Captaining an NFL side for the first-time would be an incredible honour for any athlete, but it must have felt doubly-sweet for former England sevens star Alex Gray.
As you can see from his social output, leading the Atlanta Falcons out for this pre-season match was a highlight for the tight-end.
Gray was first approached by the NFL before Christmas 2016. They were looking to recruit him for their International Player Pathway programme. With Yorkshire Carnegie at the time, Gray was excited, but couldn’t make his mind up until early February of 2017 – he had switched to centre and moved to Carnegie to try to deliver on his rugby potential, but injury curtailed his season. Once he did decide to give it a go, things kicked into a higher gear.
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A ten-week crash course in football took place in Florida, which Gray told Rugby World last season was a “pure grind” and “very humbling”. On day one, all the comfort of a grounding in rugby and eight years of experience in elite systems was taken away. He knew nothing of this world, which was just what he needed. “I am very proud of how I approached things,” he said at the time. “I did not stand on ceremony.”
Picked out of this nursery, in May Gray signed a contract with the Falcons, beaten Super Bowl finalists two seasons ago. He became No 89, a tight end. He had a “golden ticket” too – a full year’s contract to work with the team, to develop and learn his craft. While others can get fired on a whim in this cut-throat industry, Gray has a full year to suit up at the Falcons’ Flowery Branch base in Hall County, Georgia.
He returned to prepare for this season, and having featured in last year’s pre-season run-outs, was chosen to lead the team onto the field this time round.
He is not the only former English rugby player to feature in these pre-season games. Ahead of this season the Pittsburgh Steelers took on former Worcester Warriors lock Christian Scotland-Williamson – like Alex Gray, a tight end.
As you can see above, Scotland-Williamson enjoyed taking his first catch in a pre-season match-up against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The game appeared to be extra special for ex-Warrior, who swapped shirts at the end of that bout with fellow convert Jordan Mailata. The Samoa-born, former NRL player is an offensive tackle for the Eagles.
On a recent Rugby World visit to the US to discuss the crossover of ideas between rugby and the NFL, the issue of how difficult it is for athletes from other sports to learn a gridiron playbook came up. Setting this aside, which players do you think could convert from rugby to football and thrive?