Who is Jarryd Hayne? Q&A with NRL Executive

You've probably heard the debates before.

Would LeBron James be able to play wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns? Or could Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt crack an NFL roster as a return man?

An athlete at the top of their game switching sports is a fun premise to discuss in the office, but rarely does it actually come to fruition (see Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders).

But after surviving the San Francisco 49ers final roster cuts on Saturday, Jarryd Hayne has officially made that crossover. The Australian rugby league MVP, who signed with the 49ers in March, has made the team's 53-man roster and will soon begin his quest to make a mark in the regular season.

Hayne won a job by showing tremendous potential in four preseason contests, finishing second in the NFL with 175 rushing yards and averaging a league-best 4.84 yards per carry after contact.

Although Hayne, 27, is relatively unknown commidity in the states, he is a bona fide star in Australia. He was called "without doubt the most dominant player in the world" and reportedly spurned the richest contract in National Rugby League history to chase his NFL dreams.

"I was about to become the highest-paid player in the NRL," Hayne told the Daily Telegraph. “But, I’m a kid from Minto and my whole dream as a professional athlete was to buy my mum a house. I did that. Everything else has been a bonus.”

To learn more about just who Hayne is, we spoke in March with NRL elite programs manager Gareth Holmes, who has known Hayne since he was 13 years old playing "junior footy."

Holmes was also the football operations manager for Hayne's NRL team, the Parramatta Eels, and was the team manager for Australia during the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, a tournament in which Hayne tied for the lead in scoring.

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49ers.com:** What was the reaction like in Australia when Jarryd first announced his decision to quit rugby league?

Holmes: It was a lot of shock because he’s a superstar in our game. He’s won player of the year a couple times, including last year, so he was really at the top of his game.

He’s obviously one of the most recognizable sportsmen in Australia. In rugby league terms, he was the LeBron James.

49ers.com: Clearly the NFL isn't as popular in Australia as it is in the states, so where did his interest in American football come from?

Holmes: I think just watching the game – being a fan. I know from my time with Jarryd when I was with the Eels, he was just a big fan of the game. He doesn’t mind jumping onto the PlayStation and getting involved that way. He basically just has a passion for the game.

At different times during our warmup sessions at Perramatta, we would involve NFL footballs, and he’d always try to get the ball in his hands and pass it around.

49ers.com: Since you've known Jarryd for many years, what is he like as a person?

Holmes: He’s a pretty level-headed kid. He’s got a great support network in his family from his mom and dad. His dad was a former first grade rugby league player as well many years ago.

He’s got a strong link back to his faith, and he’s got a really good group of friends and supporters around him. He’s very personable. We classified him as one of our ambassadors for the game.  He was one of the faces of our game.

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49ers.com:** We've seen quite a bit of the #HaynePlane hashtag since he signed, what is the origin of that nickname?

Holmes: I guess there was a stage back in 2009 when Parramatta was on a terrific run and actually made it to our Grand Final – which would be the equivalent of your Super Bowl.

And after he’d score and put the ball down, he’d put his arms out to the sides similar to a plane. So hence he got marked as the “Hayne Plane.” It was like his post-touchdown celebration.

49ers.com: Do you have a favorite memory of him as a player?

Holmes: For me personally, it's when he represented Australia in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup.  And he really dominated that tournament. So having known Jarryd since he was a young kid, to be still involved with him at that level – I was the Australian team manager through that World Cup – and to win that tournament was special.

The final of that World Cup was at Old Trafford in Manchester, so it was a massive game at an iconic venue. We didn’t actually hold the World Cup at the time (New Zealand did), so to be able to win it back and for him to be so dominant, it’s a great memory for me.  Add that to the fact that I’ve known him for such a long time, and watched him grow up as a junior player to be an international superstar in our game. 

49ers.com: Lastly, the big question is how do you think he'll do in the NFL?

Holmes: I like to think he’ll do really well. Obviously he’s putting himself in a position that’s foreign to him, but I know that he’s very driven and very motivated. From what I know, he’s a student of the game, and he picks things up very quickly.

Athletically, I don’t think he’ll have any issues. He’s a true athlete. He’s strong, fast and very agile. I think it’s just the picking up the intricacies of the game. That’ll be his biggest challenge, but I have no doubt that he can do it. 

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