He’s never played a down, but this British star is gambling it all on a shot at the NFL

LONDON — He’s never played a minute of football.

But Louis Rees-Zammit, one of the world’s top young rugby stars, is walking away from his sport and homeland for a long-shot gamble at making it in the NFL. His announcement this week dropped like a bombshell in Britain — and now he’s intent on becoming a household name in the United States, too.

He knows just how slim his chances are, but that didn’t stop the 22-year-old Welshman and lifelong NFL fan. Nor have the howls of dismay from his nation’s fierce legion of rugby supporters — for whom Rees-Zammit is a favorite due to his extraordinary pace — nor the stinging criticism and even ridicule across Britain, where football (the American variety) is still battling for mainstream popularity.

“It’s definitely a narrow chance of success,” he told NBC News by phone Thursday, his first interview with an American publication since his decision. “Boys in America play the sport when they are 5 years old, they go through the ranks in high school and college, and they get to know the game from pretty young.”

He is entering the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, or IPPP, an attempt by the sport’s governing body to increase the league’s player base beyond North America and attract talent around the world.

Stories of rugby-crossover success are vanishingly rare, with perhaps the only such instance being that of Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Jordan Mailata, who had the advantage of being 6 feet 8 inches, 365 pounds and only 21 years old when he left Australian rugby in 2018.

The Guardian newspaper reflected the skepticism about Rees-Zammit following suit, writing that the rising star in Europe would need a “minor miracle” to make the cut stateside.

“For me, I’ve got to try to learn the game at 22 years old,” he said, weeks before his 23rd birthday on Feb. 3. “Obviously the odds are against me.” He calls it the “hardest decision of my life” but he “came to the real realization that, if I don’t do it now, I’ll probably regret it for the rest of my life.”

Wales wing Louis Rees-Zammit. (Mike Egerton / AP)

On Friday, he will fly to Florida for 10 weeks of intense training, “six days a week, 13 hours a day.” Then there will be a showcase day where “all the boys can show what they’re made of” and NFL teams can decide whether to sign any of them.

The timing of the IPPP round was doubly cruel for his homeland of Wales, a proud rugby stronghold of just 3 million people. Rees-Zammit announced he would be jetting off just one day before Wales announced its roster for this year’s prestigious Six Nations — an annual tournament he would have been expected to set alight.

Succeed or fail in the NFL, his attempt alone is a seismic moment.

Not just for this young Welshman, and his home sport, but also potentially for the international reach of the NFL, which is trying to grow its market share in the United Kingdom and across Europe. On the rugby field, Rees-Zammit is box-office material, marrying electrifying pace with looks that landed him a modeling contract in 2022.

Sky Sports, which is owned by NBCUniversal’s parent company, Comcast, has British broadcast rights to the NFL and created the sport’s own dedicated channel in 2020. The league says that it now has 14 million fans in the U.K., with 4 million of these considered “avid” fans.

But although both brutal and complex, rugby is not football. Rees-Zammit’s main challenge, commentators say, will be mastering the complex web of Xs and Os behind the hundreds of plays that NFL players must learn by rote. Also unfamiliar will be the bulky padding and helmets absent in rugby, whose corporeal ferocity has also given rise to recent concerns — and class-action lawsuits — about brain injuries.

Pay in the NFL is also orders of magnitude higher than those in rugby, a game that only turned professional in 1995.

As a winger for Wales, as well as the English club side Gloucester, and international super team the British & Irish Lions, Rees-Zammit is strong and athletic at 6 feet 3 inches and 212 pounds. But his trademark trait — the one that observers say gives him a small chance of success — is his preternatural speed. It’s what gave rise to the label “Rees Lightning” and caused Wales coach Warren Gatland to call him a “physical freak” during a news conference this week.

Soon after the announcement on social media, commentators began pointing out that his top speed, clocked at over 24 mph at last year’s Rugby World Cup, was quicker even than the NFL’s current fastest player, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who clocked in at around 22 mph this season (although Hill was wearing a helmet and pads.)

Asked about favorite players, Rees-Zammit mentions Hill, as well as Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs. And it’s perhaps no surprise that he too has been listed as a “running back/wide receiver” in the IPPP’s promotional materials released Thursday.

“I’ve watched a lot of receivers to be honest” and “done analysis on their games, but obviously, it’s a completely different sport for me. So I’m going to have to do a lot more to get an understanding of the game,” he said.

As for favorite teams, Rees-Zammit says he follows the Washington Commanders as “my dad’s been a massive fan of them since he was a little boy.” His father, Joseph Zammit, played football, too, albeit only at amateur level for the Cardiff Tigers and Oxford Saints of NFL Europe.

Notwithstanding that lifelong connection, Rees-Zammit’s decision to quit his life in the U.K. happened very quickly, following discussions with officials at the IPPP. “To be honest, it all happened in a matter of probably two, three days. So yeah, it was a quick decision,” he said.

Despite playing his rugby for an English team, he has not lost his mellifluous Welsh accent, and laughs when asked if he thinks he really is faster than Hill. But he does not deny it.

“I’d like to have a race with him,” he said. “His acceleration is probably quicker than mine but that’s something to work on and improve on. I don’t really like to compare myself to other players. I’m just ready to work hard and see how fast I can go.”

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