As Jarryd Hayne battles to secure his place on the San Francisco 49ers’ 53-man roster that will start the season, the former rugby league superstar is close to completing a journey that has seen him leave one sport at the very top to try and earn his chance in the NFL. After a sensational nine-year rugby league career in which he played over 170 games for the Parramatta Eels, as well as establishing himself as an Australia international, Hayne took the decision to call it quits and pack his bags for the USA and the NFL.
The 27-year-old’s reputation, along with impressive physical attributes, saw him earn a three-year contract with the 49ers as a free agent, and Hayne is now looking at the possibility of seeing some game time in his rookie season as either a running back or a kick returning. With the 49ers as long as 14/1 with 32Red and 888sport to top the NFC West next season, there could be room for their convert to make a name for himself in a second sport. While Hayne may well be the highest-profile athlete to convert sports and try out for the NFL, he certainly isn’t the first. He might not be unlikely to transfer the 49ers’ odds with 32Red and other bookmakers but the Australian is following the footsteps of a number of past NRL players who were able to earn their chance in the NFL after changing sports. Here are some of the most notable names.
Hayden Smith: He might not have enjoyed the greatest NFL career but Hayden Smith’s transition from rugby to American football has helped pave the way for Hayne. While the two Australians played different formats of the game, both have been able to use the physical attributes that made them so successful on the rugby field to earn a shot at the NFL. For Smith, his 250-pound frame saw him signed by the New York Jets in 2012 after leaving English rugby union side Saracens. He went on to make five appearances in the NFL, making his one and only catch against the San Diego Chargers, before reverting back to his previous career.
Toni Fritsch: The Austrian footballer’s story is a lot closer to Hayne’s than other NFL converts. By the time Fritsch took the decision to leave soccer and try his hand – or foot – at American football, he had already played over 120 games for Rapid Vienna – one of Austria’s biggest clubs – as well as making nine appearances for his country. Having been undrafted in 1971, Fritsch was given his chance by the Dallas Cowboys as a kicker, going on to spend 11 years in the NFL, winning the Super Bowl in his second season in the league. Using the soccer skills that had made him an international player in his previous career, Fritsch was one of the most successful cross-sport converts and a pioneer in the NFL.
Darren Bennett: The former Aussie Rules star is possibly the best Australian export into the NFL over the years. After an AFL career in which he played over 70 games for West Coast and Melbourne as a forward, Bennett changed careers and carved out a place as one of the San Diego Chargers’ best punters in recent years. During his 159 NFL appearances, the Aussie racked up a host of accolades, earning two Pro Bowl call-ups, two All-Pro selections and a place in the NFL’s 1990s All Decade side. Following in the footsteps of Colin Ridgway, the first Australian to play in the NFL, Bennett’s achievements saw him cement his place in Chargers’ history.
Richard Tardits: Following an early rugby career in which he had starred for France’s junior sides, Richard Tardits went out on a limb when visiting family in Augusta, asking for a tryout with the University of Georgia. After earning a scholarship, Tardits went on to break the college’s record for most sacks and held the record for five years before being selected 123rd overall in the 1989 Draft by the Phoenix Cardinals. Having moved to the New England Patriots shortly after being drafted, Tardits made 27 appearances for the franchise in three seasons before returning to rugby and winning 24 caps for the USA, including two in the 1999 World Cup.