Sometimes, when I’m having a beer in a pub after a rugby game, people who’ve heard that I spent a number of years in the States ask me the same question: do I think ‘so and so’ would make it in the National Football League?
I give them the same answer – probably not. If they want to know why not, I expand on my reply (as long as they’re buying).
Firstly, the competition for places is incredibly fierce. There are 32 teams in the NFL each carrying 53 players on their active roster plus a further eight who make up the practice squad. So that’s 61 pros per team, which works out to a total of 1,952 players employed by NFL clubs.
Just about all of these players come from college football programs. A few make a team as a walk-on – people who played only in high school turn up for a try out and are accepted – although this is pretty rare.
There are hundreds of college football teams in the US, from famous powerhouses like Michigan, Ohio and Notre Dame to tiny institutions like Shanandoah and Carroll. Factoring in all the big and small colleges, the average number of players per team works out to around 40, making a total of 80,000 or so college players.
Not all of them want a career in the NFL – for one thing most of them know they’re too small, too slow or too clumsy to make it, plus many of them can earn a lot more money in the professions – medicine, law, finance, IT etc – without having to put their bodies on the line every Sunday.
But the vast majority would be thrilled to be on national TV and become a name in America’s favourite sport. For one thing, the average NFL salary works out to $800,000 per year, which is a lot more than they could earn as a bean counter at Ernst & Young or assistant manager at their local Safeway.
However, if they do make a team, and after a couple of seasons prove to be a game-changer on offence or defence, their agent can get them something like $25 million over five years. And if they become a genuine, magazine-cover star, they can really rake in the big bucks – the Colts’ Peyton Manning earned something north of $42 million last year in salary, bonuses and endorsements.
But in order to become a well-paid football pro there’s still that hump to overcome, the colossal competition, and that begins at high school level.
There are about 98,000 high schools in America, and just about all of them have some kind of football program. At some, football is the be all and end all of existence.
For example, Lassiter High in Marietta, Georgia, has a huge, 3 million-dollar Jumbotron. And there are similar set ups in Texas high schools where Friday night football is by far the biggest and most important event of the week.
Nationwide, these schools average about 27 members per team, so we’re talking about well over two and a half million high school players. Some of these players attract the attention of college scouts by scoring multi touchdowns, running jawdropping times at track meets, or both. There’s currently a 17-year-old high school kid who’s run a 10.2. The scouts are all over him.
There’s no question you have to be super talented to get an NFL contract. And don’t think for a moment that those huge guys on the line with the bulging buttocks and Budweiser tummies can’t move.
One of the Dolphins’ tackles, Paul Soliai, who tips the scales at a svelte 160 kgs, can backpedal on defence in nothing flat, and the Ravens’ Bryant McKinnie, who’s two inches taller than Nathan Sharpe and 50 kgs heavier, can hard-charge across the line an instant after the snap.
As for the guys now playing major rugby who’d make it in the NFL, I can only think of one with a real shot, and that’s Sonny Bill Williams. He’s tall enough and fast enough to make a good tight end, leaping high in the flat to haul down a pass. And he’s big enough to handle the other tight end chore, which is blocking a player zeroing in on his quarterback.
JP Pietersen is another who might qualify for a try out, along with George North and Alex Cuthbert, but all three would need to bulk up. Bryan Habana has the required jinks and is probably fast enough to be a punt or kickoff returner.
Ma’a Nonu, who has excellent acceleration and smart lateral moves, would go close as a halfback. Manu Tuilagi could try out for the same spot. Scott Higginbotham has the size to be a fullback and has good top speed but probably not the explosive start he’d need from the snap.
Pierre Spies is big enough and fast enough to try out at outside linebacker. David Pocock and Wycliff Palu could think about the middle linebacker position but they’d both have to hit a lot harder. Fulgence Ouedraogo, the French flanker, is quick enough and tall enough to defend on short passing plays out wide.
But there’s nobody now playing international rugby who’s fast enough to play defence against any of the NFL wideout pass receivers.
Looking backwards, a young Rupeni Caucaunibuca would certainly have starred as a tackle-busting tailback. Once into the secondary he’d be gone. Doug Howlett might have been a possibility as a pass receiver on a quick slant as would Jeff Wilson who had a wonderful stride.
David Campese, with his great broken-field running, might have made it a kick returner and Ron Jarden, with his breathtaking acceleration, would have been a game-winning scatback and receiver on short passing plays.
But the guy who would have been a superstar is Jonah Lomu. There are plenty of men his height now playing, but nobody his height has the speed Jonah could turn on, nor the power of his charge toward the line. I believe the scouts wanted him to try out but Jonah didn’t want to leave home.
Something close to a dozen Aussies punters have made the NFL, all but one of them coming from the AFL. And I believe interest was shown in several rugby place kickers like Johnny Wilkinson, Paul Thornburn, Morne Steyn and Frans Steyn.
But it’s not enough to get the ball over the crossbar from 52 yards out. You also have to get the ball up in a hurry to get over the leaping linemen trying the block the kick, and this is a tough trick to master.
So there it is – my take on who would and wouldn’t have a shot at playing in the NFL. I’m sure Roarers have some other names to suggest. Let’s hear them.