We caught up with rookie tight end Hayden Smith in the locker room this week. The 6'6", 255-pounder was called up to the Jets' active roster Oct. 27. He talked with us about that moment, his transition from rugby to football, and his future goals.
Nearly two weeks ago, you got called up to the active roster. Since then, how have things changed for you inside this locker room?
It has been an absolute whirlwind personally. But day to day, it hasn't been too many changes. I mean, obviously the only difference is I suited up and am traveling with the team. That's the main difference. My job day to day has kind of remained the same — giving a good look on the scout team. And the great thing about the guys in the locker room is that there's really been no change from them and that's just a testament to the guys we have in here. So there's really no difference for me being on the practice squad to being on the active roster.
You're playing at Seattle on Sunday. Have you ever been out to the West Coast?
I have. I've traveled there, obviously, because I used to play college basketball over here. I traveled quite extensively with that and was fortunate enough while I was playing for the USA rugby team to travel all around America as well. So I spent quite a bit of time on the West Coast, and it's a beautiful place. I've never actually been to Seattle. It'll be my first time in Seattle, which I'm looking forward to.
What was your immediate reaction when they informed you that you had been promoted to the active roster?
I was obviously excited. It was definitely a goal of mine, so it was nice to be able to achieve that goal relatively quickly. So I was excited about that and really just happy. I kind of felt like I just had gotten a taste of it, so being activated was a very positive thing for me and I'm really excited about it. But it was more of just a steppingstone and I'm just excited to move on.
Do you always feel like you've been a fast learner? I read shortly after you started rugby that you made an All-America team. Now you've been playing football less than a year and you're on an NFL active roster.
Yeah, I guess. I've been quite fortunate to pick up a number of things athletically, obviously. Those things have come quite naturally to me. You know, I guess, yeah, it has been quick, but there's also been a lot of work that's gone into it behind the scenes. So it doesn't really just happen by accident. It's not like I've been able to turn up and these things just click and happen. There's been hours and hours put in behind the scenes for a number of months now that have contributed to me being able to be where I am now.
You were a rugby star before starting football. What are some similarities and differences you see between the two sports?
Firstly, I'd say the main similarity is when you have the ball in your hand. Outside of that, there's really, barely any similarities whatsoever. Rugby is, very much, the opposition is in front of you. So it's a little bit of an adjustment for me getting used to having the defense possibly coming from all different angles. On special teams, you know, you can have guys come from behind you and everywhere on the side and hit you. So it was a very different feeling having that and that was something you had to adjust to. Then the preparation and the academia that goes into football is on another level.
How much time would you spend studying rugby opponents?
There would be a decent amount, maybe 8-10 hours a week. This is by far a lot more. The hours that the coaches put in and the preparation that they and the scouts put into a game pales in comparison to what it is with rugby. But that's just because the natures of the game are very different. You need that preparation time in football. In rugby it's very much more a feel type of sport. It's not as much to prepare for.
Which sport do you feel is more physical now that you've experienced both?
I tell you what, they're both very physical, in very different ways. Rugby, I think, there's more collisions. The conditioning is a lot harder. However, in football some of the collisions you get out in the open field are huge. So I think individually, those collisions can be bigger.
Do you feel there are more injuries in football than in rugby?
No, not necessarily. I mean, you're going to get injured playing both sports. I think the injury rate in football is 100 percent and I'd say it would be in rugby as well over a period of time. So it's not necessarily like that. They're both incredibly physical sports and just slightly different in nature.
Do you miss rugby at all? Do you keep in touch with some of your former teammates or watch it still these days?
Yeah, if I ever get the chance, I'll watch a game. I've got the subscription over here, so I get to watch whenever I do get the chance. The one thing about rugby is it's such a great cultural sport. There's a real great culture associated with it. So I still keep in contact with all the guys and they follow what's going on over here. It's quite interesting to them.
Do you think they've been surprised that you made it to the NFL? Or do you think they saw this in you?
Um, no I think everyone hopes for the best. But it's nice to actually see it come into fruition. So you never really know. I mean, I obviously took a big gamble coming over here. Really, essentially walking away from what could have been a very long career in rugby over there.
Was it tough to leave that?
It was something that I weighed up. Personally for me, there was really no question. It was exactly what I wanted to do. It wasn't too much of a difficult decision for me. But it's something that a lot of guys wouldn't do.
Who do you feel has taught you the most about football on this team?
I've been incredibly fortunate to have Coach [Mike] Devlin and his assistant, Lance Taylor, helping me out. They've put in a tremendous amount of hours. And to be honest, Dustin Keller obviously being our starting tight end, there's a lot I've been able to learn from him. But more than that, the quarterbacks. You know, Tim [Tebow]'s been fantastic, Mark [Sanchez] as well, and even Greg McElroy. So there's no one on the team who isn't approachable and isn't willing to help if you have a question or anything like that.
How much football did you watch before you started playing?
I'd seen the occasional game. Growing up in Australia, it's not a mainstream sport so you don't get to see too much of it. But obviously, what you did see back then was just the scale of everything and how competitive it was and the atmosphere that was created around football. That's something that I remember from a young age.
When did you get the interest to start playing football?
I was interested at a young age.
But you just couldn't play it over there in Australia?
Yeah, there just wasn't access to it. I mean, it didn't exist. So when that opportunity came, it'd always been a seed planted in my head. Once I played in the World Cup, which was a goal of mine in rugby, I thought it was really time, if I was going to give it a go, it was time to give it a go.
Was that part of the reason you played rugby, because it was kind of similar to football?
No, I think I took the pathway that was in front of me and I have no regrets really about my story. It's been amazing and I've had some incredible experiences and been able to travel the world with rugby. I have some amazing memories and friendships from it. And I'm incredibly fortunate to have this now in front of me and who knows where this will lead and what will happen in the future.
You've made the team now, but what's the next step for you?
I haven't been too concerned with the big scheme of things. For me, it's really been to come in every day and just work on getting a little bit better and putting in the hours and making sure that something every day moves forward. For me, that doesn't really change right now. I need to not be too concerned about making a huge impact this year. All I'm concerned about is coming in every day, continuing to do the work and getting better on the little things. At the end of the day, everything will take care of itself.
Have you got any family who are planning to attend a game before the end of the season?
My dad came to the Miami Dolphins game, which was amazing. But Australia's such a long way away. Hopefully they get the opportunity, but nothing planned just yet.