British Invasion? Rugby player looks to stick with Steelers
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Christian Scotland-Williamson looks the part.
Standing on the practice field with the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the rookie tight end blends in seamlessly. The 25-year-old is tall (6-foot-9), big (275 pounds) and athletic.
Then Scotland-Williamson opens his mouth. A polite British accent comes out, the kind that would go unnoticed on a soccer pitch, but on a field crammed with dozens of players practically weaned on America's Game, it raises eyebrows. Lots of eyebrows.
Scotland-Williamson gets it. The former rugby player who was raised in the London suburbs understands he's a bit of a curiosity as a member of the second graduating class of the NFL's International Player Pathway program. At the heart of it all, however, Scotland-Williamson figures the only thing separating him from his teammates is experience. Not passion. Not athleticism. And certainly not drive.
"It's one of those things where when I was younger, if I'd been exposed to American football I probably would have played it at an earlier age," Scotland-Williamson said. "But being a British kid, it's not at your doorstep, so it's quite hard."
So Scotland-Williamson opted for rugby. He turned professional at 20 and spent four seasons with the Worcester Warriors of the English Premiership, the top rugby division in the United Kingdom. Then cameras caught him making a monster tackle in a game last spring and his phone rang, with folks wondering if he'd like to come to the U.S. and join the IPP.
Started in 2017, the IPP selects a handful of athletes from other countries to come to the U.S. to learn the finer points of pro football. If they make it through a four-month boot camp at IMG Academy in Florida, they can be assigned to an NFL club, where they will spend a season on the practice squad to prove themselves in what amounts to one of the most unusual internships on the planet.
Though Scotland-Williamson's rugby career appeared on the rise, the prospect of heading overseas was simply too tantalizing to pass up.
"It's kind of like that movie 'Inception,' once one plants that seed, that's it," he said. "I'm very much someone who doesn't want to live with any regrets and look back at 50 or 60 years old at a bar with your mates and think, 'Oh no, what if I could have done this but didn't.' So that's why I'm here really."
The initial IPP graduation class last spring included three athletes from the United Kingdom and another from Germany. The current group includes Scotland-Williamson and Australian rugby player Jordan Mailata, who impressed the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles so much they used a seventh-round draft pick on him to make sure he didn't end up somewhere else.
Scotland-Williamson is not quite as polished. He understood little about the game outside of what he occasionally saw on TV when he arrived in Florida in January. The highly regimented day started with a 6 a.m. walkthrough and often lasted until a film session at a coach's house that wouldn't wrap up until around 9:30 p.m.
"We learned a hell of a lot in a short amount of time," Scotland-Williamson said.
Just not everything. Though he's studied up on the 100-plus page NFL rule book, he admits he's still a little fuzzy on details in some spots. And while the film work certainly helps, it's quite a bit different when you have your helmet on standing in an offensive huddle listening to a quarterback bark out a play that has very specific instructions. Compared to rugby's more free-flowing style, it's a lot to take in.
The evidence can be found on the practice field. While Scotland-Williamson thinks he's handling his business just fine as a blocker, route running is another matter. The player who never donned so much as a football helmet until rookie minicamp earlier this month practically staples himself to tight ends coach James Daniel, hoping to soak up as much as he can as fast as he can.
Yet Scotland-Williamson understands he can't rush things. That's why he's grateful the opportunity didn't arise until his mid-20s. Spending four years as a professional rugby player taught him how to deal with bumps in the road.
"I have a better perspective," he said. "Especially with this where you're going to get your butt kicked every day for a while until things start clicking. You have to have quite thick skin, so that's helped."
So does a bit of a thick head. When he told his parents he was putting his rugby career on hold to give football a try, his father balked.
"I had to give him a massive sales pitch," Scotland-Williamson said.
That included one very important point: This wasn't a lark or a publicity stunt or fulfilling some bit of wanderlust. This was real.
"I don't think you go into this half-hearted," he said. "You want it all. You want to make the 53 (man roster). You want to go to Super Bowls. You want to end up being the first international player to make it big. That's the biggest thing, not only to represent myself, but it means a lot for the international players who were born outside of America who don't think they have a chance."