Australian Rugby Superstar Jarryd Hayne and His Impossible NFL Dream

Nick Fouriezos@@nick4iezosSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 3, 2015

B/R via Getty Images

SYDNEY — It's 2 p.m., but Jarryd Hayne isn't here.

Everyone else is. A mob of reporters sit in regal red chairs, notepads out, waiting. Half a dozen television cameras stand across from the blue projector screen that fills the room like an IMAX theater, ready to stream his announcement to thousands of rugby league fans across Australia.

Purple orbs line the rows of this ritzy auditorium, making it feel like the space-age set of a Silicon Valley startup.

This doesn't look at all like the press conference of a likely practice squad player. Because that's all Jarryd Hayne is right now. And yet the 27-year-old represents so much more.

Read his resume. The two-time Player of the Year quit Australia's National Rugby League in October to pursue an NFL career. Think Michael Jordan trading hoops for a baseball cap. Except this 6'2", 226-pound all-star is donning pads and heading west, carrying with him a continent's dreams and insecurities.

Hence the glitzy presser, a dream two years in the making. Five months ago, Hayne shocked Aussies by leaving rugby league. By December, he was working out for NFL teams in San Diego. And now, on March 3, he's ready to make the big announcement as to who he will play for.

Nobody knows where Hayne will choose to sign.

Just the day before, The Daily Telegraph announced Hayne would stick with the Detroit Lions, who he would have signed with months ago if not for an issue with his visa. This morning, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the opposite; Hayne would announce he was heading to San Francisco instead. Speculation has run rampant between Sydney's two biggest papers, and today Hayne will prove one right.

That is, if he shows up.

The pressure is becoming too much to take. A cameraman finally breaks. "Does someone know what's going on?" A woman speaks into a walkie-talkie. Soon, she says, she'll let us know. Hayne's mum, sister and auntie wait too. They know as much as anyone else. Which is to say they know nothing.

Suddenly, music starts to play. A door opens on stage, and in walks Hayne.

"In 2015," he says, pulling out a red-and-gold cap, "I'm going to be a San Francisco 49er."

***

Watch Hayne's highlights—there are plenty to choose from. When he jukes would-be defenders, he does it two at a time. Targets of his stiff arms look like they were hit by lead pipes. He breaks open the type of field-stretching runs that are never seen in professional rugby league, where formations were invented to make line breaks nearly impossible.

"On a good day, he's easily the best player in the NRL," said 7 News' Josh Massoud, a reporter who has covered Hayne during his entire nine-year career. "His standout performances stood out and were so brilliant."

The man simply looks like a running back. Just ask one. "He's quick, he's elusive, he's powerful, he's fast, he has great vision," then-Detroit Lion Reggie Bush told reporters after Hayne made his announcement in October. Bush met the rugby league star during a promotional trip Down Under last year. "I think he'd do pretty well actually."

At first, Hayne looked like a lock to join Bush in Detroit. But the Lions cut ties with Bush in February. Before that, San Francisco promoted Jim Tomsula—its defensive line coach and a man Hayne was familiar with from an earlier visit with the team—to fill the head coach void left by the departure of Jim Harbaugh.

49ers coach Jim Tomsula.
49ers coach Jim Tomsula.Dino Vournas/Associated Press

The move was significant. Unlike most NFL coaches, Tomsula knows how to convert rugby players to professional football. He worked in NFL Europe for nine years and was head coach of the Rhein Fire in 2006.

"With Jim's knowledge of transitioning players, it made me the perfect fit to join the 49ers," Hayne said at his press conference. "That brought them back in the picture."

Hayne wanted some sort of financial guarantee. After all, he was leaving behind a rugby league contract that reports say would average at least a million Australian dollars—roughly $763,000 in U.S. currency—per year (the National Rugby League does not officially release player contract figures).

"I was about to become the highest-paid player in rugby league," he claims.

Neither Detroit nor Seattle was willing to put money on the table.

Then the 49ers came back with an offer: about $115,000 guaranteed for 20 weeks.

It was a rare olive branch for a player who might not make the final roster. If he does earn a spot on the final 53-man squad, his rookie contract is for three years and roughly $1.58 million, though he could also be cut in future seasons.

"I talked to (49ers general manager) Trent Baalke, and we pretty much did a handshake over the phone," Hayne said. He faces a crowded backfield that includes likely starter Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter and, oddly enough, Reggie Bush, who also signed with the club.

Most likely, Hayne will have to earn his spot by returning kicks on special teams.

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There are still plenty of questions, though.

For instance, how will someone who has never taken a snap—at any level—manage to learn San Francisco's nearly 300-play playbook? Will he handle the transition well from superstar to potential super-scrub in an NFL locker room? Does he worry about being pushed around by some of the league's bigger egos?

"I'm a big boy," Hayne says. "I've been bullied before."

But there's another, more pressing thought: What if his natural talent, so dominant against Australian competition, isn't enough to stand out amid the world's greatest athletes in the NFL?

"This is a huge risk. I'm taking a massive leap of faith," he admits. "You make a decision like this, you need to be wanting to do more than play a bit of football. With the pay cut I'm taking as well, it takes more...for me, it's faith.

"It's about believing that I can make the impossible possible."

***

To understand how Hayne got here, you have to understand the path he's traveled.

He grew up in Minto, one of Sydney's poorest suburbs. "It was like Brooklyn," his mother, Jodie, says. Her thick Aussie accent breaks into a TV-inspired New York tilt as she says that final –lyn­. "Housing commission, tenements, that sort of thing."

Life wasn't easy. His father, Manoa Thompson, was a professional rugby league player for the Auckland Warriors and Fiji's national team. But as Thompson chased a decade-long career overseas, Jodie raised her son alone.

"People would look down their nose at me because I was a single mother with a half-caste child," Jodie told The Daily Telegraph's Andrew Webster after her son was awarded the Dally M Medal—the NRL's award for its Player of the Year—in September 2009.

"Even the Islanders would give me filthy looks. People would ask me if Jarryd was adopted."

Waking at 5 a.m. most mornings, Jodie caught the train to a job in the city. Jarryd was making his own journey, from pint-sized youngster to a supremely gifted teenager. They moved to Airds, also a suburb, also poor. Soon he was starring on junior teams in nearby Campbelltown.

"I had one goal in life, growing up in housing commission," Hayne said in October. "That was to buy my mum a house."

Australians toss around the word "legend" loosely, but Hayne was actually becoming one. Rumors swirled as his athletic career blossomed during stints at three high schools. They deepened when he won the 100-meter hurdles at the schoolboy nationals despite not even training for track and field.

Jarryd Hayne, far right, in a 100-meter dash at an Athletic All-Stars meet in September 2010.
Jarryd Hayne, far right, in a 100-meter dash at an Athletic All-Stars meet in September 2010.Getty Images

"Anything he did as a kid, he had to be best at," Jodie says. "It's just his determination—if he really wants something, he'll go for it."

Track coaches weren't the only ones impressed. Cricketers, soccer managers and Olympic sprinters have all openly wondered what could have been if Hayne had turned his raw, God-given athleticism to another sport.

That wasn't in the script, though. Not back then.

Instead, Hayne dropped out of school in 2006 to play professional rugby league at 18 years old. He was named Rookie of the Year after scoring 17 tries in 16 games. He bought his mum a house on Australia's Central Coast. Then a Hummer.

But in March of 2008, everything changed for Hayne. He and two other rugby players got into a 4 a.m. fight in Kings Cross, perhaps Sydney's seediest district. Shots were fired. A bullet whizzed by Hayne, and in an instant, he almost lost everything.

That brush with death culminated in what he describes as his journey to Christianity, which began when he played rugby with the faith-filled members of the Fiji World Cup squad in 2008.

A year later, a more focused and secure Hayne won his first Dally M while leading his Parramatta Eels to the NRL's Grand Final, which they would lose to the Melbourne Storm. That year he was also named the world's best player in rugby league. He continued to represent Australia in international competition and won his second Dally M in 2014.

Hayne had finally arrived.

And then he decided it was time to leave.

***

Credit: NRL Photos

"For the past 24 months, I've been thinking of having a crack at the NFL," he said in October. "For the past 12 months, I've been seriously considering it."

The digital whirlwind left by those two sentences created a media firestorm. Cameron Tomarchio and Nick Whigham of news.com.au reacted with an article naming it "one of the biggest sporting stories in Australian history." The New Daily sports editor Greig Johnston dubbed it "a new benchmark for courage."

Most fans supported the star for following his dream, though one compared losing Hayne and fellow rugby league defectors Sam Burgess and Sonny Bill Williams to "soccer losing Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez to Golf," per The Daily Telegraph's David Meddows.

"It felt a little dirty at first, but you can't deny someone for trying to better themselves," Eels fan Steve Bateman said over the roar of a recent Parramatta contest. "He'll be back, though. He's a big fish here, but he's a little fish over there."

Parramatta staff and teammates have distanced themselves from their former captain now that the rugby league season has begun. "With Jarryd not being here—he had nothing to do with tonight," snapped Parramatta head coach Brad Arthur after the Eels' first loss, a 32-12 blowout against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.

But even rival fans couldn't muster ill will for Hayne.

"Everyone loved to hate him because they knew how good he was. I hated him with a passion," said David Cabral, a mohawked, costume-wearing Canterbury-Bankstown supporter. In true Aussie fashion, he added: "I hope he does well over there!"

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As others discussed his place in history, Hayne's work had only just begun.

He had to shape his body for the NFL game.

Rugby league is a game of endurance; football a stop-and-go sprint. Running backs train their bodies for short bursts, rapid acceleration and quick changes of direction. To this point, Hayne used a generalized workout regimen better suited for rugby players.

That changed in October. Working with Roger Fabri, a speed specialist who trains most of the NRL's top athletes, Hayne focused solely on drills that could help him as a running back: first-step workouts, max-velocity sprints, multidirectional drills and box jumps.

"Change of direction and footwork are key," Fabri said. "Those are the values he repeats nonstop."

Upping his speed training to three days a week, Hayne went from a 4.84 40-yard dash during practice to a 4.53 at his San Diego combine in December. It would have been the sixth-best time for running backs in February's NFL combine.

The substantial improvement helped dispel concerns over Hayne's work ethic. "There was a perception that he didn't apply himself as consistently as some other players," Massoud said. The star appeared disenchanted with rugby league the last two seasons, publicly criticizing the league's owner-friendly salary cap and privately considering his jump overseas.

Some league coaches believed Hayne wasn't motivated in drills he didn't feel comfortable with, says Fabri, though he personally never saw any lacking effort.

Hayne was encouraged by his football training.

"You could compare it to a new girlfriend—he was crazy excited about it," Fabri said.

***

Hayne isn't in Australia anymore.

While players can't be in touch with coaches until official workouts start April 6, the running back has kept busy, leaving Australia on March 16. After landing in Los Angeles, he trained at the EXOS training facility in Arizona with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who posted an Instagram picture of the Aussie with his new teammates.

Next up for Hayne is San Francisco—his first chance to impress.

Some think Hayne's move could build a pipeline for Australia's best athletes to find fame and fortune in the land of opportunity. Aussie-born basketball stars such as Andrew Bogut and Dante Exum are already building bridges. New York Jets tight end Hayden Smith became the first Australian rugby pro to play in the NFL in 2012, recording one catch before being cut after 16 months. But he had neither the talent nor star power of Hayne.

Australian culture, in general, tends to romanticize Europe and the United States. Those who can hack it overseas are considered more accomplished. If an actor or athlete succeeds globally, he or she is especially venerated.

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"We have a massive inferiority complex here," Massoud said. "We all see it as if people like Hayne are representing and legitimizing us on the world stage."

Not that Hayne is thinking about any of that.

He isn't one to talk about the bigger picture—at least, not in football terms.

Some might follow him; some might not.

"It's one thing having talent," he says, "but when you have belief and talent you can achieve anything."

Hayne certainly isn't short on confidence.

And those who doubt him?

They just can't believe in something they cannot see.

Not yet, anyway.

 

Nick Fouriezos, formerly of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is an American freelancer based in Sydney. You can follow him @nick4iezos or on his website, nick4iezos.com.