EDINBURGH Napier Knights, the university’s American football team, is aiming to inspire the next generation to go professional following the success of their star quarterback.

Cameron Dunn (20), who took up the sport with the Knights youth teams in Sighthill, is embarking on a scholarship with St John Fisher University in New York state, which is due to formally start next month. 

After arriving in the US, he said: “The move over has gone well so far. We are just settling into pre-season camp schedule now. With practices underway, every day is busy, but exciting. 

“The Knights have really helped me prepare 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 all their life is really special.”

The Napier Knights were founded in 2004. Initially, it was only students attending the university who could be part of the team. 

However, in 2017, youth teams were set up, with the youngest group aimed at those aged 11 and up. 

Speaking to The National, head coach and club chairman for the youth, junior and cadets team Pete Laird said: “In terms of participation, the sport has gone through a bit of a rollercoaster. What’s happening now is we’re seeing growth because it’s started to connect with kids and there’s an opportunity for youth to play the game.”

Laird became obsessed with the sport as a youngster in the mid-1980s when Channel 4 used to broadcast NFL games. 

He initially volunteered as a coach but then went onto get some qualifications and spent a couple of years in Pennsylvania.

“I eventually realised I didn’t want to work over there. I was sleeping under my desk, going to bed at 2am and starting at 6 in the morning,” he said. 

“I love my sport but I needed a bit of balance.”

Laird also did some work with the Scottish Claymores who competed in the World League of American Football up until their closure in 2004.

He knows that it’s crucial anybody hoping to follow in Dunn’s footsteps start playing the game from a young age. 

The coach said: “When I first started here, we were getting kids who hadn’t played before at 18 years old and we were having to teach them the game in five weeks. 

“Now we have the cadets squad which is for ages 11-13. It’s non-contact but we teach them all the basics and the terminology.”

The club also runs a squad for u-16s and then an u-19s for everybody who falls in-between the two age brackets.

The National: The Napier Knights run youth teams as well as one for students - Image Credit: George EdwardsThe Napier Knights run youth teams as well as one for students - Image Credit: George Edwards

Although not everyone may make it in the professional game, Laird is well aware of the power of sport.

He said that he doesn't want the campus to just be located in Sighthill, they want to “be part of the community”.

Laird added: “We are in an area of high deprivation within Scotland and so we want to encourage kids from our part of the city and give them a pathway into sport to offer them an alternative.

“I’m a local kid and I want them to have that opportunity.”

Although American football is popular across Universities in the UK, it remains somewhat of a “cult” sport, says Laird. 

He added: “It’s important the kids walking past don’t think of us as aliens playing some strange sport. 

“I think people put up a block that it’s complicated. People should think of it in terms of it being a game no different to rugby in many aspects. 

“The key difference is the forward pass makes it a thrilling sport to watch. I’ve actually converted people from rugby but haven’t lost anyone back.”

As a coach, Laird couldn’t be prouder of his star player Dunn making a go of things in the United States although he remains modest about his own involvement. 

“It’s one of those things where we have had our team weakened because he's left but I’m so proud of him,” he says laughing. 

Laird continued: “Ultimately, my job as a coach is to get them to that stage. I shouldn’t be the best coach they’ve had, I should be one of many in their lives. 

“For somebody like Cammy, I’d love to say it was all down to me but he’s a hard-working kid, he went to every skill session he could. 

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“For a Scottish kid from West Lothian to end up playing American football at that level is just amazing.

“I’m about coaching people, not players. As a team, we’re relatively small compared to say Birmingham or Nottingham, who offer scholarships to kids from the US.

“We want to improve good, local, Scottish talent and get them on the path to becoming the best player they possibly can.”