SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Jarryd Hayne is risking millions on his childhood dream.
The two-time National Rugby League player of the year and international player of the year turned down a multi-million dollar contract extension to try his luck with the San Francisco 49ers, he announced this week.
"I was probably about to become the highest paid player in rugby league but I'm a kid from Minto [a south-western suburb of Sydney],” Hayne told the Australian media when he announced he would be coming to the United States to try football in October. "I had one goal in life, growing up in the housing commission and not having the easiest transition, and that was I wanted to buy my mum a house. And I did that…Everything else is a bonus."
His NFL dream will pay him $100,000 in guaranteed salary with no assurance he will make the team next fall. The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks were also interested. Former Lions running back Reggie Bush visited Hayne in Australia last July and came away with good things to say.
"I think he'd do pretty well actually," Bush told Yahoo!7 Sport. "Because he's quick, he's elusive, he's powerful, he's fast, he has great vision and those are all the things you need to play running back in the NFL.”
Hayne, 27, played fullback and wing during his rugby days in Australia, and will try his luck on special teams as a return man and in coverage initially. It that works out, the 49ers could carve out a more permanent role as either a running back or defensive back. The team has not announced his signing.
At a combine style workout for NFL teams, Hayne ran a 4.53 40-yard dash, which would have ranked sixth at this year’s combine among running backs. Melvin Gordon, projected to be one of the top running backs selected in the upcoming draft, ran a 4.52 at 6-1 and 215 pounds.
Hayne is 6-2 and 226 pounds.
”It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL, and at my age, this is my one and only chance at having a crack at playing there,” Hayne wrote in a letter to fans in October. “I’m excited about the potential opportunities that lie ahead. I’ve known the deadline has been looming for me to make this call, and I believe the right time is now.”
The 49ers have a need at returner. Second-year wideout Bruce Ellington will likely have a more prominent role on offense after handling the return duties last season. He ranked 13th in the NFL averaging 8.2 yards per return with no return touchdowns.
Hayne becomes the second former rugby player to transition to football with the 49ers. Defensive lineman Lawrence Okoye has been with the team for two seasons, but has yet to appear in a regular season game. He came to the 49ers after competing in discus throwing in the London Olympics with a background in rugby.
Okoye’s first season was derailed by a knee injury. He continued his transition on the practice squad in 2014 working with position coach Jim Tomsula, who has since been elevated to head coach. Tomsula’s history with player development dating back to his days in NFL Europe was a factor in Hayne’s decision to join San Francisco, he said this week.
Search Hayne’s name on YouTube, and you will find an impressive array of highlights, mostly of showcasing his speed and toughness. Hayne had a knack for breaking big plays and making opposing players miss in the open field. His ability to field punts in rugby and run the ball back is his most translatable skill.
While Hayne is a star in Australia, he will have to re-earn his star power in Santa Clara from the bottom rung. Hayne will spend the spring and summer learning the basics of the game, including how to run in pads, all while trying to make an NFL roster.