It’ll be an emotional Week 3 on Sunday for Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Jermaine Eluemunor. He’s a native of London and is returning to the city for the first time in six years.
“That was my first ever exposure to the game,” Eluemunor told Yahoo Sports’ Tony Siragusa (see the video feature on him above).
His game of choice before football: rugby.
Talk about a successful jump. But don’t think it’s that seamless.
This year, the NFL instituted the “International Pathway Program,” which allows the four NFC South teams to carry an extra practice-squad player for the season. In continuing the promotion of the NFL product globally, the league hand-picked four international players with varying football experience and assigned them to each team. One of these players, Englishman and now Atlanta Falcon Alex Gray, played rugby professionally for eight years before making the quantum leap to football and has had trouble adjusting to the nuances of his new game.
“The sports are completely different,” NFL UK head of player development Aden Durde said. “The details are hard to pick up. When you have to try and learn the details of a new game while also playing the sport at a high level, you have to go through an extremely difficult process. Rugby is a more fluid game so just grasping the details of football is tough.”
Senior Bowl scout Ryan Fitzgerald sees first-hand what highly skilled rugby players can bring to football – and vice versa. Along with his scouting duties, Fitzgerald doubles as the general manager of the NOLA Gold, a team in Major League Rugby, an American professional rugby organization whose first season is set to begin in the spring of 2018.
“As far as the talent evaluation process goes, it’s cool to see a little bit of a crossover,” Fitzgerald says of the sports. “Now you are starting to see a little bit of that crossover with the NFL. Pete Carroll brought in three All-Blacks for tackling drills.
“I was in camp last year with the Dolphins and they brought in two rugby players from Scotland to teach how to tackle.”
For Fitzgerald, who is more concerned with players trying to make the switch from football to rugby, there’s enough overlap between the two sports to make the transition feasible. It’s getting former football players in elite cardiovascular shape that he says will prove difficult.
“The one big difference between the two is fitness level,” Fitzgerald said. “In rugby you have to be in much better shape because there are no commercial breaks, including in the World Cup. Also, unlike football, when you substitute you’re out for the rest of the game and everyone is playing both offense and defense.”
NOLA Gold will likely feature five to 10 players who have significant football experience – a number Fitzgerald hopes grows in the coming years. From now until spring, Fitzgerald will be working closely with these players to get them up to speed on the ins-and-outs of rugby. Still, Fitzgerald acknowledged that many of these guys will likely spend this year on the practice squad, much like the Falcons’ Gray.
“There is an academy contract, functioning as pretty much an NFL practice squad,” Fitzgerald said. “This is where most of the inexperienced guys will spend their first year. Every practice they will get better. As elite athletes, all they need is time and good coaching.”
Eluemunor has no such worries. He made it to the league, the football one. And Sunday will make for a remarkable homecoming.
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