On any given Sunday – just before the brutal three-hour orchestra crashes into life – the only British conductor in the NFL often takes a quiet moment to reflect on the remarkable journey that has led him from Tottenham College to the Dallas Cowboys.
But when America’s Team next takes to the field at the New Orleans Saints’ Superdome on Thursday night, something else will be on coach Aden Durde’s mind – especially when he looks down.
The 42-year-old will be wearing specially-designed trainers, as part of the competition’s ‘My Cause, My Cleats’ campaign, a drive to raise money for the chosen charities of players and coaches. The shoes will feature a Union Jack, but they will also bear the name of Godwin Lawson, along with inspiring adjectives.
Aden Durde is impressing as the defensive line coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL
Durde was briefly on the practice squads of both the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs
This week he’s supporting the Godwin Lawson Foundation as part of the NFL’s ‘My Cause, My Cleats’ campaign
Durde, who looks after the Cowboys’ barnstorming defensive line, will think of Lawson, a promising footballer on the books of Oxford United who was just 17 years old when he was set upon after rushing to the aid of two childhood friends who were under attack from a group of men. He was stabbed once, fatally, in the chest.
He will also think of Godwin’s mother, Yvonne, who fell to the floor and screamed in agony when she was told the news. Who described the feeling as having her heart ripped out and pounded on and who, a year after the tragedy, which unfolded on the same streets of North London Durde once called home, set up the Godwin Lawson Foundation.
The charity supports young people in moving away from gun and knife crime through sports and education, and wants to keep them away from gang life by providing opportunities for talents to flourish.
There will be other questions – about how on earth a London boy ends up in a key job for the biggest American Football franchise in the world – but when we speak in Texas, he is clear that the Foundation gets the attention it deserves.
‘I know you’re going to write the story how you write the story but please remember Godwin and Yvonne,’ Durde says. ‘I don’t want people to forget him.’
It is a cause that means much to Durde, who asked for a list of charities ahead of the initiative and was put in touch with Yvonne.
‘What happened was tragic,’ he adds. ‘I have two sons, 18 and 24, and while they’ve grown up you’re always aware of it. It scares the s*** out of you.
‘It’s an issue that’s not just in London but in all inner-city areas in England. It’s not just about preventing people having knives and guns, it’s about addressing socio-economic problems.
‘I come home for the off-season and I hear names on London Tonight, like statistics. These people are not statistics, they should not be forgotten, each victim has a family and friends, as does the perpetrator. They are kids.’
The shoes will feature a Union Jack, but they will also bear the name of Godwin Lawson
The Cowboys defensive line coach talks to defensive end Tarell Basham in a recent game
The Foundation aims to increase opportunities for youngsters to display their talents. Given his own path, and his ability to make the most of an opening, it comes as little surprise that Durde, an ex-linebacker in the European leagues who had a brief stint in the US on the practice squads of the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs, is firmly behind it.
‘It’s about people making a difference,’ he says. ‘Football was my intervention. I don’t want to sound cliché but I got into something. Those people who coached me – mentors, father figures, they taught me how to be a grown up, be a man. They are still doing the work and they don’t get the recognition they deserve. The head coach, Tony Allen, he’s still coaching now. He’s been a father to probably hundreds of kids.’
Durde got into NFL after watching games on Channel Four as a youngster. ‘Training was in Bermondsey and I lived in Enfield,’ he recalls. ‘My mum didn’t want me on public transport on my own but one of the coaches, Geoff O’Driscoll, absolute legend, was from Southgate and used to give me a lift down. Life-changing people – the reason why I’m sitting here.’
Here is an office at the Cowboys sprawling, ultra-modern training complex 30 minutes-drive away from the city. His path from Middlesex to Texas is one forged by perseverance and opportunism. After retiring from the game, Durde spent six years running the defense for the London Warriors.
He spent two summers as a training camp intern with the Cowboys (2014 and 2015) and had two internships with the Atlanta Falcons (2016 and 2017) before finally taking up a full-time role with the Georgia side in 2018. When head coach Dan Quinn, who led the Falcons to a Super Bowl, was sacked last year and ended up in charge of the Cowboys defense, he was quick to ask Durde to follow him.
Durde is in charge of the Cowboys’ defensive line as they try and make this season’s play-offs
He was hired by the Atlanta Falcons in 2018 before Dan Quinn (right) took him to Dallas
After relative anonymity, the Englishman became a reluctant star this summer when he featured prominently in Hard Knocks, the brilliant annual show in which a team’s reward for delivering an under-par season is seeing HBO film crews swamp their training camp for warts-and-all access.
‘I look at him and he looks like he’s from Arkansas,’ said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in one episode. ‘I listen to him and he sounds like Winston Churchill.’
Team-mates attempted to mimic that accent, of which much is made. When the Cowboys social media team release mic’d up footage from the sidelines during games, they change the font of the subtitles to an olde-world style for Durde.
‘Sometimes I have those moments where I think “What the hell am I doing here?”, he says laughing. ‘But it’s more that I feel grateful and I work really hard.’
Does he feel under more pressure because he is an Englishman teaching Americans an American game?
‘I don’t know because I’m the only one so I can’t ask anyone else!’ he says. ‘But you look around the world and people are doing it. How does a foreign coach feel in the Premier League? You have to believe in your inner core that you know the answers and if you don’t know, you find the solution. I’m more proud of what I am than it being a hindrance.’
I ask if he has seen Ted Lasso, the Apple TV smash hit show in which an American Football coach takes over a Premier League side.
‘I have,’ he laughs. ‘Someone asked me that and I hadn’t, and then one of our coaches asked me. I was on a flight the other week and it was on so I watched the first episode. My kids are mad soccer fans. They’re Arsenal, I’m West Ham. When my mum worked my brother used to take me to the Boleyn.’
The other obvious, less cringeworthy question is whether he feels his homeland should house a franchise.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has been impressive this season with the Cowboys at 7-4
Durde (with Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, left) has been touted as a future head coach
‘I would love to say yes but I don’t know,’ Durde says. ‘The problem is that I think of it from a coach’s perspective rather than a fan’s perspective. There’s lots of logistical things they need to look at. I really don’t know the answer to that one.’
Some have touted Durde as an ideal fit for head coach should the day ever come back in the capital, or elsewhere.
‘My career is not long in the NFL,’ he says. ‘I draw on friends’ experiences because they have been in prominent positions and worked in this league for a long time. I really like to think about now. If you get caught up in things that aren’t happening you can get caught off guard.
‘This league – everything matters. There’s only 17 games. I can’t concentrate on other things. To me, I need to make sure the defensive line of the Dallas Cowboys are the best they can possibly be. That’s my job now and that’s all I care about about. And I love it here. You asked me before can you believe you’re here? No! Obviously I can’t. I’m the D-line coach of the Dallas Cowboys. But I’m here and I have to do my work.’
The Cowboys, armed with a wealth of talent, have not won a Super Bowl since 1996. This year they should, at the very least, make the play-offs. But can they break the habit of a quarter of a century?
‘Let’s win the next one,’ he says, ‘beat the Saints’.
We exchange good wishes and before the conversation ends Durde, a man who never loses sight of the aim, has one more thing to say. ‘Please remember Godwin and Yvonne,’ he adds.