Alex Gray is embarking on a new career path in the NFL

Last Updated July 12 2017, 15:40NFL
The Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons

Six years after captaining an England youth side that included Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly and Mako Vunipola, Alex Gray is embarking on a new career path with a different oval-balled sport.

In 2011 Gray was skipper for a star-studded English side that also included George Ford and Joe Launchbury, one that reached the Junior World Championship final where they were beaten by a New Zealand XV containing Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett.

While many on display advanced to feature in the British and Irish Lions' recent tour against the All Blacks, Gray's most recent experience was a campaign with Championship club Yorkshire Carnegie that ended when his contract was up after a year.

At that point, the 26-year-old former England sevens player was running through his options with his agent when he threw out a pie-in-the-sky idea.

"Completely tongue-in-cheek I said, 'If nothing comes up that we like shall we just go to the NFL and make a load of money'," Gray told Press Association Sport.

"It was a complete joke but lo and behold two weeks later my agent had NFL scouts who really liked what they'd seen of me in rugby.

"I had a big decision to make because rugby had been my life; I'd played it since I was six, professionally since I was 17, it's all I'd ever known.

"You only get a certain amount of years to play sport. The challenge of never playing a certain sport to going and playing at the highest level was a huge challenge and a real draw. I had to jump into it."

In May Gray was revealed to be one of four European players that landed on an NFC South team's practice squad as part of an initiative designed to open doors for prospects from this continent.

The new Atlanta Falcons tight end may be the first English rugby player to tread such a path but there are examples of others who have transitioned from one of the codes to the gridiron, including ex-Saracens lock Hayden Smith and his fellow Aussie Jarryd Hayne.

Smith caught just one catch in his time and, despite considerable hype, Hayne lasted only two months on San Francisco's active roster.

"I see those rugby guys, they lasted one season; that's not what I'm about," Gray stressed.

"I'm not doing it to say I tried it. It's about really committing to something and seeing how far that talent can go."

Only last year Billy Vunipola mused about giving the NFL "a crack" further down the line, yet Gray is under no illusions about how challenging crossing from rugby to American football is.

He need only look at Lawrence Okoye to know physical traits can only get you so far, with the ex-Olympic discus thrower yet to play a competitive down in the four years since he turned to the sport.

"It may happen that after people have seen me do it, you get every Tom, Dick and Harry from the rugby world saying, 'If he can do it, I can do it'," Gray noted.

"Like myself, they won't realise what the game is about. I thought the NFL was just a bunch of amazing athletes doing amazing physical things but it's a powered-up chess game. Rugby players can compete physically but the mental aspect of it is something rugby players have never experienced.

"There's also the humbling fact - some of these may have played international rugby, for the Lions, they're going to go from the top of one sport and come to the NFL where no one gives a hell about what you've done in the rugby world and you're basically an academy player again. Can they cope with that or would they want to?

"For players that want to do it, they've really got to look at why they're doing it. It can't be just because, 'I want to play in the NFL because it's going to be cool'. You won't survive.

"You won't put in the hours. For the first three weeks I was there I was in a hotel room and I didn't turn on my TV once. I was doing seven to seven every day, have half an hour for dinner, then until half 11 all I would be doing is studying my playbook.

"People might watch 'Ballers' and think this is what life is like for an NFL player. Maybe for two or three weeks when the season's finished but for nine months it's smashing heads and reading a playbook."

It is a lifestyle Gray is ready to embrace.

"I thoroughly believe inside myself that this is where I'm supposed to be, that life has set this up for me," he said. "I took this to make it the next five to 10 years of my life."

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