NFL Draft 2024: Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit was the center of attention in Tampa at this week’s NFL’s international player pro day

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General view inside the Allianz Arena during the pregame show of a NFL match between Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks in Munich, Germany, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit was dripping sweat and still catching his breath after finishing up receiving drills when several NFL scouts approached him at the University of South Florida’s pro day.

“Do you have an agent?”

“Have you ever been injured?”

“Did you take the Wonderlic?”

“Are you doing this for yourself or your family?”

Rees-Zammit politely answered every question before heading off to take a few more from reporters.

Rees-Zammit stunned rugby fans when he announced in January that he was leaving the Welsh national team to pursue a dream of playing in the NFL. The talented 23-year-old, one of the best wingers in rugby, now was the center of attention on a football field instead of a pitch.

“It’s always been on my mind,” Rees-Zammit said Wednesday. “My dad has been a massive role model to me because he brought me up loving the sport. He played the sport when he was younger so it’s quite easy to love the game because I’ve been watching it from such a young age. So, it’s always been in the back of my head, but it’s just amazing to finally do it now.”

Rees-Zammit, whose favorite NFL player growing up was three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, is one of 15 athletes from eight countries participating in the NFL International Player Pathway program. It was established in 2017 to provide elite athletes from around the world the opportunity to earn a spot on an NFL roster and increase the number of international players in the league.

The prospects spend 10 weeks training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, getting a crash course in practicing the fundamentals of football and learning the intricacies of a game most have never played.

They got a chance to showcase their skills at USF’s pro day in front of 51 scouts representing 31 teams — only the Rams weren’t represented.

All eyes were on Rees-Zammit when he lined up to run the 40-yard dash. Everyone wanted to see how fast “Rees-Lightning” could run under the pressure of stopwatches but he only clocked a 4.5 on his first try. He improved to an official time of 4.43 on his second run.

“A bit disappointed in my 40,” Rees-Zammit said afterward. “Last week, I was getting some really good times. I was getting low 4.3s, high 4.2s. So it is what it is. It’s just what happens on the day. But I know I can run that fast. I’m not trying to make excuses or anything, but I know what I can do and I’m happy with the day and how the day went.”

Rees-Zammit is trying out as a running back/wide receiver/returner. He displayed good hands and was quick in and out of his routes. He’s raw but his potential is obvious. On Friday, the league announced Rees-Zammit will visit the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets, with more teams to come.

“I’m pretty happy with how I ran my routes, just about how fluid I could be, how I could show off my change of direction, how I can get in and out of breaks,” he said. “I think there are a lot of transferable skills. In rugby, you’re always trying to get your hands on the ball as much as often and you’re always trying to break defenses, look for spaces, be aware.

“Catching kickoffs, catch and kick receipts, punt receipts, there’s a lot of transferable skills, and I think running back shows up probably best, getting the ball in my hand early, being able to pick a gap, being able to be aware of the surroundings.”

Since the NFL began this program, 37 international players have signed with teams and 18 are currently on rosters. Five players — Jordan Mailata, Jakob Johnson, Efe Obada, Sammis Reyes and David Bada — have been on active rosters.

Mailata, a former Australian rugby player, is the star of the program. Selected by the Philadelphia Eagles in the seventh round of the 2018 draft, the 6-foot-8, 365-pound Mailata became the team’s starting left tackle in 2020 and has developed into one of the best players at his position.

For the first time this season, each team will have a 17th roster spot on the practice squad specifically available for an international player. Teams also are permitted to elevate an international practice squad player to the active roster a maximum of three times throughout the season — increasing opportunities for players to develop and get a chance to play.

Teams will also receive one training camp roster exemption for a qualifying international player.

Rees-Zammit, Nigerian wide receiver Praise Olatoke and English offensive lineman Travis Clayton are among the top prospects. All 16 athletes have potential. It comes down to mastering a new craft and impressing scouts.

Bayron Matos, a 6-foot-8, 313-pound offensive lineman from the Dominican Republic, has more experience than most. He briefly played for USF’s football team in the spring in 2022 and also played basketball at New Mexico and USF.

“I’ve been working really hard to get to the next level,” Matos said. “It’s a fast game. Not everybody can play football. It’s a big boy sport.”

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