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LONDON (AP) — For the past three years, the only way Sergei Starodoubtsev experienced the NFL was by watching highlights of JuJu Smith-Schuster and other players on Instagram.
That the 17-year-old found himself sharing a field with the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver — he was the one in workout clothes, not Smith-Schuster — was a little more than even he could comprehend.
“He’s a different athlete and such an amazing player,” Starodoubtsev said, awe-struck and struggling to find his words as Smith-Schuster addressed a group of fellow teenagers nearby. “I’m trying to succeed in this career and be on the big TV and play in the NFL and be in the same situation as JuJu.”
At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds with eye-catching quickness, Starodoubtsev is, in many ways, exactly what football coaches and recruiters across the United States desire. His only disadvantage? He lives in East London, where opportunities to play the American game are difficult to find.
That’s why Starodoubtsev was at soccer power Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium earlier this month, one of 150 hopefuls trying to land one of 80 spots in the inaugural class of the NFL Academy this fall. The league, which has been playing regular-season games in London since 2007, wants to maintain a more lasting presence in the city beyond those few weekends a year. It believes it can do that