From the playground to the NFL Academy - NFL Academy
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From the playground to the NFL Academy

Defensive back Jahveal Laidley discusses his path to the NFL Academy, representing Great Britain, and his passion for the San Francisco 49ers.

written by Brian Matovu.


Can you share a bit about your upbringing and how you initially got involved in the sport?

I’m from Birmingham, but when I was younger I spent some time in Coventry. My entry into American football was a bit unconventional. I was heavily into basketball but my love for American football started when my friend brought an American football to school, and we began throwing it around during lunch breaks. A teacher noticed my decent throw and encouraged me to explore the sport. So, while I was studying for my GCSEs, I tried to find local clubs where I could get involved in American football and instantly fell in love with the game.

You mentioned transitioning from basketball to football. What prompted that shift, and how did you discover your passion for American football?

Basketball was my primary focus, but as I progressed, my enjoyment waned, especially at a competitive level. It was then that I decided to make the switch to American football. I hadn’t watched or played any form of American football until just under a year before applying to join the NFL Academy. I’m still relatively new to the sport, having started playing less than three years ago, but I’m loving it.

Tell us about your early days in American football and how you found your position on the field.

When I first started, I was a bit uncertain about positions. Watching NFL highlights, I came across Odell Beckham Jr.’s iconic one-handed catch against the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.
That moment sparked a fire in me to become a receiver. For the initial six months, playing both 5v5 and 9v9, I took on the roles of receiver and linebacker.

That incredible catch from Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014

However, I’ve since evolved into a defensive back, specifically playing strong safety, nickelback, and outside linebacker. As a strong safety, my role involves being the last line of defence, ensuring no big plays happen on my watch. Being a nickelback requires a blend of linebacker and defensive back skills, engaging in both run defence and pass coverage to support the team effectively.

How did you become aware of the NFL Academy, and what was the application process like for you?

The NFL Academy entered my radar thanks to Coach Gavin Collins, the current Offensive Lineman coach there. He attended one of my 5-on-5 games where I was playing as a receiver. He then spoke to my coach at the time and he encouraged me to consider applying to the NFL Academy.

Can you walk us through the application process and the steps you took to secure a spot at the NFL Academy?

Applying to the NFL Academy involved submitting videos showcasing my athletic abilities. These videos didn’t necessarily have to be football centric. Given my basketball background, I sent in clips of me dunking, executing spin moves, and pulling off 360s.

Then when it came to the trial day, it was a full-scale combine experience, like you would see at the NFL Combine. We went through the paces, including the 40-yard dash and position-specific drills like catching, shuttle runs, and everything you’d expect at the NFL Combine. My 40-yard dash time clocked in at 4.7 seconds. It was tough but I really enjoyed it and I’m grateful that I was accepted and I officially joined the NFL Academy in August 2022.

Could you walk us through a typical day in your life at the NFL Academy?

A regular day kicks off at 6AM with an intense gym session, setting the tone for the day. After that, it’s breakfast and then I get ready for my lessons at 8.15AM until 12PM. I’m currently studying History, Law and Sociology. Balancing academics and athletics is another facet that keeps us on our toes, ensuring a well-rounded experience at the NFL Academy.

After lessons, we’ll have lunch and then we will analyse film with our coaches. This includes breaking down our practice sessions, pinpointing areas for improvement, and scouting our upcoming opponents.

Then from 4PM-6PM, we have our on-field practice where we practice plays and ensure we know our coverages which is really fun. After that, we’ll have our dinner and then I’ll get on with any schoolwork that I need to complete. Then my day will end at around 9PM, so it’s a long, intense day!

Working hard in the gym

How does your schedule adjust when there’s a game on the horizon?

Game days aren’t set in stone weekly; they vary. When a game is approaching, we’ll have a half day from school to travel and prepare for the game.

Managing the demands of the NFL Academy must be intense. How do you cope, and what support systems are in place for you?

It can be challenging, but we’re fortunate to have an incredible support system. There are people we can turn to when the load becomes overwhelming, whether it’s training-related or academic struggles. Having that reliable network makes a significant difference.

The toughest aspect is getting used to the high standards set by an elite academy. Understanding what it means to make it to the NFL adds a layer of intensity. We’re constantly pushing ourselves to achieve the highest quality, which, though demanding, is ultimately what sets us on the path to excellence.

What was it like playing for the Great Britain national team?

Representing the national team is an incredible experience. While at the NFL Academy, you train with players from around the world. However, with the national team, the bond grows as little deeper as you’ve either played with or against the individuals in the past.

It’s funny because you all must come together to form a “superteam” with the goal of being the best globally is truly special.

Could you share a standout moment from your time on the field?

A standout moment for me would be during my third game in my first year at the NFL Academy when we faced the Bavarian Warriors (German American football team). I was on special teams for punt return, and my teammate Arthur de Boachie made a crucial hit on the punter. The ball landed just one yard away from the endzone, and I seized the opportunity, picking it up and running it into the endzone for a touchdown.

Moving forward, we’ve decided that when we make big plays, there’ll be some creative celebrations – a tradition defensive players uphold, especially after returning a pick-6 or making a crucial interception.

What do you want to achieve next?

Next, I want to reach play in the US at a Division 1 college and play for a Power 5 university on a full scholarship. Seeing past players make the move from the NFL Academy to major schools motivates me, and I know that if I continue to work hard, I’ll be able to achieve that. I find inspiration in the journeys of all the NFL players, they’ve all been through different challenges to make it there and I hope to be one of them.

What team do you follow in the NFL?

I’m a huge San Francisco 49ers fan and I’m a massive admirer of our linebacker, Fred Warner. He’s probably my favourite player. He’s one of the best in the league and he elevates the entire team!

Do you have any other interests?

Beyond the field, I enjoy cooking a lot. I worked as a part-time chef for three years. Cooking and baking are genuine passions of mine. I also watch football (soccer) and I support Liverpool FC.


Joe Burrow or Patrick Mahomes?

Mahomes, no doubt. Burrow’s a quality player but Mahomes is on another level.

Game-winning drive or game-winning interception?

Game-winning interception. As a defensive player, there’s a special thrill in making the crucial play to secure the win.

Ja’Marr Chase or Justin Jefferson?

Tough call, but Justin Jefferson gets the nod, especially since I like the Minnesota Vikings.

Micah Parsons or Myles Garrett?

Myles Garrett, all day. His impact on the game is undeniable. He’s a game-changer.

Philadelphia Eagles or San Francisco 49ers?

49ers, without a doubt. Gotta stay true to my team!

Kyle Shanahan or Andy Reid?

Shanahan. While Andy Reid is a coaching legend, I’ve got to back my head coach, Shanahan.