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Promising Wales star Louis Rees-Zammit quits rugby to pursue dream of playing in NFL

Wales rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit, one of the world's most exciting players, is quitting the sport to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.

The 22-year-old Rees-Zammit has accepted an invitation to join the NFL's international player pathway, his English club Gloucester said Tuesday.

Wales coach Warren Gatland said Rees-Zammit, who is a winger and has scored 14 tries in 31 matches for his country, received an approach on Sunday about trying out the NFL's program. Gatland didn't know about the player's decision until Tuesday, hours before announcing Wales' squad for the upcoming Six Nations tournament — a group Rees-Zammit would have been part of.

“I have had the incredible honor of playing rugby for my country which, as a proud Welshman, I’ve never taken for granted," Rees-Zammit said.

"However, I believe that this is the right time for me to realize another professional goal of playing American football in the U.S. Those opportunities don’t come around very often.”

Rees-Zammit made his debut for Wales in 2020, playing in the World Cup last year, and was in the British & Irish Lions squad — made up of the best rugby players in Britain and Ireland — for the tour of South Africa in 2021. Picked at the age of 20, he was the youngest player to be selected by the Lions since 1959.

The 6-foot-3 Rees-Zammit is one of the quickest and most elusive broken-field runners in European rugby, averaging an English league-high 1.6 line breaks per match for Gloucester since the start of last season. Weighing an estimated 210 pounds, he is also strong tackler, with wingers needing to be as active in defense as attack in rugby.

He is reportedly earning 225,000 pounds ($285,000) a year at Gloucester, where his contract was due to expire at the end of this season. He was expected to make more if he extended his deal at Gloucester or moved to a new club for next season, with the world's best rugby players earning around 1 million pounds ($1.25 million) a year. The minimum NFL salary this season is $750,000.

Gloucester said Rees-Zammit would be leaving for Florida this week to begin the international player-pathway program.

“Whilst we are naturally sad to see him leave, ultimately we are not able to dissuade him from taking an opportunity of this magnitude with the NFL," Gloucester chief executive Alex Brown said.

Gatland said he had wished Rees-Zammit all the best.

“I’ve always been a great believer in players taking those opportunities that are presented for them,” Gatland said.

“I said if it doesn’t work out, what are your next steps? He said he would come back to rugby."

And Rees-Zammit wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that he was not retiring from rugby.

“Rather at this age and stage of my life, I am excited to explore a unique challenge that has the potential to diversify my skill set,” said Rees-Zammit, whose father, Joe, played American football in Wales for the Cardiff Bay Tigers team.

Former England winger Christian Wade progressed from the international player pathway to join the Buffalo Bills five years ago, but he did not play in a regular-season game.

The program will take place across a 10-week period ahead of the 2024 NFL season, which starts in September.

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AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby