MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian rugby league international Jarryd Hayne is one step closer to his realizing his dream of carving out an NFL career after securing a futures contract with the San Francisco 49ers.
The 27-year-old announced his deal at a media conference in Sydney on Tuesday, five months after stunning sports-mad Australia by quitting the country’s top-flight rugby league competition to try his hand in American football.
Hayne fielded interest from three NFL clubs, turning down the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions before opting for the 49ers.
“From 2015, I’m going to be a San Francisco 49er,” Hayne told reporters, putting the team’s red cap on his head.
“This is a small step in the right direction, the hard stuff starts now.”
Players on futures deals are locked up exclusively to train with their NFL team in a 90-man camp, which is progressively whittled down to select players for an active 53-man roster.
Hayne was one of Australia’s highest paid players in the National Rugby League and was joint winner of the “Dally M” award as player of the season last year.
His bid to break into the NFL, one of the world’s most competitive professional sports leagues, has enthralled Australia, with regular updates in local media and rampant speculation over his playing future.
Raised in government housing in Minto, a hard-scrabble suburb in Sydney’s working class west, the 6ft 2in (1.88m) Hayne’s rise to NRL stardom is one of Australian sport’s favorite rags-to-riches stories.
Versatile, skilled and fast, Hayne’s effectiveness as a fullback in rugby league might mean his best chance of NFL success would be as a running back or a return specialist.
Hayne said he had settled on the 49ers because of the team’s new coach Jim Tomsula, who was promoted from defensive line coach in January after Jim Harbaugh’s departure.
Tomsula coached NFL Europe side Rhein Fire in 2006 and Hayne said he had experience working with rugby players.
“We spent about an hour together in Europe and he spent so much time with rugby players,” Hayne said.
“Obviously it was Jim’s knowledge of transitioning players which made the perfect fit to join the 49ers.”
A number of Australians have carved out careers in the NFL since track and field athlete Colin Ridgeway broke ground with a handful of games for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s.
No Australian in top-flight rugby league has ever made the switch, however, and Hayne said last year he would return to his Sydney-based NRL club Parramatta if his 12-month project to win an NFL deal fell through.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford