The NFL are always looking for talent from around the world to bolster their sport, and physical units from rugby could make it. But it ain’t easy…
Crossing Over: From rugby union to the NFL
STANDING AT the cordon ringing the pitch of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Joshua Addams catches his breath as if it were a deep ball into the end zone. It’s been a long day, with every little twitch measured, monitored and recorded on film.
Welcome to the International Player Combine. Here, athletes from across the planet hope to show enough athletic ability and potential aptitude for field craft to earn one of the limited spots in a finishing school for American Football hopefuls. Get on the International Player Pathway and they might just make it to an NFL match-day roster one day.
Addams is a rugby player. In fact, as he explains to us at the touchline, he once featured in Rugby World. But having played for London Irish Wild Geese and then gone to Rosslyn Park, he was inspired by Christian Wade leaving rugby for this pathway and making it onto a practice squad at the Buffalo Bills in the NFL – that’s lethal Wasps wing and British & Irish Lion Wade. If Addams (also a running back in football terms) can catch the eye after a 40-yard dash, agility drills and reception/route running drills, maybe he could head Stateside too.
“After seeing what Christian did, I got in contact,” he says of the scheme. He sought the support of everyone at Rosslyn Park first, and then he was off.
“I started just over a month ago. And ever since I got the call telling me I was invited here I’ve grinded, non-stop.
“A day like this is similar to a sevens tournament. It’s fast pace and then you get breaks. Then back into it. Compared to 15s it’s a bit of a shock to the system but it’s like a normal sevens tournament.”
Addams is here with athletes from Nigeria, Germany, Japan, Slovakia, France… Some of these big fellas have been bashing pads in American Football leagues throughout Europe. They are used to devouring playbooks. So many rugby athletes are new to this, but the raw physical assets top players have is attractive to some scouts. And the NFL doesn’t care where players’ sports grounding began, as long as they have the goods to do it on the football field.
Addams is happily rolling the dice, even if he is right up against it. In the end he does not make the cut for the International Player Pathway. But no one said it was easy to make it to the NFL. That makes the challenge so enticing.
HAYDEN SMITH left his place in the Saracens squad in 2012 to pursue an opportunity with the New York Jets, as a tight end. Having taken up a basketball scholarship in the US as a youth, also playing lock for the Eagles, he wasn’t exactly a fish out of water with the American sporting experience.
But Smith was progressing through the system before the International Pathway machinery was set up. He wore an American Football helmet for the first time in his rookie camp. Everyone was taking a punt but after a few weeks on the practice squad, Smith was elevated to the full, elite squad. Luck, he says, plays a small part, sure, but there is also an incredible amount of work that goes in from all sides.
“Broadly, athletically, rugby players can certainly compete,” Smith says of a star switching from rugby union to the NFL and lasting long-term. “Given the right amount of time and opportunity, people can be successful. You see that with Jordan Mailata (the former NRL junior prospect who is now a big star at the Philadelphia Eagles). He had the benefit of a few years (learning the game before playing). That is just an astounding success story. He’s obviously a pretty special athlete but you kind of have to be a little bit exceptional to succeed. There’s definitely the opportunity for people to be successful going across.”
In his one season as a Jet, Smith took one reception in the NFL, for 16 yards. The next year he returned to Saracens.
“That’s part of what makes the NFL so, so good. How cut-throat it is” Hayden Smith
Smith describes the job of learning a playbook for the uninitiated as being akin to “going back to kindergarten”. He wrote a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell upon leaving the league to highlight some issues he felt came through at the time, for inexperienced football players needing more time with coaches in a league where contact time and coaching minutes are curbed league-wide, with little wiggle room. It won’t surprise you to know that he never heard back.
According to Sebastian Vollmer though, the German offensive tackle who won two Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, the fact he only came to football in his late teens was good – he’d not picked up bad habits that some other American athletes have developed from a lifetime playing. And, he tells Rugby World as he surveys the field of athletes at the Combine, it is mentally tough to play elite football and not all of these blokes can hack it. Celebrate those who do, he adds.
Smith goes one further: “That’s part of what makes the NFL so, so good. How cut-throat it is. It’s not always fun, it’s a very stressful place to live and work. But that makes it a hell of a spectacle.”
ANOTHER RUNNING BACK, Jacob Smillie is trying his best to stand out. A cap for Jamaica’s Crocs in union, he had dabbled in both that and rugby league, making the biggest impact in the 13-player game. He found his way to Swinton Lions but then sniffed another opportunity.
As he tells us: “I wanted to challenge myself and test myself as an athlete and obviously it’s a new team environment to explore. I feel like this is suited to me because you can express yourself as an athlete, you can test yourself and also it’s a really good team sport where you have your job to do – if you don’t do your job it affects the whole team. Everyone plays a crucial part.”
Videos of Smillie scoring long-range tries for Halifax helped get him to this point, as well as clips of him doing drills on social media. He is full of energy.
Smillie was not chosen to go on to the next stage, at the US camp.
THE UNIVERSE gave Alex Gray exactly what he needed, when he needed it. That’s how he feels about his time in the NFL, on the Atlanta Falcons training squad. Another tight end, the former England Sevens man had “life-changing, perspective-altering experiences” between 2017 and 2019.
Now back in rugby, a grateful Gray says of his time in the NFL: “It was very difficult but for me it was exactly the challenge that I wanted. And I absolutely loved it.”
The intention of this piece is to give any elite rugby players who fancy a switch to American Football a full picture. To explain that while the opportunities can be there, it will not be an overnight thing. You need the physical attributes, and the right circumstances, and the willingness to toil away. And patience. For example, Wade hasn’t taken a snap in the league yet, only in pre-season play. It was the same for Gray.
So what can the English Falcon tell us about what you may come up against?
“There’s the sheer competition for starters,” he says. “At this point in time it’s 70,000 college football players that may at some point dream of being in the NFL. Plus guys that are already in the NFL. There’s a huge amount of potential competition for you there.
“For Americans I think you’re three times more likely to be struck by lightning than play in the NFL. The odds are hugely stacked against you to make it there. For someone like me, coming in not knowing the game, it’s such a huge task. Unless its someone like Mailata – he’s just a different human. You can’t walk the street and find people like him.”
What Gray struggled with at first was the basics. Knowing where to line up. What the snap count was. Getting off the ball at the right time. A rugby equivalent would be passing backwards or timing a hit at the ruck. Know it and it’s like breathing. But you have to know it. It comes down to getting reps and, in an echo of the point from Smith, in Gray’s day it still felt like the time wasn’t there.
There’s no hand-holding at the top. Players must do their homework too. There are hours of meetings, where you drill down into analysis and assignments. But if you manage to nail it, ooh baby.
“I honestly think it’s just time available to play,” Gray adds. “I have no doubt I could have played in the NFL in the regular season. I was being told that by coaches, by players. Before I left the Falcons their last words were ‘make sure you stick with this because you’re very, very close.’ So I have no doubt. What you find is guys need to bounce around a bit. To find that team. It’s the most opportunistic sport in the world.”
Gray hopes that in future anyone on the International Pathway who has real talent gets the chance to “recycle” once their international player contracts are up, to help out another franchise next.
SHAWN TUIONE grew up playing rugby in New Zealand, with Auckland Grammar. Here to try out as a defensive lineman, the cheerful – and honest – Kiwi says: “I’m here with no expectations but to put my best foot forward. When I grew up I was not a monster. There are plenty of monsters in New Zealand, so I’m letting you guys know now – for the younger folk – if you want to chase this, do everything that you can. Because if I can make it anyone can. I’m just a kid from a ghetto place in Auckland and I’m here.”
Spotted while furthering his education in Hawaii, Tuione saw a glimmer of a shot and followed it all the way to Tottenham. The former back-rower was not selected to head to the US camp.
THE NEXT step means taking 13 athletes to Arizona for a ten-week camp. Near the end of that, there is what is dubbed a ‘Pro Day’. Athletes work out in front of the scouts from NFL outfits. If age eligible, some of these guys will go straight into the NFL Draft as we hurtle towards the start of May.
After the Draft, according to James Cook from the NFL International Development arm, “We will allocate one exceptional player to each of (four) teams”, with sides getting an exemption to add one extra man to their practice squad rosters.
But plans are already afoot for the next class of talent. As Cook explains: “Even before we flew out here we were having conversations about ‘who’s the next crop? Is there anyone we’ve kept an eye on? Is there anyone we’ve had conversations with?’
“It’s very fluid and that is really a constant, year-round thing. Right now we’re fielding questions and looking at international leads and trying to gauge what our next group is gonna look like.”
So what does that mean, if an elite player dreamt of switching from rugby union to the NFL one day?
Cook replies: “If a guy from high-level rugby was out of contract, he wasn’t with a team and he was interested in pursuing this opportunity, our team would generally have a conversation with them. And then we’ll begin to understand, one: are they in the position to join us? Two: physically do we believe that they are someone that has a skill-set that can transfer?
“Because there are all shapes and sizes in rugby, some are going to transfer better than others. We need to be aware of that and get a gauge. So we’ll definitely field questions from a player and then figure out for ourselves whether we think it has any legs.”
Once again, Aussie Mailata gets a mention, this time as a signpost that lacking previous experience should be no barrier to success. After a bedding-in period, he was a football player. But there is a spectrum for that. What made Mailata attractive was different to what made Wade attractive as a crossover athlete. One has no trouble whacking other big blokes and leaving a physical mark on them. The other runs in an explosive way, low to the ground.
“For union players who may be interested, it’s very realistic to cross over” James Cook
Both honed those skills in two codes of rugby. And those are the things you can’t coach into someone in two years.
As Cook adds: “Yes, (positions in football) are highly specialised and yes, you have to be learning a lot of specific skills. But often you’re trying to lean more on things they do very well already, and you’re trying to work with a very high level of athlete to begin with. We have to back ourselves and the programme and hope to develop everything else.”
Forget $60m contracts and Super Bowls for now. Cook says: “For union players who may be interested, it’s very realistic to cross over,” but just getting in and sticking would be cool. If Wade won’t, who could have the most realistic chance of jumping from rugby union to the NFL and thriving? The NFL’s international team are by their phones.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in March 2022. Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
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