Why rugby stars Valentine Holmes and Christian Wade took a pay cut to play in the NFL

The transition from rugby to the NFL is hardly a seamless one, as Valentine Holmes has discovered. Al Pereira/Getty Images

Last January, Valentine Holmes and Christian Wade decided to tackle something new. Holmes could have signed a million-dollar rugby league contract in Australia. Wade might have been playing for England at the ongoing World Rugby Cup.

And yet, against the basic instincts of human nature, these star wingers both left financial stability and the passionate support of tens of thousands of fans when they stepped on the field at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, with the improbable hope of making a National Football League roster.

How improbable? Ten months later, they're pulling down $8,000 a week in the anonymity of NFL practice squads. If you wanted more proof of just how hard it is to make it in American football, those scenarios alone should lend some proof.

Holmes, who has reportedly given up his NFL aspirations to return to the NRL next season, understands why you might have questioned his sanity in the first place.

"Yeah," he said on a gray October day at the New York Jets' facility in suburban New Jersey, "the average [dollar amount in Australia] would be over a million a year."

He paused, narrowed his brown eyes and allowed himself a small smile.

"And our contracts are guaranteed."

According to several news stories, Holmes has agreed to a three-year contract with the North Queensland Cowboys, beginning with the 2020 season, that would exceed $1 million annually.

Since the news broke, Holmes has refrained from commenting, but his agent did release this statement to ESPN.com: "Please note Valentine won't be making any decisions on his future with the Jets or otherwise until later in the season when we sit down as scheduled to review his position and how he has enjoyed the Jets environment and the game of NFL. All reports stating he is returning to Rugby League are premature as no decision has been made."

Whatever decision he makes, this NFL journey was never guaranteed for Holmes, nor was it for Wade. That's because, with 53-man rosters, 10-man practice squads and injured reserve lists, the universe of current NFL players is approximately 2,200. Nearly all of them came from the farm system of American colleges.

Holmes and Wade never played a down of college football, which puts them at a massive disadvantage. According to the NFL, there are only 13 players on its rosters who didn't play college ball. Interestingly, six of them grew up playing some form of rugby.

So Holmes and Wade are playing the role of upcoming opponents on kickoff and punt drills for the Jets and Buffalo Bills, respectively: uncomfortable understudies instead of the leading actors they are accustomed to being.

"Obviously, my main goal wasn't to be on the practice squad," said Holmes, looking down thoughtfully at his Nike sandals. "I just wanted to kind of give it a crack, coming from what I know and what I'm good at to the unknown.

"I knew it was a going to be a beast going up against these guys that have played from the time they were kids."

Early impressions

On Wade's very first NFL touch, in an Aug. 8 preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, he took the ball 65 yards for a touchdown. It was a classic counter play; the 5-foot-7, 190-pound running back took a step to the left, then cut back to the right and hit the hole so swiftly he was never touched by the pursuing linebacker and safeties.

It was only the preseason, but his Bills teammates mobbed him and celebrated on the sideline like he had just won a playoff game.

"One of the coolest moments of my football career, Christian Wade taking that to the house on his first NFL play," quarterback Josh Allen told reporters afterward. "We all have an affinity for him, what he's been through and the challenge he's been going through trying to learn the game of football."

When Wade received a game ball, he thanked his teammates for their patience while he was "messing up" during training camp.

"This is definitely one of the hardest things I've had to do in my life, in terms of studying and the mental stress and physical stress," said Wade, who also conceded that in football years he's the equivalent of a 4-year-old. "Couldn't have dreamed it any better."

And then, the following week against the Carolina Panthers, Wade took a short pass from Tyree Jackson 48 yards and made four Panthers defenders miss before he was tripped up on the 2-yard-line. The funny thing? That second touch also should have carried him into the end zone, but instead of following blockers, his rugby instinct sent him sprinting away from a thicket of players toward space, where he was tackled.

Holmes, too, had a productive preseason. The 6-foot, 200-pound running back ran three times for 6 yards and caught three passes for 30 yards in the opener against the New York Giants, but struggled to break tackles. On Aug. 29 against the Philadelphia Eagles, however, he had a team-high five catches for 55 yards.

Just after Jets general manager Joe Douglas, visiting the broadcast booth, referenced Holmes' terrific hands, he pulled in a nifty 27-yard, over-the-shoulder sideline grab from Davis Webb. That made a splash on social media and back in Australia, not to mention with his teammates.

Jets running back Ty Montgomery, who had clearly done some research on Instagram or YouTube, was impressed.

"He came in the other day," Holmes recounted, "and said, 'I didn't know you were actually that good in Australia. You weren't the Tom Brady of Australia, were you?'"

A world of difference

When Holmes joined the Jets, fellow running backs Le'Veon Bell and Trenton Cannon, asked similar questions.

"They were curious about the decision I made and why I came over -- like everyone is," Holmes explained.

There have been times this season, sometimes when he was trying to fall asleep, that he wondered the same thing.

Three years ago, Holmes, 24, helped lead the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks to their first premiership, the pinnacle of Australia's National Rugby League competition.

Half a world away, Wade, 28, completed his eighth season last year with the Wasps Rugby Football Club. A "prolific finisher," in his own words, he had scored 82 career tries, the third most in Premiership Rugby, England's top rugby union division.

They share the gifts of extraordinary speed, acceleration and elusiveness -- and a daunting learning curve when it comes to their dramatic career changes.

And unlike American football, where there can be as many as 40 seconds between plays, rugby at its most thrilling is a free-flowing free-for-all, a relentless, intuitive chaos -- although there are set pieces with code words out of scrums -- as opposed to the exhaustively scripted plays (and abundant penalties) of the NFL.

There are no helmets or heavy pads in rugby. When you get tackled in rugby, the game doesn't stop.

Holmes, the youngest of four brothers growing up in Queensland, Australia, fell easily into rugby league at age 9. He soon imagined himself as a professional in a version of the sport played predominantly in just Australia, New Zealand and England, with 13 players a side and six-tackle (downs) system.

"As a kid I always played fullback position, where you catch kickoffs or punts, but then when we do have the ball, it's like a running back," Holmes explained. "[NFL] running backs can get it maybe two, three times every four downs. But where I played I've got to run 'round the whole field. I've just got to follow the ball. Wherever the ball goes, I've got to be there for an offload."

He played 105 games for the Sharks and produced 66 tries. His teammates named him the players' player of the year in 2018, his last season in Australia. From the time he left for the United States, there were rumors the Cowboys were pursuing him.

Rugby union, Wade's game growing up in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, with 15 players and unlimited downs, is more strategic. The oval ball shape and field markings are subtly different, too. Wade wasn't initially interested in rugby, but since it was the primary sport of his Royal Grammar School he gave it a try at 12 years old. Soon, he was playing for the U-16, U-18 and U-20 national teams and made his debut with the senior Wasps in Abu Dhabi at the age of 19.

Both athletes gradually became aware of American football through smartphones, social media and video games. Holmes was 19 when he attended his first NFL game, the Colts at the Giants in 2014.

A global endeavor

Since 2007, when the NFL played its first regular-season game in London, the league has been courting the world. On Oct. 6, the Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears met in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a sparkling north London venue that could one day host an NFL team's entire home schedule.

There have been a number of initiatives over the years to grow the game internationally, but since 2017, the NFL's International Player Pathway program has made an effort to put foreign players on the actual pitch. The program identifies international athletes who might succeed in the NFL, trains them for 12 weeks and puts on a pro day for scouts. After an NFL division is randomly chosen, each one of that division's four teams receives a practice squad exemption for a Pathway player.

Holmes and Wade were joined in this year's class by Brazilian defensive tackle Durval Queiroz Neto (Miami Dolphins) and German fullback Jakob Johnson (New England Patriots).

"In my mind, it's gone incredibly well," said Damani Leech, the chief operating officer of NFL International. "Some of the best athletes in the world play in the NFL. They want to see if they can do that.

"This is about creating local heroes that are going to grow fans in the markets they're from."

A common toughness

Former NFL running backs Earnest Byner and Leon Washington oversaw training of the skill-position players last January through March in Florida. Washington, a running back/kick returner who played at roughly the same size as Wade, played for four NFL teams over nine seasons.

"I took them through the entire process -- classroom, drills on the field, footwork, kickoff returns, punt returns," said Washington, now an assistant with the Detroit Lions. "We'd go over it all again at night, then the next day on the whiteboard, they'd regurgitate the information pretty good."

There were, of course, some technical issues.

The players had difficulty pulling on the cumbersome shoulder pads and learning to see the field while wearing a helmet.

"You lose a bit of your peripherals," Holmes said.

Even something as basic as squirting Gatorade into the mouth through the facemask was initially a challenge.

Wade and Holmes lived together for several weeks and bonded over their common circumstance.

"We were in similar situations," Holmes said. "We watched his highlights together, and he's watched mine. We both knew how good each other were, physically. What we both found hard was learning the playbook. That was the struggle we had to overcome."

Physically, both Holmes and Wade have the stuff to make it in the NFL. The mental minutia, though, has been numbing. There was a barrage of detail in training camp that, at times, seemed overwhelming.

"Rugby League isn't so precise; NFL [passing] routes are precise to the inch," Holmes said. "They were teaching me all the little things ... what a diagonal is, how many steps, for each route, how many yards, when to stop and turn to the quarterback. The [pass] protections are probably the hardest."

For Wade, it was difficult enough to master a new position -- but he also had to understand what the other 10 players' responsibilities were on a given play. He likened it to a Formula 1 race.

"You see the cars going around but you don't realize how huge the team is behind the two drivers," Wade said. "Some people say that the drivers aren't necessarily what make the races. It's the tires they use, the engines, the technical team and all the support team around them."

His big plays set the internet buzzing, but could Wade protect Allen's blindside when blitzing linebackers were converging?

"With football, there's so much that goes on in the background that what you see on TV is just the bit above the water," Wade said.

Harder than it looks

The Patriots' Nate Ebner is the best example of a rugby player who managed to navigate a path to the NFL. As a junior walk-on, he made the football team at Ohio State.

"That was probably one of the most humbling experiences I've ever had because it made me realize how much I really didn't know," Ebner said recently, sitting at his locker at Gillette Stadium. "There's a lot more to the game of football than people give credit to. They think it's free-flowing like basketball. When you come to play, it's not like that. It truly is a game of chess."

Ebner has three Super Bowl rings and played for the U.S. rugby sevens squad at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He, of all people, understands, the degree of difficulty facing Holmes and Wade.

When the Patriots played at Buffalo, Ebner had a chance to chat with Wade.

"How you doing, man?" Ebner asked.

"It's hard," Wade said.

"He straight-up said that," Ebner said. "But he's learning and he thinks it's awesome. At the end of the day, he's working his tail off to get it going."

But? "A lot of [rugby] guys have tried and haven't had success," Ebner said.

Leech, who oversees the process that delivered Holmes and Wade to the AFC East, doesn't offer false optimism.

"It's like they're trying to learn advanced calculus, right off the bat," Leech said, "without algebra and geometry before that."

After the teams cut their rosters to 53 for the regular season, Wade and Holmes were placed on their teams' practice squads. And as the season has progressed, they played a variety of roles on kick and punt teams, giving good looks to the varsity. And while they share the meeting rooms, practice field, locker room and cafeteria with the stars we recognize, on game day, they are oddly disconnected.

They attend home games, but when their teams travel, they are left behind.

"This weekend I watched at home," Holmes said. "Sometimes we meet up and watch at someone's house or go out to eat. Yeah, it's obviously not what I'm used to. Back home, I'd play week in and week out. [But] I knew I'd have to wait for my time to get out there."

No regrets

Holmes, despite his clear disappointment at how things have gone, sat down for the better part of an hour for an interview. On several occasions, he said he wished the Jets' coaching staff had given him more opportunities to demonstrate his skills. There were times when his frustration was evident.

"Obviously not going too great at the moment," he said. "This was just something I wanted to do.

"It was a good time to do it, while I still have age on my side to try and make that transition across. Worse comes to worse, I figured I could always go back [to the NRL], so not the end of the world."

No, indeed.

Two weeks to the day after Holmes sat down with ESPN.com, he reportedly had dinner with Paul Green, the head coach of the North Queensland Cowboys. Since the National Rugby League season begins in March, Holmes could theoretically finish the 2019 season with the Jets. Call it a college semester abroad with many lessons learned.

Reacting to the news that Holmes might be headed back to Australia, rugby legend Andrew Johns sounded off in the newspapers.

"Valentine Holmes, an amazing athlete, a freakish athlete didn't make it [in the NFL]," Johns said. "Play rugby league.

"They go over there for 18 months and waste 18 months and not make it. You cost yourself a lot of money."

The bottom line, Holmes said, wasn't the money -- or lack of it playing for the practice squad. He was pleased with his perseverance.

"I'm real happy how I've stuck it out to keep going, even though I didn't make the cut," Holmes said before making the decision to return to rugby league. "Everybody probably thought I was going to head back home straightaway.

"You know, you only have one life so ... why not?"