NFL’s first senior British coach: Louis Rees-Zammit has what it takes to make switch from rugby work

Louis Rees-Zammit during USF pro day for NFL hopefuls - NFL's first senior British coach: Louis Rees-Zammit has what it takes
Louis Rees-Zammit has joined back-to-back Super Bowl champions the Kansas City Chiefs - Alamy Live News

It took 17 years of London NFL games and countless heroic failures from wannabe players but, at last, the British are coming to American football.

There have been isolated success stories before. Osi Umenyiora, born in London, won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and Jay Ajayi had a strong if typically brief career as a running back for the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles.

Far more common are arcs like Alex Gray’s, a convert from rugby union who spent two years on the practice squad of the Atlanta Falcons and is now better known as Apollo in Gladiators.

Hopes are higher for this summer’s sport-switcher Louis Rees-Zammit, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs last week. There has been less noise around an arguably more significant British appointment this off-season, coach Aden Durde joining the Seattle Seahawks.

While managers from overseas have become the default in the Premier League there has been lingering hostility towards Americans in similar roles. Think Jesse Marsch at Leeds and thousands of undercooked Ted Lasso gags, or the fury when Bob Bradley called penalties “PKs” during his brief spell at Swansea.

You might expect a bit of that feeling going the other way, leftover Boston Tea Party sentiment about ‘Limeys’ telling Americans how to play their own game. “I haven’t encountered it but you’re talking about guys that are in charge of the team and up until now I’ve been a position coach,” says Durde.

He is beyond that now. Durde started his coaching career in the States as a quality control coach with the Falcons. Two years in that role gave him a thorough grounding in every aspect of working for an NFL team. “It’s like being an intern. You have a set of jobs, data input, making sure the information given is quality assured, you build the playbooks, draw all the pictures. You learn every position.”

From there, jobs coaching linebackers for the Falcons, the position he played during a five-year career largely spent in NFL Europe, before joining the Dallas Cowboys as defensive line coach in 2021. Now he is the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks, a title which puts him one step below head coach. He is the first Brit to hold such a senior position in the NFL. Does he fear judgement from American players now?

“No, you just have to do it,” he says. “That’s just the nature of this game. It’s not just for people that are American. But it’s hard to say because there’s no one else that isn’t American.”

Perhaps not in the coaching ranks, but Rees-Zammit impressed sufficiently during his workouts in front of scouts to earn a three-year deal with the reigning champions Chiefs. “It’s cool,” says Durde, “I watched his workout and was really impressed with that. I’ve heard some great things about him, that he’s a great kid so I am excited to see where he goes.”

Such workouts can be misleading but Durde says his performances in front of the scouts held more weight than a player coming through the conventional college pathway. “They [public workouts] always have relevance but more when you start playing a game that you haven’t done before. He’s a professional athlete so he’ll be able to adapt faster than most other people. But I think the guys that make it, their athletic traits really show out at that moment in time.

“To make the transfer, you’ve got to be able to be at a high athletic standard. I think for those guys, you want to know that they can move. You want to know that they can do it at a high percentile of the NFL. The more people that show it is possible the more [non-American] kids will understand it’s a viable path.”

Durde’s route into the sport was organic, a friend from his childhood in Enfield convincing him to join him for Channel 4’s gridiron coverage in the 1990s. “We used to watch it together on Sunday afternoons. He knew more about it than I did, he was older than me. He showed me and taught me how it worked. I think he had a Sega or something and a game. I didn’t have any of that, so we played that. Then we got a ball and started playing.”

The friend did not join Durde when he found a team to play for but it took years, a valuable mentor and immersion in the American way of doing things for this most complex of sports to become clear to him. Linebackers coach Mike Maslowski at the Hamburg Sea Devils helped. “Some of the instinctual feelings I had when I was playing I didn’t understand what they were. He made me understand them.”

Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Aden Durde - NFL's first senior British coach: Louis Rees-Zammit has what it takes
Aden Durde had a long journey to become the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator - NFL UK/Dave Shopland

Then a spell on the practice squad with the Chiefs acted like Durde’s finishing school. “When you go to the NFL there’s a lot more scheme, and a lot more people who have been in the system for a longer period of time. So there’s a lot of subconscious things that go on which no one says, and I learned that in Kansas City.”

Now his attention is on his latest promotion. His new head coach at the Seahawks is Mike Macdonald, whose previous job was defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens. As with many promoted specialists, Macdonald will initially take care of play-calling for the defence. Is that something Durde wants to be doing himself eventually? “That’s the plan.”

After that will he look to make a similar jump to McDonald to a head coach job? “When I get a job I really focus on just that and struggle to see outside of that. That’s helped me and I don’t think I’ll change that.

“Do I have aspirations? Sometimes I think some of those things are a natural progression. But right now, I haven’t even started doing this. I can’t even put my mind close to that right now, I just want to do this as well as I possibly can.”

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