Alex Gray: The First Englishman to Swap Rugby for NFL

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Alex Gray recently joined the Atlanta Falcons and, first up, he wants to break into the team's roster. After that, he hopes to become a regular starter in the NFL winning games, Lombardi trophies, and respect from fans. There's a catch, though. Gray has never played a game of American football in his life. In fact, the closest he's come to competitive gridiron has been playing video games with his brother.

A rugby convert, he discovered the NFL was looking to recruit cross-sport players in January. Standing at 6-foot 6-inches, weighing in at 114 kg and able to run 100 meters in under 11 seconds, Gray's unique athleticism meant he fitted the mold. After several months and a 10-week trial in Florida, the former England Rugby Sevens player found himself flying out to Atlanta with a career as a tight end beckoning.

"I remember talking to my agent around Christmas time and telling him what I was going to do with rugby. And I said, tongue-in-cheek, 'if nothing else comes up, why don't we, just go to the NFL and make a load of money?'

"We had a laugh about that, but I think it must have been two weeks later where he says 'I've had some NFL UK scouts on the phone and they want to meet with you.' "Before coming here I had played absolutely no American football. The only thing I had ever done was thrown a ball about with my mates when I was younger. "The only insight I had was playing those EA Sports Madden games with my brothers."

Rugby roller-coaster

It's been full-on ever since. Gray trains with the Falcons between 7 am and 6 pm every day, and then heads back to a hotel room to pore over books and training manuals, cramming in as much as he can about the new sport. For eight years, Gray had what he calls a "crazy love affair" with the game of rugby. He captained England at youth level in a team containing the likes of Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola and Jonathan Joseph -- regular faces in today's test team.

A rare combination of speed and size meant he was well-suited to the faster-paced game of rugby sevens. After several seasons with England -- which included being named his country's player of the year in 2015 -- he missed out on selection for Great Britain at the Rio Olympics. Gray spent the end of last year playing in the second tier of English rugby with Yorkshire Carnegie.

"Rugby had given me a lot of pain with injury, missing out on certain opportunities [...] to get an injury so close to the Olympics and miss out on that was completely heartbreaking," he says, referring to an ankle injury that forced him out of Rio 2016. "I really enjoyed my time at Carnegie, I really liked the players, the coaches, the place, I was really close to my family.

"I just had this sense I was a bit too comfortable. It wasn't a huge challenge like I had had in the past. In the back of my mind, I was thinking: 'I want something that's going to take me so far out my comfort zone.'" He's certainly got that. A new team, new sport, and a new continent -- learning curves don't get much steeper.

"The place we train is out of the world. The facilities, the changing rooms, having a sauna, a hot tub, and an ice bath. "All this type of stuff is just worlds apart from where I was. If you turn the TV on over here there's a dedicated NFL channel where they're just playing football all day. When you live in England, I don't think people understand how big it actually is over here."

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