There is a label in the world of sport that is becoming a yardstick for sporting prowess; a means to measure an individual’s ability to be a multi-disciplined athlete in a manner that goes beyond mere statistics. That term is “code-hopper”.
Names like Sonny-Bill Williams, Jarryd Hayne and Israel Folau come to mind as the current crop of “code-hoppers”, however, one Australian athlete went under the radar somewhat a few years ago, trying his hand in the NFL after stints in basketball and rugby union.
Hayden Smith grew up in the west of Sydney, in Bullaburra in the Blue Mountains, to be precise. After school, Smith flirted initially with basketball, playing for professional outfit, Sydney Kings, whereupon he won a scholarship to study and play in the USA after the Kings hit financial troubles.
It was during his time studying Finance in New York and Denver that he connected with rugby union.
Within a few months, the 201cm, 116kg lock astonishingly made his Test debut for the USA Eagles, against Uruguay, in November 2008. Having qualified on residency grounds, then Eagles coach – fellow Australian, Scott Johnson – wasted no time in selecting him.
But Smith, being the professional athlete he is, sought a higher standard of play that an amateur competition in the USA couldn’t offer him. That opportunity came from former Wallaby coach, Eddie Jones, who was coaching Saracens, at the time. Smith packed his bags for London, and after a few successful years in the Premiership and Heineken Cup, culminated in him playing in the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.
But we’ve seen this story before, and I’m sure many of his rugby union colleagues weren’t surprised when the restless Smith decided to have a crack at the NFL, in early 2012. He was advised to try out as a tight end and chose the New York Jets as they employed two tight end coaches. What made his transition even more remarkable is that the position is regarded as the most technically challenging after quarterback, requiring both superb running and passing ability.
Similar to the turbulent time Jarryd Hayne is having currently at the 49ers, he was waived, signed to the practice squad and promoted to the active roster all within a few months. Interestingly enough, Hayne shared the same NFL agent as Smith, Jack Bectha.
Missing the rugby ‘mateship’ culture in a highly transient dressing-room, Smith set up an informal coffee club at the Jets, hooking up an espresso machine in his locker. On the field, his most notable feat was catching one pass for 16 yards against the San Diego Chargers.
The NFL dream ended in August 2013, when he was cut from the squad after 5 career games, but it did present Smith with the opportunity of playing in another Rugby World Cup, which he did recently in England.
Looking to beyond whichever sports field he will find himself on when he finishes playing, he currently spends a day a week as a junior reinsurance broker with JLT in London. And the odds are high that Smith will transition seamlessly, in a similar vein to his code-hopping playing career.