The road to the NFL is challenging for any prospect.
Less than 2% of college players in America will get to the pros. If you work that back to high school, the number drops to 0.08%. And these are typically players that have grown up with the game, that have been living and breathing the complex sport for over ten years before they're even considered for a spot in the big league.
As over 300 prospects head to Indianapolis this week for the NFL Combine, a very select group of international players -- drawn from a variety of sports beyond just American football -- are taking a different route entirely.
Set up to help non-US players with ambition transition from their original sport of choice, the NFL's International Pathway program secures a contract with an NFL team for those athletes with the most potential.
"It's the sort of challenge I've been looking for," says Christian Wade. The 27-year-old former England international announced last October his immediate retirement from rugby, which was soon followed by confirmation that he had been identified as one of seven athletes, from five countries, being considered for the NFL's International Player Pathway program.
Wade is following in the footsteps of other rugby players, former Worcester Warrior Christian Scotland-Williamson and former England Sevens captain Alex Gray, both of whom successfully landed contracts last year via the Pathway program with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Atlanta Falcons respectively. Wade knows both players well -- he went to school with Scotland-Williamson and played with Gray -- and used them as sounding boards, "so I knew what to expect when I was making my choice".
Wade is near the start of that journey. We caught up in Atlanta during Super Bowl Week, on Radio Row, right in the middle of the media frenzy, where he got a glimpse of what may lie in store for him if all goes to plan.
It was a welcome break from an uncompromising 14-week training camp in Florida that he's currently in the middle of. The camp, which Gray describes as "pure grind", serves as a crash course in American Football for players who undeniably have athletic ability, but need to be fast-tracked in all the key aspects of the game -- from the basics, to the nuances and technical specifics.
"We have to learn as much as we can, the rules of the game, the gameplay, so if we get to a team we know what to do," says Wade.
"The first couple of weeks were a shock to the system. I'm used to training hard but doing maybe two or three days in a row. In the NFL, they train every day. It's go-go-go."
Indeed, the intensity of NFL training is something that all three players, no strangers to hard graft, acknowledge. These are complete days, with an emphasis as much on their mental development and strategic awareness as their physical enhancement. There is also the challenge of learning new plays again and again, and knowing your ever-changing role on every one of them.
"It's so different to rugby," says Scotland-Williamson. "Rugby is nowhere near the same level of detail. Every play is scripted in the NFL. You're expected to learn between 80-100 plays, deliverable at full speed the next morning in practice."
The need for study, learning the playbook, spending time in the film room, is essential to success in the NFL, but is particularly acute for players like Wade who haven't had years of exposure and don't possess the muscle memory and instinct for the game that their counterparts do.
"There's so much stuff I didn't know that I'm learning now," says Wade. "I'm watching more and more film to back up what I'm learning [on the field]."
Even areas of assumed commonality between the two sports, like tackling, have their distinctions.
"In rugby there's no limit to how much contact you can do [in training]," says Scotland-Williamson. "In the NFL they're much more conscious of over-stressing people's bodies so there's actually a limit on how much contact you can do during the season and in the off-season."
"It's the same with catching -- similar but different," Gray adds. "These guys are throwing the ball 50 miles an hour. It's a smaller ball, it's harder to see because of the colour, and there's not as much grip on it so it's a more difficult ball to catch."
Once Wade -- who's been identified as a running back -- has completed the Florida camp, he'll take part in a pro-day at the end of March, where scouts from the NFL will take a look at him as he's put through his paces. None are expecting him to be the finished article, but alongside his raw talent, they'll be looking in particular at how much of the game he's already managed to absorb in a such a short space of time.
If a team wants to take a chance on him, they'll sign him as a free agent and take him into camp this summer. All NFL teams overcompensate during the pre-season, starting with rosters of 100+ players that they gradually trim down to the final 53-man squad -- plus a further 10 players contracted to the practice, or reserve squad -- for the start of the season. So even if Wade gets picked up, there's no guarantee he'll have a place on a team come week one.
The Pathway Program allows another route, one more realistic, enabling certain teams to take a chance on one of the international players via an additional roster spot -- a bonus eleventh player on the practice squad -- drawn specifically from the shortlisted talent pool. Both Scotland-Williamson and Gray were beneficiaries of this path last season.
Usually a collection of ten players, practice squad players train and learn with the 53-man main roster during the week, but are not eligible to play on game day. A typical practice squad player can be called up to the main roster during the season, though Pathway players are ineligible to be called on.
It's a smart route for both sides -- low risk, high reward. And after a season watching, learning, absorbing, Scotland-Williamson is clear as to his objective for the coming season: "This year has been about being a sponge and trying to learn as much as I can so that next training camp I can really compete."
Outside of personal development, there's a big difference in terms of financial reward here. If Scotland-Williamson is successful, he'll earn at least a league minimum salary set at $480,000. A practice squad player earns around $130,000 per year.
Right now though, for Wade, money will be the least of his concerns. He's locked in on learning, to take each opportunity he gets to impress, and to hang in there amidst stern competition and possible rejection.
Five years ago, the suggestion of a rugby player making it to the NFL within 12 months -- in any other position beyond kicker -- would have been met in most quarters with raised eyebrows and a heavy dose of scepticism. Now, it's accepted, as is the increased flow of players attempting the switch.
Alex Corbisiero, the former British Lion turned NBC broadcaster, certainly thinks more players will make the jump.
"[The NFL] will be more appealing to [rugby] players, the more they see other guys having success. As the pathway becomes tried and tested, guys will look across the fence and think that grass is a little bit greener."