The little-known British rugby union player tipped to follow Louis Rees-Zammit into the NFL

Alex Spink
Travis Clayton on a weights bench.

Travis Clayton on a weights bench.

When the eyes of the NFL turn to rugby union this weekend it will not be in the direction of Louis Rees-Zammit.

The Wales and Lions star has already secured his move to American football, signed up by back-to-back Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs.

The focus of attention among teams gathered at the three-day NFL Draft in Detroit is a rugby winger not even Rees-Zammit had heard of until recently.

Travis Clayton

Travis Clayton plays for Basingstoke in Counties 2 Hampshire, the EIGHTH tier of English club rugby.

Yet after 10 weeks learning gridiron in the NFL’s International Player Pathway (IPP) programme he is Draft ‘eligible’ and tipped to be signed by one of the 32 franchises.

“Trav is a physical and athletic freak,” says Basingstoke teammate Cam Prayag. “A seriously imposing figure, freakishly strong and quick. I’ve never seen someone that big move so fast.”

It is likely the NFL has. Nonetheless, clocking 4.79 seconds for the 40-yard dash on Pro Day caught the league’s attention, given he is 6’7″ and weighing well over 21 stone. With a 35* arm length Clayton is fancied as an offensive lineman.

“Being a big guy I’d say I’m quite quick,” he says. “Quite agile on my toes for someone who weighs over 300lbs. I think that should make me stand out.”

According to IPP boss James Cook he did just that, attracting “significant interest” from teams. “Scouts came away with their jaws dropped a bit,” IPP coach Dominic Fevrier-McPherson adds.

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That led to invites to visit Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City, with the Steelers Depot blog wondering whether he could be the next Jordan Mailata – the Australian who went from the NRL to a Super Bowl with Philadelphia.

None of which guarantees Clayton anything, but clearly experts in the business of recruitment like the cut of his jib.

“We’re hoping his name gets called this weekend,” says Cook. “If it doesn’t we feel very confident he’ll go in and sign as an undrafted free agent.

“It doesn’t matter how you enter the league, it matters what you do when you get there.”

So who is this guy, what is his back story and why has British sport in its entirety not made more of such an athlete?

Aged 23, Clayton played football for Fulham’s academy and had trials with Reading, Southampton and Chelsea. He also rowed and boxed before finding rugby.

“We would hand him the ball and he would just smack through people,” says Prayag. “I remember once him running from our half in a straight line all the way to the try line, leaving a trail of bodies behind him.

“Had he grown up in America I have no doubt he would have had coaches from a number of sports all over him, trying to get him onto their programmes.”

Richard Cheetham coaches him at Basingstoke and admits he marvelled at the “incredible” combination of speed and size that Clayton possesses. But above all, assets not immediately visible to the eye: attitude and character.

“Early on you get a measure of somebody,” he says. “The little things you notice that they do.

“When I first started coaching him he had shin splints and was unable to run and to play. He’d turn up for training even though he knew he couldn’t train. He was so frustrated but he never found an excuse not to be there.

“He’d make a point of watching the matches, being with the players. He’d bring his exercise bands, be asking questions, texting me, letting me know how he was getting on, how it had gone with the physio, his pool work.

“He is so driven that it would be brilliant now to see him fulfil his dream. We all have dreams, we all want to be this or that, but it takes bloody hard work and a lot of sacrifice to get there.”

Cheetham adds: “If he gets drafted I will think back to all those winter days when the weather was rubbish and he was sat at the side of the pitch wanting to be running, wanting to be doing something.

Never gave in

“Running for 50 metres then breaking down and being frustrated, but still there at the next training session, asking how can he get better, what can he do, never giving in to the setback.”

Why an athlete with that application and athletic attributes has not risen higher in UK sport should concern those involved in Talent ID. One of the reasons, in rugby union at least, could be geographical.

“A lot of the professional teams have academies and pathways and they select from those they’ve nurtured in those settings,” says Cheetham.

“The academy system in most professional clubs is so well set yet the academy system doesn’t exist in the catchment area Basingstoke is in because London Irish doesn’t exist any more.

“That’s not Travis’ fault, it’s circumstance.”

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