FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Hayden Smith put on a football helmet for the first time in his life a few days ago.
He fiddled with it a bit, snapped the chin strap and then spent a few minutes getting used to the metal bars covering his face.
As a former rugby player in England, the Australian-born Smith isn’t used to all the padding and protection.
“It’s actually not so bad,” he said with a big smile. “A second skin, right?”
Smith participated in rookie minicamp with the New York Jets over the weekend, hoping to catch on as a tight end. He still has lots to learn, but he’s not just a feel-good story. Smith stood out during the three-day camp with some impressive catches and surprisingly natural football instincts.
“Really, I can’t believe the guy,” coach Rex Ryan said. “Is he doing everything perfect? No. But he’s trying like crazy to. I’m not going to bet against him. There’s no way I’m betting against this guy.”
And that’s even with the odds fairly stacked. After all, Smith is already 27 and only now learning how to play football.
“Do I know the game? No, I don’t,” Smith said. “It’s very early on in the process, and we’ve kind of broken everything up and I’ve been able to get a handle on what’s been installed and I’m just taking it all in little chunks.”
Smith certainly looks the part of an NFL tight end at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds. He might not be the fastest guy on the field, but he gets around just fine. And, he has really soft hands. Smith was able to easily handle a number of throws during the weekend of practices and gave no indication that he hasn’t been at this for very long.
“I think my basketball background has really helped with that and that was a big part of the premise of actually feeling like I could be successful in doing this, combined with the physicality of what I’ve had to contend with playing premiership rugby,” he said. “There’s a little bit of both that I can hopefully carry across, but that’s just as a skill set. The rest of it, I’m pretty much starting from square one, so that’s huge. I’ve got 21 years or 22 years of knowledge to catch up on on a lot of these guys.”
Smith came to the United States from Australia about eight years ago and played basketball for three seasons at Metropolitan State College of Denver after transferring from the New York Institute of Technology. He helped lead the Roadrunners to two NCAA Division II NCAA tournament appearances, and graduated in 2008 with a degree in finance.
He wanted to play professional basketball in Australia, but the team he planned to join — the Sydney Kings — folded. Not ready to settle into the business world, Smith instead turned to rugby and played professionally in England for the Saracens Football Club. He also competed for the United States during the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand last year. But, as fun as that was, Smith had a burning desire to play football — in the NFL.
“I never had a team I rooted for,” Smith said. “But I was a fan of the league my whole life.”
Smith hired former San Diego Chargers assistant coach Tim Brewster to help him, knowing that he played a key role in Antonio Gates going from being a college basketball player to a Pro Bowl tight end. Smith also went to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., and introduced himself to as many NFL executives as he could.
“It was really informal, just in the lobby going up to teams and saying hello and telling my story or whatever,” he said. “A number of teams wanted to bring me in after that. I went on a series of workouts and ultimately made the decision to come here.”
He visited the Jets’ training facility, and met offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. New York liked him so much, they had Smith come in for another visit and he met Ryan — and signed him to a free agent contract last month.
“When I was visiting here with the Jets, I ran my first ever route in my life,” Smith said. “I was 26 at the time. Everything’s so new.”
But, the Jets — Ryan, general manager Mike Tannenbaum and assistant GM Scott Cohen — clearly saw something in him that made them think he had a chance to develop — and quickly.
“This is one of those Mike Tannenbaum specials that, out of nowhere, he’s like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this young man,'” Ryan said. “He tells me the background, and I’m like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ But then you watch him.”
There’s clearly talent there — he caught a “touchdown” pass during one drill with a defensive back trailing him, and seemed to easily pick up the concept of where to line up. He did knock into punter Travis Baltz during a special teams drill — roughing the kicker — but he’s still learning all that, of course. And, he caught Ryan’s attention by working on his own, running on the field and trying to get a better handle on routes.
“He’s got a legitimate chance,” Ryan said. “Is it realistic that he can pick up all the nuances, all that stuff, for opening day? I don’t know. Probably not. But I’ll say this: He certainly has a chance.”
The Jets have five tight ends on their roster with starter Dustin Keller, along with Smith and backups Jeff Cumberland, Josh Baker and Dedrick Epps. It also remains to be seen what Tim Tebow’s role will be in the offense. Smith just wants to do all he can to put off that office job just a bit longer.
“Look, people are going to have their opinions on what goes on and really, as an NFL fan who grew up wanting to do this, all I’m doing is pursuing my dream,” Smith said. “People will see it one way or the other and they’re completely entitled to that, and I understand that. But, really, I’m just on an incredible journey. I’ve been incredibly lucky, and I want to make the most of this opportunity.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.