- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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LONDON -- Bob Oblachinski was on a double-decker bus traveling the streets of London when he looked out the window and saw a group of 50 mostly large men in gray sweatshirts running around in historic Hyde Park. He didn't think twice about it.
Oblachinski, a native New Englander, was returning to London on Friday afternoon from a trip to Paris. When the bus arrived at its next stop, he had a thought: Could that possibly be his beloved New England Patriots?
"I got off the bus and walked back, and sure enough, it was," said Oblachinski, who watched most of the team's 45- to 60-minute walk-through practice. "It was fantastic, great access, just a loose group of guys having fun, going through their plays and different sets."
Oblachinski, who moved from Swansea, Mass., to California in the early 1980s, wasn't the only passerby to watch the practice. Others walking through the park and riding their bicycles did the same -- some stopping for a few minutes and leaving, others staying the entire time.
Normally secretive Patriots coach Bill Belichick holding a practice in the middle of a public park? Yes, count this one as a shocker and a different wrinkle to the Patriots' trip to London to face the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at Wembley Stadium.
"It's interesting to see them in this element, where they're kind of joking around with each other and playing games," Oblachinski said. "I heard one guy jokingly say to another guy, 'You're lucky you're even on this team,' and everybody started laughing.
"The funny thing is that you have all these English people working right next to them [on park maintenance], and they don't realize that one of the best sports teams in the world is practicing right there. They don't get the whole concept of the game."
The Patriots had walked across the street from their hotel -- Belichick leading the way -- and initially started their walk-through closer to the main road alongside Hyde Park. But similar to an impromptu pickup game among friends, they moved to a more open section of the park because the trees were creating too much of an overhang when the football was high in the air.
Mike Simpson-Jones of Buckinghamshire happened to be walking through the 350-acre park around 2 p.m. local time.
"I see a lot of guys in gray suits, and I kind of think it has something to do with American football. So I have a look, and it's quite clear," he said. "It was just interesting to see some of the moves and how it's almost like being on stage and they're walking through their moves. Sometimes what we see on TV is a lot of guys clash and fall down but how they're trying to maneuver people into different positions, it was quite interesting.
"I didn't have a clue who any of the people were."
That's probably why Belichick felt comfortable with such a public walk-through. American football isn't big in London. Can you imagine the Patriots holding such a practice in Boston Common?
Growing the game internationally is part of the responsibility that players said they carried with them upon their arrival early Friday morning.
"That's why we're here. We're here to kind of be ambassadors for the NFL," quarterback Tom Brady said. "I think it's a great thing that people get to experience American football and why I think we enjoy it so much. I know this experience is fun for us players, and we look forward to the opportunity of sharing our game with people who don't get to see it very often."
"It's always fun to show another country what we do, NFL football, and why it's one of the best sports there is," said veteran defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. "I know they are pretty big on soccer over here."
They most certainly are, and it's unfortunate for the NFL that Sunday's Patriots-Rams game at 5 p.m. local time (1 p.m. ET) will clash with the highly anticipated Manchester United-Chelsea soccer match at 4 p.m. But the NFL still senses momentum, and future financial growth, which explains why two games will be played in London next year.
As for the Patriots, and those passing through Hyde Park on Friday afternoon, this was an experience they won't soon forget.
It was a throwback moment that took players back to the days of their youth -- playing football at the park.
For those lucky enough to be passing through or spotting the unusual scene from a bus, it was an unexpected introduction to American football or simply an unexpected treat.