A Pre-Season Football Story I will be Following

I mostly ignore the innumerable NFL pre-season stories. Most of them are empty blather by journalists charged with filling more pages than there are interesting stories. Even for the minority of substantive stories, come on: This is baseball season. We have actual pennant races to follow! It’s not like baseball’s pre-season, which takes place while no other major sports are playing. [1]

I was surprised to stumble across an exception: an NFL pre-season story I will follow with interest. It is the story of Jarryd Hayne. He is a Rugby League player from Australia. He isn’t just any random Rugby player. He is one of the best in the world, and has the awards to show it. Yet he recently signed with the Santa Clara 49ers[2] as a running back.

Much has been made of the money aspect of this. He was on the verge of signing a record-breaking Rugby contract for $6 million for three years. Sure, those are Australian dollars, but this still comes out to over $4 million American. The 49ers are paying him about a third that, assuming he makes the team. His talk is all about meeting the challenge of the NFL, and I see no reason to doubt this. On the other hand, the financial possibilities of the NFL clearly are substantially greater, given the absurdly low number of American professional sports standards of that record-breaking contract he turned down.

What interests me, though, is the mere possibility of a top-level athlete making the transition from one sport to another. This is virtually (?–Perhaps entirely) unheard of. There have been athletes who have played multiple sports before: Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders are examples within living memory. But they played both sports all along.

This is something different: going from one sport to a different one as an adult. This history of athletes trying this is not promising. The most notable attempt was Michael Jordan’s ill-starred foray into professional baseball. He never got past AA-level in the minors, where he batted a measly .202. I don’t conclude from this that baseball is more difficult than basketball, but that the skill sets are different, and specialization matters. I have no doubt that had he specialized in baseball at an early age, he would have been an excellent player. But he didn’t, and therefore wasn’t.

Another potential transition, and one that seems more natural, is between cricket and baseball. E. T. Smith, a professional cricketer who played for Kent County, went to the Mets spring training, and wrote a book about it, Playing Hard Ball. (It is a good book, but be forewarned that it was aimed primarily at British readers. He occasionally descends into Cricket Gibberish without providing any translation.) He was there on a press pass, but the baseball guys knew his background. He also knew that baseball players made a bunch more money than cricketers. (This isn’t necessarily true today, but this was about twenty years ago, before the India Premier League.) Reading between the lines, both sides had a tickle in the back of their heads that something more substantial might come of this. It didn’t. While both sports involve using a bat to hit a ball, the devil is in the details. The deliveries and swings are different enough that the skill doesn’t translate, and the learned habits may indeed be a positive impediment. There is the occasional ballplayer from Australia or the Caribbean who grew up playing both games, but an adult can’t just wake up one morning and decide to switch games.

This is consistent with 19th century experience. Cricket once was pretty mainstream in America. Baseball and cricket teams often played against one another through the 1870s. You even find top professional baseball clubs doing this occasionally. The usual result was that the baseball club won when they played baseball, and the cricket club won when they played cricket. There had to be a wide disparity of athletic ability before this changed.

About the only noticeable exception I know of is the trendlet of some years ago to recruit soccer players as NFL kickers. I associate this with Tom Landry, though I imagine he wasn’t the only one. This, while interesting, is a marginal case. I don’t jump on the “kickers aren’t real football players” bandwagon, but their skill set is distinct from the other players. Running back is another matter.

This is why I am interested in Hayne: can he buck the trend and make the transition? I think he might. Rugby and American football are closely related games. They were the same game originally, but the Americans had trouble figuring out how to make the Rugby rules work. (This is not a criticism: there were implicit assumptions that are hard to work out from the text alone.) They started fiddling with the rules around 1880, with modern American football the eventual result. Among the various American football positions, running back would seem the least changed from its Rugby antecedent. The essence of advancing the ball in Rugby is to run with the ball while a bunch of guys are trying to tackle you. That is pretty much the essence of the running back, too. There are differences, of course: helmets and padding are the obvious ones, while knowing where to run is non-trivial.

We’ll see, but I would think that this transition is doable. Hayne has gotten off to a good start. He had a 53 yard run against the Texans. He got a good block and broke past one guy in the backfield. This is just pre-season, of course. But it’s not as if I could get a 53 inch run under those circumstances. I am staying tuned.

[1] Suck on it, basketball and hockey fans!

[2] Not to be confused with the Landover Redskins. Don’t even get me started on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

[Edited to put back in the paragraph breaks that had mysteriously disappeared.]

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15 thoughts on “A Pre-Season Football Story I will be Following

  1. Personal anecdote on specialization… When I was in my 20s, I found that playing slow-pitch softball a couple of times per week messed with my golf game and vice versa. It seemed to me that all of the small differences in when the different body parts moved in the two swings had an effect on my muscle memory. Part of it was, no doubt, that a modern golf swing is one of the most unnatural motions in sports.

    As an aside, paragraphs do help somewhat with readability.

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    • Sorry about the paragraph breaks. I don’t know why, but about a third of the time when I paste my post into Word Press the paragraph breaks disappear. I didn’t catch it this time. I have put them back in, apparently successfully.

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  2. Eric Heiden was an Olympic multi gold medal speed skater and world champ. He swept the medals in the 1980 Olympics. After he was done speed skating he became a successful road cyclist.

    A couple of asides. His achievement was far greater than the US upset of the USSR in hockey. Oh that was nice, but Heiden was superhuman. Also since he quit being a pro athlete he has become a doctor. So he is a bit of an achiever and a busy guy.

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  3. Two reactions:

    1. My team has an interesting story! I bet he’s the best part of a 4-12 season.
    2.

    The most notable attempt was Michael Jordan’s ill-starred foray into professional baseball. He never got past AA-level in the minors, where he batted a measly .202.

    That’s being very unfair to Jordan. He played ONE professional season (in AA, which is far from nothing) after not playing since HS. And improved significantly over the year.

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    • Perhaps it is unfair, but don’t blame me. Jordan could have stuck with baseball. Yes, the stated reason for leaving baseball was the players’ strike and Jordan not wanting to be a replacement player. I don’t buy it. He could have returned to the minors and continued his development. But he decided to return to the NBA. And why not? Being the best of the best has got to be a whole lot more fun than struggling in the minors. (As a side note, in reviewing the Wikipedia page on the strike, I was charmed to find that it was ended via an injunction from Sonia Sotamayor, then a district judge in New York: yet another reason to like her!)

      Hayne has an even tougher standard. Jordan had the pull to get a minor league roster spot independent of any serious expectation he would develop into a major leaguer, and baseball’s minor league system of development allowed for this. Hayne has to get on the roster based on this summer’s training camp. I suppose it is possible that if he is cut, some other team might pick him up. My guess is that he would go back to Rugby.

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  4. Antonio Gates played high school football and was recruited for college football but ended up playing basketball. He went undrafted and then signed with the Chargers and now holds a number of team records.

    Jimmy Graham played college basketball and then did one year of football while completing some graduate work. He is one of the best TEs in the game.

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  5. I wonder how the average career length between an NFL RB vs a Rugby player fits in. Most NFL RB’s don’t have long careers unless they are very good and are lucky enough not to get injured. Do you know how long rugby players typically play for?

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        • I think the adjustment problems are probably inherent in any sport, especially team sports. You have some kid who has spent his entire life working single-mindedly toward the goal of becoming a professional athlete, has beat the odds and become one of the elite. His teammates are his emotional support structure, while the front office provides a lot of practical day to day help. Nearly all his life is daily routine was all about getting ready for the next game. Then suddenly there is no next game, there are no teammates, and he has to figure out how to get through the day. On top of it all, most journeyman athletes haven’t earned enough money to support themselves and their families the rest of their lives, but what marketable skills do they have?

          Oh, and the new retiree is probably about thirty years old. Thirty is when the rest of us are finally figuring it out. We didn’t know shit when we were twenty, but at thirty we are finally getting a grip on things, while body parts haven’t yet started falling off. The ex-professional athlete was a god at twenty. He didn’t know shit either, but it didn’t matter, and he didn’t have to try to figure things out. Then at thirty his body is already following apart, he still doesn’t know shit, and he is some guy who used to play sports.

          We see the stories about retired athletes who made millions and are dead broke a few years later. Poor financial management skills are certainly a big part of the problem. But the bigger part is suddenly having to live in the real world with the rest of us.

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          • I think there is also the fact that for pretty much every day in their working memory, they were obscenely good at something. Part of the elite of the elite of the elite of the elite. I think it is probably hard to do ANYTHING else at a substantially lower level after that.

            Which is why so many don’t seem to do anything else for a while afterward and, as you note, end up broke (though the financial issues come from a number of areas of life).

            I can’t imagine going from being THE BEST at something celebrated in society to being just another guy at something people are ‘meh’ about.

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  6. In the interests of disambiguation, I should point out that a Rugby League player shouldn’t really be called a rugby player. “Rugby” is the contracted form of Rugby Union, a related, but distinct sport to Rugby League. Rugby League is contracted to “League” so as to avoid confusion.

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