Jerry Rice aims to inspire a new generation in NFL's London academy

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On a cold, dank Tuesday morning in Southgate, North London, Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver to play the game, seems a long way from home.

Rice, a player synonymous with the California sunshine and all-American glamour of the legendary San Francisco 49er teams of the 1980's and 1990's, is the guest of honour at the NFL Academy, on hand to officially launch a new gym facility for the student athletes enrolled at the college, who combine continued education with intensive training in American football.

But as he begins to talk to the assembled media, and the 80 or so young players watching on, I realise that quite the opposite is true. Jerry Rice is in very familiar territory.

"I can tell you guys have one heartbeat, and that's going to carry you a long, long way," he tells them. "Just love what you do. Pour your heart into it and stay around positive people."

In a week of negative coverage for the NFL, with the unsavoury violence behind Myles Garrett's indefinite suspension, and the curious, and ultimately disappointing saga of Colin Kaepernick's workout dominating media focus, the launch of the Academy gym won't generate nearly the same level of attention as either of those stories.

The juxtaposition of the 80 or so young athletes at the very start of their journey listening attentively to the wisdom of the three-time Super Bowl winning living legend just a few feet away from them is apparent.

As Rice talked to them about his experience and approach -- "I might not have been the greatest athlete, I may not have had the greatest skills but one thing I was going to do was outwork you" -- the generational gap between them became instantly irrelevant. Irrespective of his extraordinary personal success, throughout the day Rice was at one with the students, all of them players together.

And rather than emphasise the possible riches, fame, stardom, even personal accolades that may be coming their way, Rice concentrated on reinforcing the key values important to him, important to his mentor Bill Walsh. Teamwork. Hard work. Commitment. "When the team left to go to the locker room, I'd still be out there running my routes, being precise on using my hands. I never wanted the ball to touch my body," Rice says.

Right now, it's a long shot for any of the 100 or so young athletes at the Academy to make it to the NFL. But to Rice, that's not the point.

"A lot of people aren't going to get the opportunity to put on that Hall of Fame jacket or play on that big stage. The most important thing is to get that education first and everything that follows after that is the icing on the cake," Rice says.

"Life lessons, education and character" are the three things he cites as the most important part of the journey that students at the Academy will undertake.

"It's all about putting these kids in a better position," he adds.

It's an objective that all of those connected with the Academy have maintained as its priority since it opened this autumn. We're told that rather than program existing to discover more players like Panthers defensive end Efe Obada or Browns punter Jamie Gillan -- two of the Brits starring in the NFL this season -- the principal focus of the program is to provide a solid foundation and positive approach to life for the students through the educational focus and lessons on the football field.

And if some gems are unearthed along the way that have a shot at playing the big leagues, well, I refer you back to Rice's icing and cake reference.

Fostering international talent is fundamental to the growth of the game outside of the States and the potential to mould players from a younger age, when the nuances and complexities of the game can be better learnt, and committed to muscle memory sooner, is bound to have a positive impact. So too will the increase in player sample size.

It's entirely logical to assume that the existing Academy will be the first of many, from the North of England to Germany, maybe even further afield. The sooner young athletes choose American football over other sports, and receive the requisite coaching at an earlier age, the more realistic their chances of furthering their career.

The precedent for NFL teams to give a chance to international players has been set, thanks to the likes of Obada and Gillan flourishing in the league, but also transitional sportsmen like rugby stars Christian Wade and Christian Scotland-Williamson. The latter two are both on practice squads, demonstrating to NFL front offices that it's possible to consider players outside of the orthodox pathway to the league.

In the case of Wade and other players who have changed lanes from their existing sport, the challenges of crash courses and hyper fast learning still stack the odds against them making it. The NFL Academy moves the process further forwards by enabling talent born outside the U.S. to be considered, but with a career path that's less acute, namely in the shape of US college places.

The Academy essentially replicates an American high school, offering the most talented sporting students a path to higher education in the States. From this foundation, players will find themselves on a relatively even footing with their American counterparts.

The very best may get the opportunity to make it in the pros, and at the very least all will get an excellent education. And as the Academy becomes more established, and visible in terms of offering this route, the battle for places will intensify, the grassroots youth set ups across the UK will become more competitive, and the enhancement of talent will be self-perpetuating.

NFL UK Head of Football Development at NFL UK Will Brice sees the potential. "We're going to continue to work with schools, this should be something they [the kids] want to be a part of, to get these opportunities. The possibilities are endless."