HE’s tried basketball, rugby union and now Penrith’s Hayden Smith is on the verge of making it in the NFL.
And no, he’s not a punter.
Smith, a former basketballer and rugby union international for the US, is close to winning a spot on the roster of the New York Jets, one of American football’s most famous franchises.
He’d play in the team’s offence as a tight end, where, should he make the grade, he’ll be a target for two of the sport’s hottest quarterbacks, Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. It’s a remarkable step in one of the most amazing journeys in Australian sport.
The 202cm, 116kg giant was set to join the Sydney Kings in 2008 after a successful stint in US college basketball. But a potential NBL career stalled when the Kings folded, sitting out the next two seasons. Smith, who’d completed a financial degree on a basketball scholarship at Denver’s Metropolitan State University, returned to the US and kept fit playing rugby union.
The powerful athlete was soon chosen to play for the US Eagles in last year’s Rugby World Cup.
Former Wallabies assistant coach Scott Johnson, then coaching the US Eagles, spotted him playing college rugby for fun and invited him to join the US team.
From there, the 26-year-old carved out a career playing professional rugby in England’s Aviva premiership for Saracens.
It wasn’t long before NFL scouts noticed his rare mix of agility, handling skills and size. He has trialled with NFL franchises, including Philadelphia, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and finally the New York Jets.
Tim Brewster, the former head coach of the University of Minnesota, is regarded as a tight end guru. He backs Smith to make the transition. “A lot of coaches shy away from guys who haven’t played the game because it is an exhausting process,” Brewster said.
“To me, that’s the exciting part. Taking a piece of clay like that.
“And I am going to tell you Hayden Smith is one beautiful piece of clay. Just mould him into what you want him to be.”