For a basketballer from Bullaburra who ended up playing for the United States at the Rugby World Cup, Hayden Smith has never taken the road most travelled.
But the 27-year-old turned heads across the sporting world earlier this year when it was announced he had signed a lucrative contract to play American football with the New York Jets.
It meant walking away from an impressive stint with English rugby club Saracens but Smith had his heart set on a shot at the National Football League (NFL).
“I’d always wanted to play in the NFL and playing in the World Cup and being able to do what I’ve done in rugby in that relatively short time, I sat back and saw that . . . I had a small window to actually pull the trigger [on a move to the NFL] and that’s what I did,” Smith said.
It is just another twist in one of the most unpredictable sporting careers imaginable. Smith’s arrival at the Jets actually represented a homecoming of sorts, a return to the city he arrived in shortly after completing his HSC at Blue Mountains Grammar School to play college basketball.
A better opportunity saw Smith complete his studies in Denver at Metro State University which was supposed to herald his return to Australia to play for the Sydney Kings — until the club went bust.
To remain fit in the final weeks before graduation Smith connected with a rugby team in Denver. At 202cm and 116kg it did not take long for the talented Australian to garner attention and before too long Smith found himself playing lock for Saracens. The 45-match stint in England included a trip to the World Cup with the American Eagles, his eligibility made possible by the four years at college.
Despite the success Smith was adamant about pursuing an NFL career and after trialling with a number of clubs, was eventually signed by the Jets on a contract reportedly worth a potential $355,000
The challenges of adapting to the highly technical sport have already become apparent.
“The main disadvantage I have is that I’ve really, from the ground up, have learned all the different concepts, all the different terminology, and that’s something that people don’t really realise, just how complex it is,” said Smith. “You can go into a meeting where anyone who hasn’t played football it’s like they’re speaking Chinese.”
Unlike most of the very few Australians who have previously played in the NFL, Smith will not be a punter. As a big man with athletic ability, Smith has been earmarked as a tight end, a complex position that can involve dual roles as a blocker and receiver.
With the NFL season set to begin in September, Smith is putting in 14-hour days, six days a week in order to achieve his lofty goal of breaking into the team.
“It’s a very difficult thing that I’m going to try and do and it’s going to require a lot of work to be successful so I’ve just got to put in the hours,” said Smith.
“It’s going to be a process and I’m very aware of that. I’m getting a little bit better every day and that’s really my goal, is obviously to improve every day, every session . . . If you look at it in its entirety it can be a little overwhelming but I’m just trying to do the little things every day.”