English rugby star Scotland-Williamson giving football a shot


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Christiand Scotland-Williamson. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Lost in the hoopla surrounding whether Ben Roethlisberger had reached out to Mason Rudolph before his first practice with the Steelers — he did, via text — was another player taking part not only in his first practice with the Steelers, but his first football practice ever.

For nearly all of the 41 rookies and 15 first-year players who took part in the Steelers' rookie minicamp practice Friday at the Rooney Sports Complex, this practice was another step toward fulfilling a lifelong dream of playing in the NFL.

For Christian Scotland-Williamson, however, it marked a different kind of step. Friday was the first time in his life he went through an organized football practice.

Scotland-Williamson has been a rugby player since the age of 9 and had been playing that sport professionally in his native England when he caught the eye of people organizing a program the NFL is expanding to try to bring more of an international flavor to the game.

The 24-year-old is taking part in the International Player Pathway program and is one of eight international players who have been placed with NFL teams this season. All four AFC North teams are hosting a player this season who will spend the year with them but not count against their roster.

His older brother, Alexander, who played college basketball at University of Alabama-Birmingham, first told him of the program and he began checking into it.

But don't think for a moment that Scotland-Williamson is doing this just for kicks or for the opportunity to spend a year in the U.S. He's intent on making a career of this, despite his inexperience with American football.

"I wouldn't have made the switch, I wouldn't have sacrificed what I had if I wasn't all in," Scotland-Williamson told Friday. "A lot of people have asked me that. I think it would be a bit naïve to say I was going to do something for a year. Why would I risk a promising career where I could have excelled and come over here and not give it 100 percent? It's more about making it a success because I have sacrificed so much to be here."

What did he sacrifice? How about a budding career for the Worcester Warriors in Premiership Rugby, the sport's top level of competition in England?

Scotland-Williamson was a star in that league, given his size and athleticism.

Did we mention he happens to be 6 feet 9, 274 pounds?

That size certainly didn't hurt him when it came to being noticed in NFL circles. But there was more to it than that.

"I made one big tackle that went viral in the UK," Scotland-Williamson said. "From there, my name was mentioned in the right circles. They contacted me. It all happened in the space of four weeks. I went from hoping to be on the England tour, which actually got announced yesterday, to now I'm over here playing with the Steelers, it's pretty crazy."

That tackle, shown below, had to have people in NFL circles intrigued.

Even so, the Steelers aren't trying Scotland-Williams on the defensive side of the ball. They're using him as a tight end.

He feels that position allows him to best use his athleticism, honed by years of running around on the pitch.

"Rugby, you play both sides of the ball, you catch the ball, you have to do a lot of different things, so on special teams, I still tackle people," he said. "Blocking and physicality are there. And obviously, the finesse attributes as well, I can actually use that skillset and bring it into this."

Once he learns the playbook.

That's one area where the two sports differ greatly. While there are some similarities between the games, rugby is more free-flowing, like soccer, without the starts and stops of football.

"Rugby is an endurance sport. I'd say this is more power and speed," Scotland-Williams told me. "It's just the precision of movements is different. In rugby, I'd say you use more of your instincts. In this, you get more of a manual and you have to learn where you need to be at the right time. That's a different thing. Rugby, you have your skeletons, but because it's free play, you can't really plan for everything. In football, you have the breaks, so you can naturally script a lot more. I think that's the main difference."

And that script, as Scotland-Williams called it, can be quite extensive, as he found out.

He spent all night Thursday cramming before his first practice with the Steelers, in the hope he would get everything down. Of course, when you've only been involved with the sport for about three months — he trained with the other seven international players and others at the IMG Academy in Florida — being able to pick up the intricacies of an NFL playbook can be difficult.

"It was a bit interesting," he admitted. "Yesterday, I had my head in the book until about 2 or 3 in the morning. I'm still trying to get up to speed. It's in there. But I need to be able to recall it quickly. That's going to take a while. I've two degrees, so I felt like I was back in college last night."

Actually, Scotland-Williams has three degrees. One each in geography and economics, to go along with a masters in international business from Loughborough University. He did all of that while pursuing his professional rugby career.

So this should be easy, right?

"The knowledge is there. It is in there," he said. "It's just the speed of hearing it from the quarterback and knowing what you're doing in that split second. That will come from repetition. That's something I've got a lot to improve on. But this was Day 1. It can only get better."

And he'll get to see a lot more of the game up close and personal than he has gotten to see thus far in his life, as he told me Friday:

And who knows? Perhaps he'll become as big a star in the NFL as he was in the Premiership League.

That's the long-term goal, anyway.

"Those avenues really aren't there in England until the program came along," Scotland-Williamson said. "I had a promising career in rugby, which I had played since I was nine years old. I had always dreamed of doing what I'm doing now. When someone came and said this is a realistic ambition, I jumped at the opportunity."


[caption id="attachment_632551" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Steelers rookie camp, UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, May 11, 2018. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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