Jarryd Hayne learned something as basic to American football as lowering his shoulder pads and delivering a block for the first time at age 27. Most NFL players were taught that at age 10.
Before the 49ers’ spring practices, all of Hayne’s athletic experience occurred on the far side of the world. That’s why most observers figured he would struggle, if not fail, in his attempt to land an NFL roster spot.
His best shot at sticking around, everyone felt, was on the practice squad, which seemed perfect for teaching a newcomer like Hayne the nuances of America’s favorite sport.
117 Jarryd Hayne’s total rushing yards, second in the NFL in exhibition play
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During the last week and a half, however, Hayne has proved that some things are universal no matter the undertaking. He’s a large man capable of great bursts of momentum. And he can outrun most of his opponents. Those traits helped take him to the top of Australia’s National Rugby League and have served him well so far in his new pursuit.
But perhaps more than his physical gifts, Hayne has shown some decidedly unflashy concepts – concentration, professionalism and determination – are never lost in translation.
No 49er, not even quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is pursued quite like Hayne. The American sports media certainly can be overblown and excessive as “Spygate,” “Bountygate” and “Deflategate” illustrate all too well.
But if Americans have a healthy appetite for their sports stars, Australians are absolutely ravenous. And Hayne is their favorite snack. No item about the former Parramatta Eel is too small.
When Hayne first joined the 49ers, an Aussie photographer snapped an image of Hayne, in shorts with a protein shake in hand, walking from the practice field to the team meeting area. It was a throw-away shot of a guy in a parking lot. Brisbane’s Courier-Mail tabloid made it into a back-page story with the headline: “EXCLUSIVE PICTURES: Jarryd Hayne training with San Francisco 49ers.”
Still, Hayne has resisted the trappings of his fame. He has not only blended seamlessly into an NFL locker room but into the bottom of an NFL locker room where players are bound by sore muscles, beat-up feet, scabbed elbows and unglamorous nights spent studying the playbook.
He’s adopted the humble, just-trying-to-make-the-team patter of every undrafted rookie. He gets around town in a used Mazda. After getting hauled down by Dallas’ punter on one of his returns Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, he received the same sideline ribbing NFL return men have been getting for decades.
But perhaps more than his physical gifts, Jarryd Hayne has shown some decidedly unflashy concepts – concentration, professionalism and determination – are never lost in translation.
“As soon as I came off, the boys were into me, saying I had to pay a fine and whatnot,” Hayne said. “I actually saw the replay and he actually grabbed my jersey, so I have to tighten the jersey a little bit.”
Clearly, he’s also been working hard behind the scenes.
Despite an abundance of running backs on the roster, he entered his first NFL game Aug. 15 against Houston at the end of the first quarter. And through two exhibition games, he trails only Denver’s Ronnie Hillman in rushing yards – 120-117. (With 16 carries, Hillman has three more than Hayne.) There’s no way he would have played in games that early and logged so many minutes if coaches didn’t trust that he knew what he was doing.
And that’s his advantage over younger players like running backs Mike Davis, a rookie, and Kendall Gaskins, who is trying to earn his first NFL roster spot. Those guys may have played a lot more football than Hayne, but he has been a professional athlete since he was 18.
That means he’s navigated locker rooms, battled opponents and dealt with the media for a decade. He knows how to take care of his body so he doesn’t miss a practice – and slide down the depth chart – with a sore hamstring. He knows what it takes to stick around.
Hayne’s professional experience may come from different sport and on a different continent, but it’s experience nonetheless. The NFL may be foreign to him. The skills needed to survive there are not.