Former Australian rugby league player Jarryd Hayne, 27, had long been hoping to switch sports and carve out a career in the ultra-competitive world of American football. Last October he announced he was quitting rugby to pursue his dream, and moved to the US.
But when a shirtless photo from a practice session with the San Francisco 49ers was posted on Instagram earlier this summer, some fans were quick to ridicule him on social media.
'So awkward. Like he snuck up behind just to get in the photo', said one. 'Hayne needs to start eating whatever they’re eating', said another. ''If I was the only guy without a 6 pack I would be in the back of the pic too', said someone else. And those were some of the kinder comments.
The gist seemed to be 'Look at him hiding away behind all those giant, super-fit pros, he'll never make it'.
And yet, a few months later, Hayne has defied the odds and secured a full-time NFL contract, joining the 49ers' 53-man squad. Not only that, he's generating all kinds of positive headlines, with media and fans alike eager to see how he'll get on.
Jarryd Hayne formerly played as a full-back for the Parramatta Eels and was voted the league's best player in 2014. He scored 11 tries in 12 internationals for Australia.
He said he was never concerned about the reaction to the shirtless image.
'It didn’t really stand out to me, I wasn’t worried about that. I was more worried about getting in and understanding the passing concepts and obviously just working with Kap [49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick]', he said.
It ought to be noted too that those who mocked him were in the minority. Australia overall seems to be very proud of its pioneering new star in a foreign land. He is, after all, the first Aussie rugby league player to move to the NFL.
The 49ers know what they have on their hands too. Coach Jim Tomsula said: 'The odds of an American who grows up in this game playing in the NFL is astronomical. Now you're talking about a guy who wasn't raised in this game and has made it. He's by no means a finished product but the type of person he is and the approach that he takes, he's a guy that we want here. It should be a celebration in Australia. I do understand the magnitude and that it's huge.'
Moving from rugby to American football might seem fairly natural, but switching sports can be fraught with difficulties. At the same time they signed up Hayne, the 49ers let go another ‘switcher’ – British record discus thrower Lawrence Okoye. He had been with the team for the last two years but didn’t quite make the grade.