It’s been quite a summer for Alex Gray.
The former England Rugby star, who once captained England teams including the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Owen Farrell, swapped oval balls in May and is embarking on a new career in the NFL.
The 26 year old was signed up by the Atlanta Falcons as part of the NFL Undiscovered series. He will be a member of the team’s practice squad this season, learning the skill of Tight End.
“it literally has been head in that playbook all day, everyday”
Twelve months ago he was dreaming of Olympic gold with GB Rugby Sevens, but injury cruelly stopped him from travelling to Rio.
For the last eight weeks though he’s been getting used to another new discipline – his new home is the great state of Georgia, and the goal is no longer Olympic Gold; it’s mastering the Atlanta Falcons’ playbook.
On the eve of his move to the US, Alex spoke to the 5thDownUK, and admitted that his only experience of football up to that point was from playing Madden, but we caught up with him again at the recent NFL event in London, and asked what it’s been like so far, and how it’s been learning the playbook?
“It’s something that I’ve not been used to before” Gray admitted, “and it literally has been head in that playbook all day, everyday”
“The schedule is start at seven, home at seven and from then until bedtime I’m just doing that playbook”
“if you threw one of those guys into the middle of a ruck with six guys stamping all over you, I’m not sure they’d enjoy that”
There’s been a lot of learning for the former London Irish back-rower, but he’s relishing the challenge; “I was in the team hotel for three weeks and my TV didn’t come on once. I was just trying to learn the plays for the following day”
“That’s the game. People probably don’t realise the amount of detail that goes into it”
“When people look at the NFL they think it’s a game for these crazy athletes doing crazy physical feats but really that’s less than 10% of the game. In essence it’s a super chess game and I’m starting to learn that now”
So what’s in the playbook? Alex explained, “the way we’ve done it is that the playbook is split into six”
“When we’re in camp each day we’ll do what we call ‘install’ so on Day 1 you’ll do the first install, second day the second install, and so on”
“All the plays, and the way they’re called are normally split up into personnel group, formation, protection, what the half backs do and then on the back of that are the concepts that the receivers are doing, so you need to listen out for your bit, where you’re supposed to be and what you’re actually doing in the play”
It’s been a tough learning curve for Gray though; “to do that only once when it’s 30 degrees, you’ve got your helmet on, you’ve just taken a hit off someone and then to do that on the fly and do exactly what they want, it’s a tough ask but that’s the game and I’m enjoying trying to learn that”
Alex is the first professional English Rugby player to transition into the NFL. We asked him which sport is tougher, Rugby or Football? “I keep telling everyone that rugby players are tougher, but there’s definitely a mutual respect between the two sports”
“A lot of the tackling rules in football are not to the same level as rugby, so you do see those big hits that the crowd wants to see”
“Speaking to some guys they can’t believe you play without pads and helmets,” added Gray. “if you threw one of those guys into the middle of a ruck with six guys stamping all over you I’m not sure they’d enjoy that!”
Whether it’s fifteen facing fifteen on the Rugby pitch, or eleven facing eleven on the Gridiron, Alex admitted that skill and strength are still key; “they’re both tough games, I know that, the players know that, so it’s pretty cool respect”
Catch Alex Gray’s full interview on the upcoming 5thDownUK Podcast. Episode 37 will also feature another NFL Undiscovered star, Alex Jenkins – the Bath-born New Orleans Saints Defensive End.
Follow Alex Gray on Twitter @AlexShaggyGray
NFL Undiscovered premieres this autumn.