went to every skill session he could.
“For a Scottish kid from West Lothian to end up playing American football at this level is just amazing.
“I want to coach people, not players. As a team, we are relatively small compared to Birmingham or Nottingham, for example, which offer scholarships for children from the United States.
“We want to improve good local Scottish talent and get them on the path to becoming the best player they can be.”