The Crossover

There were so many times my first year playing football when I wanted to quit. It wasn’t easy learning a new game from scratch. Believe it or not, the first full football game I ever watched was from the sidelines, dressed up in pads. And I’m not talking about Pop Warner. This was BYU, and there were 65,000 loud fans watching in the stands.

Growing up in New Zealand, football wasn’t a thing. It was all rugby, all the time. I was pretty much born with a rugby ball in my hand. I played through little league and high school, and I really thought I was going to make a living out of it. The development system in New Zealand is much different than in the U.S. You don’t go play for a college if you’re good enough — you play for your province. Every province has its own academy, and the best players get invited to train there. The academies are basically a feeder to the professional league — the Super 15 — and the legendary All Blacks national team.

Like most kids who grew up in New Zealand, my dream growing up was to play for the All Blacks. It looked like I was right on track to make it happen, too. I was invited to the Waikato Academy while I was still in high school and trained with some of the best players in the country. Some of the guys I trained with are actually on the team now.

But then the plan changed.

It all started because the dorm head at my boarding school knew the rugby coach at a high school in Utah. Random, I know, but I really don’t think it was a coincidence. Basically this high school in Utah, called Highland, has a pretty famous rugby team — there was even a movie about it a few years back called Forever Strong. Highland has a program where they bring international kids in to play for the team, and guys from my boarding school would go over all the time. Us Kiwis are all for venturing over to the states because to us, America is this big, wide country that we can’t wait to explore.

I graduated from high school and figured it would be a great opportunity. I would take a break from the academy, go over to America for four months and then come home and keep training. While I was playing for Highland, though, a BYU coach came to one of our games and noticed me. He offered me a sponsorship to come play rugby at BYU, and I thought, Why not?

I was born and raised Mormon, and I always knew I was going to take a break from whatever I was doing when I turned 19 to go on my two-year mission. After I went to BYU my freshman year, I decided to take a couple years off and go on my mission. At this point, I still had no idea what a “touchdown” was. I never even went to a football game my freshman year at BYU. Then I got assigned to go to Alabama on my mission. In Alabama, football is a religion, and I became a disciple pretty quickly.

My first real experience with the game was by playing with the other missionaries. When most people think of Mormon missionaries, I imagine they picture us walking around in shirts and ties with a Book of Mormon in our hands. But if you get to know us, you’ll learn that we’re just a bunch of young clowns. We were just kids trying to find ourselves. This experience is how we grow up.

We only got one day off a week, and we’d usually spend it playing two-hand touch football. I remember the first time I played. It was just four-on-four, and they told me to line up as a wide receiver. They had to teach me everything — This is what you have to do. Just beat himHe’s the defensive back. He’s trying to mark you. We have three seconds to throw the ball to someone, so just try to get open. They would draw the little routes that I was supposed to run, but I was totally useless. It might as well have been a foreign language.

But I stuck with it because I really didn’t have a choice. In Alabama, football was just everywhere, and it was infectious. I happened to be living there during a pretty incredible stretch for the state — Alabama won a national title the first year of my mission, and Auburn won it the next year.

As missionaries, we weren’t allowed to watch TV, so I never actually watched a live game during my time there. But if we went to a shopping center or somewhere that had a TV, we’d take a peek at the highlights. That was perfect for me. anyway. I never would’ve had the patience to sit through a full game. I mean, a rugby game is only like an hour and thirty minutes, total. Some football games last four hours!

Even so, I was in love with playing the game. Toward the end of my mission, the rugby coach at BYU contacted me again and asked if I wanted to move back to Provo to play rugby and finish my education. I initially told him no because I was about ready to go home. At that point, the academy had long dropped me, though, and I got this idea that maybe if I went back to BYU, I could play both rugby and football.

Lucky for me, the rugby and football teams at BYU were really tight. They have the same strength and conditioning coaches, and the rugby team is allowed to use the football facilities to train. When I came back, the football coaches noticed me playing rugby, and they saw my athleticism and physicality. They had me come try out for the team. Next thing I know, I was invited to fall camp with a full football scholarship.

It’s a crazy journey, man. I’ll never forget coming out to the field for that first game I ever played in (and the first full game I ever watched). It was against Washington State and it was sold out. This wasn’t two-hand touch at the park anymore. American sports culture is just on another level compared to New Zealand and Australia.

Even better was when I finally got to play. They put me on special teams. The first time I ever ran down the field, I was so excited, I almost got concussed. The second time, I didn’t even think about it. I saw the guy who was supposed to be blocking me, and I didn’t make the play or anything. I just ran right at him and straight up bowled the bloke over.

That’s what I love most about football, and it’s really what carries over the most from rugby. The raw physicality of the game. In football, it’s much more condensed, though. In rugby, because you don’t have pads, you’re not crashing at such a massive impact as you are in football. Also, in rugby, you’re constantly running, and there aren’t really any breaks in play. In football, you’re doing these seven- or eight-second plays and putting everything into each of them. Football is just so explosive.

The process of learning the finer points of the game was really tough. Football is such a technical sport. For someone like me who didn’t grow up with it, learning every aspect of the game was just killer. My family back home would watch me when our games were broadcast on ESPN and they would have no idea what was happening. The funniest this was, in rugby, when you score, you have to place the ball down in the endzone. My family was so confused as to why I would throw the ball in the air after I scored a touchdown.

Those are just the basic rules, though. There’s so much of the game that even an American fan who has been a lifelong fan doesn’t even know. Luckily, in college, they made it really easy for me, even when they started playing me at fullback. I just had to memorize a handful of plays and know who I was blocking or when I was getting the ball.

There were so many times I would go to the coach and try to come up with an excuse for him to kick me off the team. Rugby was always second nature, but learning how to play football really took everything I had. Not only was I still on the rugby team and trying to learn football at the same time, but I also had a wife and nine-month old son. The scholarship from football was an especially incredible opportunity because it allowed me to provide better for my family, but the balancing act was taking a toll on me.

My coach just kept telling me to stick with it, and in retrospect, I’m so glad he did. By my senior year in 2014, I was one of the team captains. It also started becoming clear that I might have a future in the sport.

I got invited to the NFLPA All-Star game out in L.A., which was a huge opportunity. All 32 NFL teams’ scouts were there, and I got to meet with them and learn more about the league. I never thought the NFL was actually a possibility, but at that point, I figured I might as well give it a go. I didn’t get invited to the combine, but I did participate in a pro day at BYU and put up good enough numbers to get the attention of a handful of teams.

On draft night, I didn’t have any expectations to get picked. But I hoped that someone would sign me right after the draft ended as an undrafted free agent. Once the final pick was made in the seventh round, all I got were calls to come try out for teams. That night, I’ll be honest with you, I went to sleep pretty upset. But I woke up to a call first thing in the morning from my agent. The Cardinals wanted to sign me.

Honestly, I still can’t believe it. I’m here in training camp now, and every day feels like a blessing (especially because I have a daughter due in two weeks.) I’m working as hard as I can to really learn the books, because I’m in the big leagues now. It’s pretty stressful. When I ask myself if I’m good enough and whether I should even be here, I just take a step back and think about how many people would do anything to be in my place right now. I just let it soak in.

I still haven’t earned my stripes enough to talk with the veterans, but I’m getting really close with the other rookies. Everyone has gotten a pretty good laugh at my accent. I’m proud to represent my country in the NFL and to show the U.S. what we Kiwis are made of.

My teammates are always like, “G’day mate, shrimp on the barbie.” I tell them, “Bro, that’s Australia. I’m a rugby player from New Zealand.“