Why Trevor Lawrence and the NFL’s brightest young stars headlined a new chapter in London

LONDON — Jamie Phillips wanted to call the plan off. At 3.45 a.m. on Friday, with the Jacksonville Jaguars due to touch down in London just a few hours later, Phillips sent his friend Lee White a message saying it was foolish for them to make the three-hour trip to London in the hope of seeing the phenom quarterback of their favourite team arrive in England’s capital for the first time.

The pair had spoken about the trip for two years, and they had become used to waiting. It had been well over a year since the Jaguars last won a game, and it had been almost two since they were able to see the team play in London as the coronavirus pandemic canceled last year’s series. They even had to wait months to see their team’s saviour, Trevor Lawrence, live in action. But finally he was here: Lawrence was making his international debut, and against fellow young star Tua Tagovailoa, no less. In an International Series that lacked competitive teams, it boasted the attraction of the league’s stars of the future.

Four top-five draft picks over the past two years starred in London this past weekend. As the NFL begins a new chapter overseas — with mandatory international games and a possible game in Germany next year — the league rolled out some of the players entrusted to deliver on the promise. These past two weeks were not so much a return but a new beginning. With London games typically hyping up existing stars, rarely before had it instead offered the future. These games were headlined by this year’s first two overall picks, quarterbacks Lawrence and Zach Wilson, as well as second-year Tagovailoa and electric rookie pass catchers Kyle Pitts and Jaylen Waddle.

However, it was Lawrence that Phillips and White had set their sights on and decided they wouldn’t miss the chance to welcome his long-awaited arrival.

They had met online two years ago in a Jaguars memorabilia group, both creating their own Jaguars podcasts aimed at other U.K. fans during lockdown. Now they intended to meet in-person for the first time at London Heathrow. Phillips’ problem with the plan was that it all seemed a little ridiculous. They had guessed using a flight scanner app that the only direct flight from Jacksonville to Heathrow on Friday morning had to be the Jaguars — the team refused to tell them when they would arrive for fear of a welcoming crowd gathering amid the pandemic. But they went ahead with the plan — Phillips, a pet store manager, drove from Northampton; White, a former IT support technician, drove from Cardiff, Wales.

Just after 6.30 a.m., they made it to the arrivals gate, where a single NFL representative and a couple of security guards were waiting, rather than the usual television cameras, gaggle of fans and professional autograph hunters. The pair waited and then, after much of the rest of the team had filed through, Lawrence appeared in a pale pink hoodie. The quarterback, who was reportedly leaving the United States for just the second time in his life, came over to meet them, surprised any British fans would go to such lengths to meet him and his team.

Lawrence said he was tired from the flight, but he was excited to make his name in London. Executives in the league’s international department would have been hoping that he did just that.

The NFL seems primed to make a leap internationally, and the future stars that put on a show over the past two weeks are crucial to its masterplan. The NFL’s London office had little say in which teams played in the U.K. — a large part of the process is down to scheduling — but it was not lost on its new head of Europe, Brett Gosper, that this series would be creating something new. “We were hoping for the draws that we got, the matches that we got, the players that we got,” Gosper told ESPN ahead of the Series.

The plan worked, too.

It was almost exclusively European fans these past two weekends — fewer Americans than usual made the trip over — who saw the defining moments of the young stars’ careers. In the opening game on Oct. 10, as the Atlanta Falcons buried the New York Jets in a 27-20 victory, it was Pitts, the highest-drafted tight end in league history, who stole the show in a breakout game in which he caught the first touchdown of his professional career, notching 119 receiving yards on nine receptions, the pick of which was a stunning one-handed catch in the second quarter. On the opposite side, Jets QB Wilson did his best to almost pull his team level late on, although it was not to be. But it still set the stage for an even bigger matchup: Lawrence and Tagovailoa going head-to-head for the first time since the College Football Playoff National Championship in January 2019.

White was seated in the middle tier above the end zone. Phillips was stationed in the press box — the podcast he started in lockdown bagging him one of the best seats in the house.

Tagovailoa dealt the first blow as Waddle had his own breakout game, scoring a touchdown on the opening drive. Lawrence put on a show, too, delivering accurate throws downfield, only to watch as the team dropped some critical passes. But somehow, with a revival that seemed improbable after a despairing start, the Jaguars played their way back into the contest. Lawrence was at the heart of all of it, first firing to Marvin Jones for a 28-yard catch to the corner of the end zone before the half, and then setting up his side’s second touchdown drive with a 29-yard bullet to wideout Jamal Agnew in the third quarter.

Lawrence didn’t get the chance to end the Jaguars’ 20-game losing streak himself — that was done for him by former software engineer Matthew Wright, a kicker who made his team debut against the Bengals in Week 3 and converted the 53-yard winning field goal to down the Dolphins 23-20 on Sunday.

As droves of fans piled out, White stayed behind in his seat, soaking in the atmosphere of a rare Jaguars victory, while Phillips made his way to the interview room for a front-row seat at the postgame news conference. Jaguars coach Urban Meyer was up first, then Lawrence took the stage. When asked afterward whether he would have preferred to get his first win at TIAA Bank Field in front of his American home fans, Lawrence said he wasn’t too bothered where it took place, although you can bet that Gosper watched on from the stands with a smile as he kick-started his NFL career at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

According to a statistic posted on NFL UK’s Twitter account earlier this month, Lawrence’s jersey is the second-highest selling in the UK this season. Only Zach Wilson — also a London debutant with the Jets a week earlier — has sold more, while a third rookie QB, Mac Jones of the New England Patriots is at No.4, sandwiched between Tom Brady and Lamar Jackson.

And while the stars of the future become central to everyone’s thoughts, the prospect of a team in London on a permanent basis quietly appears to be fading from the conversation. The Jaguars were meant to play twice in London last season after owner Shad Kahn signed a one-time agreement to do so in February 2020, a move that angered the team’s local fan base. This year they played just once in the U.K., and the team has yet to renew their agreement to continue to stage a home game in London each season as they have done since 2013. Meanwhile, the league is not-so-quietly exploring games in Germany, perhaps as early as next season.

Phillips had been there to welcome Lawrence when he arrived in London, and he was the closest-seated person when the quarterback bid farewell. Lawrence stepped away from the podium, his face beaming after a win he described as “special,” and he gleefully strolled toward the door before turning back.

One of the future league’s stars had a message to deliver. “See you next year,” he said.

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