Five other players who swapped rugby union for the NFL
2024/04/01

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Opting to join the National Football League (NFL) is a big call made by Wales and Gloucester flyer Louis Rees-Zammit, but he is not the first rugby union player to make that decision.

Over the years, few players have succeeded in making the transition from the 15-a-side game to the American sports code and Rees-Zammit will have to hit the ground running if he wants to make the active roster for one of the NFL teams.

Here are five other players who took a similar route to by swapping rugby union for the NFL.

Christian Wade

is arguably the most high profile rugby player to try his hand in the NFL.

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He left former Premiership outfit Wasps towards the end of 2018 in a bid to launch his American Football career and like Rees Zammit, he also joined via the NFL’s International Player Pathway programme.

The former wing, who is the fourth-highest try scorer in the ‘s history, did well initially as he scored a 70-metre touchdown for the Buffalo Bills in a pre-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts in New York in 2019.

Despite that superb performance, Wade never made the Buffalo Bills’ active roster and he returned to rugby late in 2022 to join Top 14 outfit Racing 92.

Hayden Smith

Australian-born Smith started out as a basketballer and trained with the Sydney Kings professional basketball team before heading to the United States on a basketball scholarship.

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After completing his studies, he returned to Australia to play for the Sydney Kings but that dream wasn’t realised as the team went bankrupt.

The second-row then started playing rugby in the United States and made the All-American Team and after graduating from college, he joined the Denver Barbarians and made his Test debut late in 2008 against Uruguay. He also joined Premiership side during the 2008/09 season and spent four seasons with them before heading to the NFL in 2012 where he was promoted from the New York Jets’ practice roster to their active roster.

Smith was released by the Jets in 2013 and returned to rugby union and Saracens, whom he played for from 2014 to 2016.

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He also represented the United States at Test level and was part of their 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cup squads.

Daniel Adongo

Adongo made a name for himself as a rugby player in his native Kenya and moved to South Africa in 2007 to join the Sharks Academy. He played for the Sharks as a lock and flanker at U21 and senior levels before joining the Bulls in 2011 but he had a short-lived stint at the Pretoria-based side and eventually moved to New Zealand where he was part of Counties-Manukau’s National Provincial Championship squad in 2012.

Adongo then returned to South Africa in 2013 and was part of the Southern Kings squad and played for them at Super Rugby level as well as for Eastern Province in the Currie Cup First Division that year.

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In 2013, he moved to the NFL to join the Indianapolis Colts where he played as an outside linebacker despite having no American Football experience. He was initially part of their practice roster but was elevated to their active roster later that year and eventually featured in two matches for the Colts in the NFL after being waived by the Colts in 2015.

Alex Gray

Gray represented various Premiership clubs like Newcastle Falcons, London Irish and Bath as well as Championship outfit Yorkshire Carnegie between 2010 and 2021. A versatile player, who played at number eight, centre or wing, Gray had a glittering career at schoolboy level and captained England in triumphant Grand Slam campaigns at U16, U18 and U20 levels.

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Gray also made his debut for England’s senior Sevens team in 2013 and in 2015 he was named as the Rugby Players Association’s Sevens Player of the Year. He was also part of Great Britain’s extended Sevens squad for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 but missed out on selection for the final squad.

In 2017, he became the first British rugby player to pursue a career in American football when he signed a deal as a tight end with the Atlanta Falcons but only made their practice squad after joining through the NFL’s International Player Pathway programme.

Unfortunately, Gray never made the Falcons’ active roster and he eventually parted ways with them at the end of 2019.

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He returned to rugby in 2020 when he signed for Bath but left the club after making only six appearances for the West Country outfit.

Christian Scotland-Williamson

Scotland-Williamson made his mark with former Premiership outfit Worcester Warriors, who he represented as a lock from 2014 to 2017. A video of a spectacular tackle which he made went viral in 2017 and that led to him leaving rugby union for the NFL that year.

Like most of the other former rugby union players, Scotland-Williamson’s move to the NFL came through the International Player Pathway programme and he soon two signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers where he spent two years playing as a tight end.

Scotland-Williamson spent his entire time with the Steelers’ practice squad but returned to rugby union when he joined Harlequins for the 2021/22 season. His stint with the Premiership club was a short one as he left Quins in 2022.

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