Why former Wales rugby prodigy Louis Rees-Zammit chased NFL dream at USF

TAMPA — Louis Rees-Zammit looks like a rugby player. The massive thighs and neck gave him away from across USF’s indoor practice facility Wednesday morning.

Though if Rees-Zammit gets his way, he won’t be a rugby winger much longer. He’ll be in the NFL.

“It’s always been on my mind,” Rees-Zammit said.

Wednesday was his chance to put it into action. The 23-year-old Wales native auditioned as a running back/receiver in front of 51 pro scouts (including every NFL team but the Rams) as one of 15 participants through the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.

Rees-Zammit was undoubtedly the most-high profile prospect; his drills and sprints were being chronicled by the Welsh press.

That, in part, is a product of the abrupt way he left rugby in January, just before national rosters were revealed for a big annual competition, the Six Nations tournament. The BBC compared it to Ja’Marr Chase quitting the Bengals to try baseball.

For Rees-Zammit, the move had been building for a long time. His dad played football in Europe and passed on his love for the game. When his family would drive three-plus hours to Manchester United soccer games, a 12-year-old Rees-Zammit would sit in the backseat watching YouTube highlights of former Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson.

“He’s been a massive part of me learning the game,” Rees-Zammit said.

But Rees-Zammit focused on rugby. At age 18, he became the youngest player to earn a spot on Gloucester in England’s top-tier Premiership Rugby.

When the NFL dream didn’t die, he decided to come for the international program’s 10-week crash course at Bradenton’s IMG Academy. Through the two on-field sessions per day, Rees-Zammit found which skills are transferrable (finding open space and running lanes) and which aren’t (rugby has no routes to run).

“You’ve got 10 weeks getting ready to this day,” said former USF football/basketball player Bayron Matos, a Dominican Republic native who’s also in the program. “It’s been pretty intense workouts.”

The three daily sessions in the classroom have been equally valuable. NFL playbooks are much thicker and more intricate than rugby ones.

“That’s the most important thing, because we’re playing catchup on kids who have played since they’re 8 years old,” Rees-Zammit said.

Rees-Zammit did not look like a rookie Wednesday. He was unfazed by a ball that’s skinnier than the one he used in his professional career overseas. He ran smoothly.

His measurables were good enough. At 6-foot-2, 209 pounds, he’s about the same size as Bucs receiver Chris Godwin. His 40-yard dash was unofficially around 4.4 seconds — a tick slower than what he expected, but NFL-worthy. Judging by the crowd of scouts grilling him for more information afterward, he, at minimum, is an intriguing prospect.

He’ll have more chances to earn a landing spot thanks to a recent roster change. Teams are allowed to carry an international player as their 17th member of the practice squad. That player is eligible for three call-ups to the active roster.

“Success for me is making the roster and being able to be part of the team ...” Rees-Zammit said. “I’m just looking forward to the next steps, and hopefully I can get (on) a team and I can push from there.”

His immediate next steps include some visits with NFL teams between now and March 30. Then he’ll fly back to the United Kingdom, get his visa on April 2 and be able to return after that for whatever visits or workouts await.

If the NFL doesn’t work out, Rees-Zammit said returning to rugby remains a viable backup plan. Just not one he wants to consider right now.

Though his potential path to the NFL isn’t conventional, it’s not unheard of, either. Christian Wade made the move in 2019 and joined the Bills’ practice squad. The next year, he sent a message to Rees-Zammit telling him his time might be coming.

“Here we are today, 2024,” Rees-Zammit said, “and I’m giving it a go.”

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