‘Austin Powers’ on life in the NFL

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Alex Gray has played five pre-season games for the Atlanta Falcons

“It’s like the volume has been turned up to 100. Every day is almost like a celebration.”

Alex Gray has been in plenty of dressing rooms before – he captained England’s sevens team and played club rugby for Newcastle Falcons and London Irish.

But they are nothing compared to what he is experiencing in his first season in American football.

“It’s a bit funny, the guys rolling in in Ferraris,” says Gray, the first English professional rugby union player to join the NFL.

The 26-year-old, who stands at 6ft 6in, weighs 18 stone and can run the 100m in 11 seconds, has signed for the Atlanta Falcons – Super Bowl runners-up last season – as a tight end in their practice squad.

Though he will not be allowed to play in the NFL this season, he will train with the first team in the hope of securing a deal from next year.

And having never previously played a game of American football, apart from on the computer, he finally got the opportunity against one of the most famous teams of all – the Miami Dolphins.

His Falcons debut came a year to the day after the GB sevens team he should have been part of won Olympic silver in Rio.

“I always said what happened with the Olympics would make me or break me,” he tells BBC Sport.

“I truly believe it made me. To play in my first NFL game, as an English guy who had never played the game before, was testimony to that.”

A debut to remember

Gray’s Olympic dream was ended by an ankle injury picked up the weekend before GB’s final sevens squad was named

The centre then signed for English Championship side Yorkshire Carnegie for the 2016-17 season, but a groin injury sidelined him for 12 weeks.

By the end of the season he had decided to walk away from rugby, and in May he moved to Atlanta as part of the league’s International Player Pathway programme.

Within three months he had made his debut, coming on in the third quarter of a pre-season game against the Dolphins at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.

“It was a huge mixture of emotions,” says Gray, who signed for Newcastle aged 17 and captained an England team featuring players such as Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola and George Ford in the Under-20s World Cup final.

“To have been able to play in my first NFL game was a huge event, not just because I am an English guy who has never played the game before, but because I had gone through what happened with missing out on Rio. To make my NFL debut a year to the day after the guys won the silver medal was just crazy.”

But were there any nerves?

“The only time it hit me was when I was in the tunnel and I was waiting to go out, surrounded by guys in pads and helmets, and for a second I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing?’ But as soon as I got on to the field it was all down to business.”

Gray was named England sevens player of the year in 2015

Being part of ‘the brotherhood’

Gray is part of a squad featuring players such as Matt Ryan, the NFL’s most valuable player last season, plus star wide receiver Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, the highest paid running back in the league.

“I have not been too star-struck,” says Gray. “It is probably a mixture of not knowing who a lot of these guys are.

“The ethos of the Falcons has really impressed me, it reminded me of the rugby ethos. They make a big deal about their slogan ‘the brotherhood’, but it isn’t just a slogan it is a way of life. This team is a great fit for me from that standpoint.

“Ryan and Jones are big stars of game, but they are great team-mates as well, they are down-to-earth people who work as hard as the next guy.”

Matt Ryan was the NFL’s MVP as the Falcons reached Super Bowl last season

‘Austin Powers’

Gray says his new team-mates see rugby as “a crazy sport played by madmen with no helmets”.

“They know where I have come from and how difficult it is. I can’t speak highly enough of them, they have been very supportive.”

Gray adds some of his new colleagues have been “taking the mick” of out his accent, but adds: “I knew what was coming. If the roles had been reversed I’d be doing the same.

“A few guys do the English accent. One of my coaches calls me ‘Earl Grey’ and I have also got ‘Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery’.

“They find it as crazy as I do that the Dolphins game was the first American football game I had ever been to, never mind played in.”

‘Private jets and police escorts’

Gray has played at stadiums around the world, but says nothing compares to life in the NFL.

One of the five pre-season games he was allowed to play in was the Falcons’ first match at their new home ground, the 71,000-seater Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

He says: “It is like the volume has been turned up to 100 from anything else I have seen. I had training sessions and 4,000 people turned up.

“Every day is almost like a celebration. Millions of people want to do what we are doing. Every day that celebration is hyped up to the max, it creates a great environment to do your work.

“Playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has won the most Super Bowls, didn’t feel any different to when I was playing professional rugby.

“What did not feel natural was the police escorts, the private jets. Nothing is quite to the scale of what it is with American football, it is eye-opening and a cool thing to experience.

“You definitely feel the showbiz aspect from the NFL.

“The whole experience from leaving our training ground to getting to the stadium with police escorts, private jets, security on the hallways at the hotel… there are hundreds of TV crews, cheerleaders and the fans are crazy for it.”

Gray is ineligible to be activated at any point during the season. Instead, he is guaranteed to be a special 11th member of the Falcons’ practice squad for the year, meaning he does not count against the normal 10-player limit.

But he has his sights on extending his stay in Georgia.

“Nothing in the NFL is guaranteed,” he says. “Hopefully I will be given a full-time contract. It will take a lot of hard work from now until this time next year. I am working towards that goal and I know I will get there.”

He has already impressed Falcons head coach Dan Quinn, who said: ” I thought for him to go change sports and play at the highest level quickly would be difficult. His transition has gone very well.”

How to watch the 2017 season on the BBC

The NFL Show will run throughout the season on BBC One, either on Friday or Saturday nights, with NFL This Week rounding up all the action on Tuesdays on BBC Two, beginning on 12 September at 23:45 BST.

The BBC will have live coverage of two games – the New Orleans Saints against the Miami Dolphins at Wembley (14:30 BST) on 1 October and the Minnesota Vikings against the Cleveland Browns at Twickenham on 29 October (13:30 GMT).

There is also live coverage of Super Bowl LII on 4 February 2018.

Full details can be found here.

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