A year ago, Reggie Bush watched a tape of an Australian rugby player and liked what he saw. "He actually looks like an NFL running back," the Heisman winner and Super Bowl champ told Daily Telegraph after watching film of Jarryd Hayne, who had just left Australia in pursuit of his dream of playing in the NFL. "Looks like he could come play with us tomorrow."
Tomorrow has turned into today. Bush is now the starting running back and punt returner in San Francisco 49ers camp, and Hayne, a rookie, is trying to fight his way up the depth chart for a piece of both jobs.
While the 49ers lost popular and promising players during the offseason through surprising retirements and off-season moves, they are hoping to have added one from a faraway place. The team has actually had some success in importing players in the past. Defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye, a former British discus competitor and rugby player, is going into his third season.
But the 27-year-old Hayne, who signed a three-year deal this offseason, was preparing to practice in pads for the first time this week as he learns a new game in a new place. Still, the early reports were the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hayne has not looked out of place with the 49ers, despite his upright running style that was developed playing rugby.
"It's going to take time," Hayne told reporters. "I'm sure there are going to be times when I get smashed because I'm running too upright. That's part of the learning curve. I don't have fear in that. I'd rather get hit hard and learn like that than beat around the bush. It's one way you learn from your mistakes." Spoken like a true Australian, a country known for its ruggedness and shark-punching surfers.
Despite the similarities between rugby, Australian Rules Football, and American Football, few Australians have made a successful leap to the NFL. Even fewer players have done it at a skill position like running back. The majority of Aussies to make the league have done so as punters, such as Brad Wing, who played for the Steelers last year and became the first Australian to throw for points when he tossed a two-point conversion off a botched snap.
Darren Bennett is considered the most successful Australian import, and was named to the NFL's all-decade team of the 1990s. He helped introduce the drop punt in pooch-punt situations, and in 2012 was named to the San Diego Chargers Hall of Fame.
Other notable Australian imports include punter Sav Rocca, who was the oldest rookie in NFL history when he broke in with the Eagles as a 33-year-old. Rocca broke the record, previously held by 31-year-old Ben Graham, who was signed by the Jets in 2005 and went on to become the first Australian to play in a Super Bowl with the Cardinals in 2009.
Matt McBriar was another outstanding Australian punter who made two Pro Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and played in 141 NFL games.
Punter David Lonie played only eight games for the Packers before he hurt his ankle in 2007. In 2010, punter Chris Bryan played four games for Tampa Bay before he was released, which is a lot farther than a lot of other Australian hopefuls got in their journey to the NFL.
While most Aussies come to the NFL as punters, defensive end, and tight end, Colin Scotts was the first to receive a football scholarship (Hawaii) and be drafted into the NFL. He became the second Australian to play in the NFL, and logged seven games for the Cardinals in 1987.
Now Hayne is trying to become the latest Aussie import to dress for an NFL team. And it will likely hinge on how well he spells the oft-injured Bush this summer.