Christian Scotland-Williamson is stalking his prey. The second row/back row player for the Worcestor Warriors is only several yards away from his opponent, Alex Reider. Considered a "super strong carrier," Reider runs over the middle of the rugby pitch, ball in hand. But he doesn't see the 6-foot 9-inch, 274 pound Scotland-Williamson until it is too late. Scotland-Williamson, as opportunistic and intuitive as he is large, pounces. Before Reider knows it, he is completely airborne, his momentum overpowered by the inertia of Scotland-Williamson. Over 13 feet and 500 pounds of padless sheer muscle, pile-drived into the not-so-soft ground.
Within a few seconds, this viral hit puts Scotland-Williamson's name on the map. At the time, he was a 24-year-old from outside London, described by former rugby player and sports commentator Ugo Monye as having the "name of a posh boy," but who "hits like a thug." He played in the Premiership League in England for three years and started what seemed to be an extremely promising rugby career.
Following the response from the viral play, Scotland-Williamson said that the attention generated by the viral video persuaded him to leave a promising rugby career behind for the NFL. Players like Scotland-Williamson are used to making hard tackles and taking hits, training obsessively and have the team-sport mindset that makes them perfect for the gridiron.
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"I suppose it's one of those cases of walking into a casino and betting all your money on yourself," Scotland-Williamson said, adding he doesn't want to someday be "talking to my kids around the dinner table saying 'Oh I could have done this' and then they say 'Did you?' and you say I didn't."
The transition from rugby to the NFL is a far-fetched dream, but Scotland-Williams exudes a quiet confidence that would make even the biggest doubter believe in his chances.
Last June, about 10 months after the viral video, Scotland-Williamson was invited to the NFL International Player Pathway program.
Founded in 2017, the NFL sanctioned program offers one extra practice squad spot to four NFL teams each year, reserved for international players with limited or no experience in football. A new division is selected each year for the program – the NFC South in 2017 and the AFC North in 2018. Each NFL team is granted 10 practice squad spots. Those on the practice squad are signed by their respective NFL teams, but they are not on the active 53-man roster allowed to play on Sundays. These IPP players can be activated to the team at any time.
With a chance to learn, develop, and improve under the watch of an organization for two seasons, the NFL believes these players will eventually play on Sundays. The program begins with a camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida that teaches a crash-course on football, with mentoring from current pros and high-level coaches before the players join their respective teams.
Scotland-Williamson graduated from the 2018 program, and in turn was granted a practice squad spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2018-2019 season.
Mike Kensil, international vice president for the NFL, said that the long term goal of the International Player Pathway program is to "find international players that can actually compete."
This makes rugby players especially suited for the program.
"They have been in a competitive environment. The contact doesn't faze them," Kensil said."And coming out of a professional circuit or a high, high level of rugby, their work ethic is not a problem either."
This opinion is popular outside of the NFL as well.
"[Rugby and football] are both sports built around contact," said Tom Hamilton, a senior writer for ESPN UK. "They are both sports built around skill and the ability to get through defense. They are both sports anchored around power and distribution."
While athleticism, strength and speed are all important aspects of the NFL game as well, the mental focus, playbook memorization and importance of minute details required to play the game are equally, if not more, important. The transition does not happen overnight.
"If you took an athlete and had basically built someone on Madden, there are loads of players in rugby who would compare to American football players, but I think especially the transition is more the mental aspect that you have to overcome. Being an athlete will get you in the door, but also your kind of resilience, your grit and your aptitude to learn the game will keep you there," said Scotland-Williamson. "I think it's all about that top two inches."
Scotland-Williamson believes he has those top two inches, but while professional football has potential for higher income and fame – and the International Player Pathway program definitely helps – successful rugby players still take a massive risk by joining the NFL.
Most face surefire careers in their native sport, but only two players with ties to the program are currently on a 53-man roster: Efe Obada and Jordan Mailata.
Obada, a defensive end for the Carolina Panthers, has had the most success of any of these players, and it still took him four years to stick with a 53-man roster. He bounced around the league for two years before landing with the Carolina Panthers through the program in its inaugural year.
In this year's NFL Draft, Mailata was drafted in the seventh and final round. The first player to forgo the IPP since its inception, Mailata turned heads with his combination of size and athleticism, on his way to becoming an offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles. Unlike Obada, who turned heads as a supremely gifted athlete following one year of semi-professional football in England, Mailata came from a rugby background in Australia.
Scotland-Williamson, who is considered by many as the most promising prospect of the Pathway program players still on a practice squad, keeps in touch with Obada, Mailata and those associated with the IPP.
"[They're] probably friends for life to be honest," Scotland-Williamson said. "I think him and Jordan [are testaments] of the fact that there are these players out there that can play at the highest level."
Kensil said that the response to the IPP program was exciting. "I think there was genuine surprise that we were able to find players that could make the 53-man roster that quickly."
Annenberg Media spoke to Kensil as he was leaving the U.S. to attend a scouting camp in Australia. There, with rugby and Australian Rules Football, he hopes to find candidates for the 2019 program.
Chris Tilbey, a redshirt senior punter at the University of Southern California, was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, where he played Aussie Rules Football for twelve years before attending Prokick Australia.
Prokick Australia was "developed in 2007 to help guide and transition Australian athletes to perform at the College/NFL level, and with our natural Aussie instinct of kicking a ball, we have focused on that area," the Prokick website states. Notable graduates of the camp include Michael Dickson (Punter, Seattle Seahawks), Jordan Berry (Punter, Pittsburgh Steelers), and Cameron Johnston (Punter, Philadelphia Eagles).
Tilbey is blunt when saying that he wanted to use American Football as a means of going to university.
He did not magically land at one of the most recognizable football schools in the nation, however. Tilbey spent a year at the City College of San Francisco, "acclimatizing to the culture" of the United States. After one year up north he was offered a spot at USC.
Balance is the key word for Tilbey. He recognizes the importance of athletics and academics, but struggled with balancing the two in his earlier years at USC. In the weight room he had to learn to find "a balance between maintaining weight, maintaining strength, and also being able to kick well."
Similar to Scotland-Williamson with the IPP players, Tilbey feels his friends from Prokick have greatly helped each other, and himself, with the transition to the U.S. and American football.
"A couple of my best friends probably for life are going to be from that… during bye weeks we always try to go to each other's game," Tilbey said. "We have Facebook group chats, group messages, everything that we always support each other."
Tilbey knows the growth of football in his native country is just beginning – and not just with punters. The talent pool, though, is surely untapped. The problem: exposure to the NFL is still limited. A paid TV subscription is required to view NFL games, and the one nationally televised game per week airs during the Monday workday due to the time difference.
"I trained with a bunch of Tongan boys, a bunch of Samoan boys back home who could easily, easily play the offensive line positions. They could line up and tackle, they could line up at defensive end, it's just having to break away from the rugby or the footie side of things and actually practice for this," Tilbey said.
Maybe this year, for Kensil and the NFL International team, one of these Tongan or Samoan boys will be the star of the 2019 International Player Pathway program class. "Certainly, Australia has become a target area for us," Kensil said. "The pipeline is natural if we can find a number of athletes that want to do it."
Finding athletes willing to make the transition is still the biggest hurdle for the NFL. Compared to the NBA or the MLB, the NFL has by far the lowest number of international players, despite the sport's comparatively massive roster size. The NBA has 108 international players to the NFL's 63. The NBA has also developed a pronounced pipeline from Europe and pulls players from leagues around the world. Twenty-seven percent of MLB players are not American, primarily hailing from the Caribbean, South America, and as of recent, Japan.
The International Player Pathway program is the first step for the NFL, and has sparked interest for top level international athletes like Scotland-Williamson. But only time will tell if the program will garner sustained interest with talented athletes around the world. Logically, it should, but creating a greater interest in the sport beyond the United States is much easier said than done.