By DJ Eberle, a student/athlete at Western New England University. He is an offensive tackle, built like his dad; a rugby Prop. Track him on Twitter @Ebstide52
FLORHAM PARK, NJ – NFL rookie mini-camp opened this week for the New York Jets, the team that features former Australian-born rugby star Hayden Smith. And Smith’s coaches are taking notice. As you may recall from the piece we did a few weeks back, Smith played college basketball in the USA before turning into a rugby star for Team USA and then for the Saracens Rugby Club. The Aussie, which his how Smith is referenced by his teammates, is already taking his coaches by surprise with high praise of his work ethic by both head c0ach Rex Ryan and Tight ends coach Mike Devlin.
“You saw some things he could do in the tight end world.” Devlin said referring to the skills he saw of Smith in his rugby highlight tape.
Smith has had to fight an uphill battle since he stepped foot on the Jet’s training facility. Hayden’s first challenge was learning the Jets’playbook. Which can be a treacherous task even for a person who has been playing football for over fifteen years of their life. Which makes it an even tougher task for a person who hasn’t played a down of structured football in his life. The next task Smith has to conquer before he can even step on a blade of turf on the practice field is putting on a helmet.
“The helmet, I guess, becomes like a second ski.” said Smith. “I’m sure some of my rugby mates would be having a real laugh if they saw me with a helmet on.”
Luckily for Smith, he is adjusting easier to the putting on a helmet than he originally thought. Smith also looks like a natural in a helmet, according to head coach Rex Ryan.
“He certainly looks the part.” Ryan said. “I would not bet against this young man.”
Smith isn’t having a picture perfect camp up to this point, but no one should expect him to. At times route running has come as a challenge. In Smith’s first practice he ran an in-cut towards the middle of the field and took it a little too far.
“Don’t go in there, Aussie!” Offensive Coordinator Tony Sparano yelled through his bull horn. “If you go in there, it’s really going to turn into one of those rugby things.”
Sparano was referring, of course, to the rugby term scrum.
Smith not only will have to overcome the stereotype of few rugby players switching to football, but that there has only been one Australian-born player in the NFL, other than a kicker. Smith has a very good chance to make the Jet’s 53-man roster because the lack of depth behind starter Dustin Keller. It won’t be easy because the average size of an NFL roster going into training camp in August will be 90, but Smith is prepared for the challenge.
“I understand the situation I’m in,” Smith said. “However, I wouldn’t be a competitor — I wouldn’t be a professional athlete — if I wasn’t expecting to do well. My goal is to make the team. Right now, I’m massively enjoying the process.”
And for all of you ruggers that think us football players are a bunch of girls because we “hide” behind pads, Mr. Hayden Smith might disagree with you.
“I’ve watched enough American football to know there’s a definite reason why guys wear helmets and pads,” Smith said. “The very fact that you do, the helmet becomes more of a weapon in a lot of circumstances. I have an appreciation for it.”
While Smith’s NFL is still to be determined, one thing is for certain; we here at RWU are behind you, Hayden Smith, and wish you the best of luck in your journey to reach the NFL.