Commentary

Rugby star getting shot with Jets

Hayden Smith is trying to learn the NFL game and earn a spot with Gang Green

Updated: May 4, 2012, 9:50 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In the middle of his first practice with the New York Jets -- in fact, the first football practice of his life -- Hayden Smith paused to say he was sorry.

The 6-foot-6, 255-pound tight end apologized to free-agent punter Travis Baltz after running into him during an overzealous moment in a noncontact, special-teams drill Friday in the Jets' rookie minicamp -- a no-no that drew an immediate penalty flag.

"That was 'Play on' in rugby," Smith said later with a sheepish smile.

The NFL is a long way from the Saracens Football Club, Smith's rugby team in England.

Smith, 27, a native Australian who ascended to the highest levels of international rugby, walked away from the sport he dominated to give American football a try. He signed with the Jets on April 3, and there he was Friday, wearing No. 82, running pass routes and learning the basics of the sport.

[+] EnlargeHayden Smith
Rich Cimini/ESPNNewYork.com Hayden Smith is learning the nuances of American football, including the deep playbook and wearing a helmet.

A rookie minicamp can be a head-spinning experience, even for those who have played the game since they were 8 years old in Pop Warner, so imagine what it felt like for Smith.

He can forget about scrums and rucks; he needs to concentrate on blitz recognition, hot routes and combination blocks.

Smith went from a sport of hard knocks to a team known for "Hard Knocks," the reality TV show. He never played organized football, so everything was a first on Day 1. The mundane task of putting on his helmet became a big deal. Rugby players, as you know, have no protection.

"The helmet, I guess, becomes like a second skin," said Smith, adding that he adjusted to it quicker than he anticipated. "I'm sure some of my rugby mates would be having a real laugh if they saw me with a helmet on."

After a pause, he added, "It's quite cool."

Smith is built solidly, runs the 40 in 4.7 seconds and displays natural hand-eye coordination, probably a product of his basketball-playing days. Before taking up rugby, he played basketball at Metropolitan State, a Division II school in Denver.

Every team is looking for the next Antonio Gates, trying to mold a non-football-playing project into a star tight end.

"It's crazy to think this guy never put on a helmet before today, never ran a route, never did anything like that," coach Rex Ryan said. "When he's out there, could you really tell that?"

Ryan shrugged his shoulders, as if to say you couldn't tell he was a football neophyte.

"He certainly looks the part," he said, adding, "I would not bet against this young man."

There have been seven Australian-born players in NFL history, according to databaseFootball.com, but only one non-kicker -- defensive tackle Colin Scotts, who played only seven games with the San Diego Chargers in 1987. But he played college ball at Hawaii; Smith is starting from ground zero.

"It's always been a dream of mine," said Smith, who grew up watching the NFL.

Smith said it was "quite overwhelming at first" when he received his playbook and started studying the Jets' offense. Tight ends coach Mike Devlin tried a novel approach, asking Smith to supply popular rugby terms. That way, Devlin figured, he'd be able to teach him the football equivalent.

That was the hope, anyway.

"That didn't work out," Devlin said, smiling. "We had to scrap everything."

Devlin and Ryan praised Smith's work ethic, saying he has an insatiable desire to learn the game as quickly as he can. There will be days, they said, when Smith is on the practice field alone, practicing his routes.

There will be mistakes, of course. In his first practice, Smith ran an in-cut that went too far in. He got caught up in traffic in the middle of the field. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, in his bullhorn voice, let him hear about it.

"Don't go in there, Aussie," Sparano barked. "If you go in there, it's really going to turn into one of those rugby things."

A scrum, he meant.

When Smith made a nice catch, some of his teammates yelled, "Aussie!" -- his new nickname.

Smith's track record suggests he's a fast learner. He didn't start playing rugby until 2008 and within a year, he was playing professionally in England. He was so good that he played in the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

He gave it up to pursue his NFL dream, hiring former University of Minnesota coach Tim Brewster to be his personal coach. Brewster has experience in teaching the tight-end position to non-football players. In fact, he was Gates' position coach with the Chargers from 2002 to 2004, helping him make the transition from college basketball.

Smith performed a combine-style workout and sent the video to NFL teams. In February, the Jets brought him in for an interview, requesting that he bring his rugby highlight tape. Devlin doesn't know anything about rugby, but knows the attributes it takes to play tight end.

"You saw some things he could do in the tight end world," Devlin said.

Beyond starter Dustin Keller, the Jets don't much experience at tight end. Smith will get a legitimate shot, but he realizes a spot on the 53-man roster won't be easy. If he shows enough promise, he could be a candidate for the practice squad.

"I understand the situation I'm in," he 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."

Smith already has learned a few things about the NFL. The "training sessions," as he called them, are more regimented than rugby. He marveled at the quick pace, how quickly the plays are run, how every drill is dictated by a clock.

He also expressed his admiration for the toughness of the players, dismissing the notion that NFL players have it easier than rugby guys because they wear so much padding. The amount of equipment, he said, doesn't detract from the courage of those wearing it.

"I've watched enough American football to know there's a definite reason why guys wear helmets and pads," he 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."

But sometimes a player has to know when to put on the brakes. Smith learned that on his first day, seeking out the punter after running into him.

"It was nothing intended," Smith said. "He knows I'm coming from a little different situation."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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