In an interview for the Ninety-Nine Yards podcast, I spoke exclusively with fellow Brit and former rugby union player, Christian Scotland-Williamson who is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The full podcast can be heard here but should you wish to listen to the interview only I’d suggest skipping through to 08:30 where the interview begins.
Liz: Now, Christian, you’ve been on quite the journey. You started off playing rugby union for the Worcester Warriors, and now here you are on the practice squad for the Steelers as tight-end. Now my understanding of the international player pathway is that, identify as athletes from around the world who show potential talent to play NFL at the highest level. Could you perhaps tell me how this opportunity came around for you?
Christian: So it’s actually an interesting one. So I hadn’t really thought about the prospect of playing American football properly. So I was playing rugby in the premiership for Worcester. I was going into my free-agent year. I was playing really well and I had one big hit that went viral in the UK and then that had my name mentioned in the right circles. And then from that, even in the locker room and my brother actually went to college in America to play basketball after that hit. He had people in America saying, ‘Oh, you need to try and give American football ago.’ Like, ‘Why haven’t you played that?’
And obviously being from the UK, it’s not really on your doorstep so it’s quite hard to seek out opportunities to play American football. So then after I think three weeks of that tackle some people who were involved with Alex Gray who obviously is with the Falcons on practice squad is that first year of that international pathway program got in touch with me and kind of explain the opportunity and if I was able to make myself available and wanted to pursue it, if I had the raw tools to actually make a go of it, then it would be worth talking about.
So I met up with a few people and decided to quit my job, got out of my contract playing rugby with Worchester. I was fortunate enough that they were very understanding, understood my reasons for pursuing this. And because it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity, especially having never played college football, high school football, it’s rare enough to get a shot at the NFL, let alone having never played before. So that’s kind of how it came about.
Liz: Brilliant. And what are your hopes and aims now that you are an international player pathway? What’s next?
Christian: So at the moment it’s about learning as much as possible. So I can’t actually play this season, I can’t get activated. But I was fortunate enough to play in all four preseason games. So it’s been a learning experience. Every day I’m learning new things. I’m going up against some great opposition. I’m fortunate enough that being in such a great organization with such talented players, it means that you upskill very quickly because the guys you’re going up against are the very best. So if you can manage to block or make plays against those guys, you’re doing well.
Liz: Now let’s talk around the switch from rugby into American football. How have you had to change your physique and fitness to adapt to the demands of American football? And secondly, how different is the game from a mental preparation point of view?
Christian: So both are pretty different. I say the mental side is the most different. Physically, it’s just getting used to a lot more explosive movements. So with rugby, I was used to running say five to six kilometers per game and per practice session. And the training sessions were probably an hour, an hour and a half. Whereas, over here, training is a bit longer, so the practice can last up to two and a half hours when you probably cover a similar distance but it’s all maximum intensity sprint. So that did take some getting used to initially because as you’d imagine when you’re used to kind of longer distance running, which isn’t as intense, things like your hamstring, your groin and stuff like that tighten up quite quickly but that was okay. I got used to that probably by the end of OTAs and got used to the flow of practice.
But the mental side is by far the most challenging. I’d say, it’s probably 80% mental in terms of the transition. Because with rugby, you have a very brief skeleton or overview where you have a few plays because it’s such a free-flowing game and there’s less room for intervention. You can’t really script as much and you have to rely on the athlete making decisions on the field.
Whereas with American football, because you can script every single play, it’s almost like running intermittent sprints and having a test at the end of every rep. Because you have to be able to recall what the players wear, you have to line up your assignment and then go and execute it full speed. And obviously the playbook is so vast and say, if you get to the line and you have to change the call and make an audible, you have to be able to process that within two or three seconds and then execute at full speed. Whereas with rugby, you kind of take yourself into that dark hole when it gets to 60 to 70 minutes and you kind of hang on and then just rely on your instinct. So it’s much more challenging mentally being in the NFL
Liz: And the position that you play is tight end. Is that a position that you chose or is it more an area that the coaches felt you’d be strongest in?
Christian: I think it some scenario that uses a lot of my skills. So with rugby obviously play both sides of the ball and you have to catch, pass, tackle. So I think the hardest part of playing tight-end, at the moment, is the blocking. Because in rugby, you don’t have to do any of that. It’s nothing remotely close to that where you have to concentrate your footwork, your hand placement and exploding off the ball and then being able to kind of overpower your opposite man. So that is still taking some getting used to and it’s a learning curve.
Liz: And what does a typical day look like for you? Perhaps you can guide me through your daily routine.
Christian: Okay. So if we start from a Monday, so Monday after a game, I’ll probably come into the building around 11:00 AM and I’d have a run and a lift. Then you’d have following meetings for about two to three hours and then you’d probably leave the building. So that’d be all your review from the previous game and trying to get all of that kind of admin out of the way so that when you report back on a Wednesday you can start game-planning for the opposition for the coming week. Then on a Wednesday, it’s all heavy pad day.
So that’s our main workday with most of our installs. So I probably get to the building around quarter to seven, have a lift until eight, and then I’ll be in meetings from eight until 11:30, then on the field from 12:15 to about three and then you’d have meetings after that too. And Thursday looks very much the same except without pads. And then Friday is a fast Friday where you have an early practice, where you’re on the field at 10:45 for around two and a half hours still and then you wouldn’t have too many meetings after.
Liz: Also you mentioned earlier you signed with a squad earlier this year and no doubt the coaches are working closely with you to develop you to be the best player that you could be. Have you found a mentor within the team, a player perhaps that has taken time to teach and mold you as a player?
Christian: I wouldn’t say it’s one player in particular. I’d say I try and learn from everyone. So whether it’s even asking a lot of the offensive linemen about blocking techniques because obviously that’s what they do is their main priority for a living. So I’ve also got great tight-end in the room. So I’ve got Vance McDonald, Jesse James, Xavier Grimble to all learn from. So it’s more where I need help, I’ll just ask the best person. So I’d say it’s more trying to just learn from everyone and pick up things as I go.
Liz: And when it comes to game day, are the practice squad there on the sidelines?
Christian: Yes. So we’ll report about two hours before kickoff and we’ll be on the sideline with the team during the whole game so that’s a very exciting part.
Liz: Yeah, absolutely. And was American football a sport that you were already a fan or following at all before you made the move?
Christian: Funnily enough, I was actually a Steelers fan.
Liz: Oh, that’s cool.
Christian: Yeah. So I’d always been a Steelers fan. If anyone asked me what my team was, I’d always say Steelers. So it’s actually ending up in the building is extremely surreal. So it was one of those where obviously now with sky’s coverage and our red zone and things like that, it’s much more available. The London games, obviously, you can see a lot more of the NFL presence in Europe and in the UK, in particular. But when I was, say, 10, 11, you only really saw playoff games occasionally or the Super Bowl because it was on such awkward times and obviously you might have school or things like that. But I’d say in the five years, obviously, the attention has just grown exponentially in the UK so it’s made it easier for people to be fans.
Liz: Absolutely. And is there a player at all across the league that you aspire to be like, and if so, who is it and why?
Christian: That’s a tough one. I think because of my body type, I think I’m one of the biggest in my position in the league so it’s quite hard to find that direct comparison. But you always try and just look at different people’s styles and try and cherry-pick different things that they do well. So, obviously, the tight end of the leagues is Rob Gronkowski, but then as you look at what Vance McDonald’s doing in our building, he’s running over people the whole time. So if I could try and be a bit more like Vance and then have a solid blocking base, then you’d be doing well.
Liz: Well that was incredible Christian. It’s great to hear your story so far. And I’ve got to say, I’m super excited for your future as well. I genuinely wish you all the best and thanks again for taking the time to speak with me. And, Joe, thanks for helping set it up as well.
Christian: Thanks a lot.
Photo copyright: Loughborough University