NFL rush for Kiwi rookie Rhett Ellison
Rhett Ellison feels he has adapted to the speed and size of the National Football League, which is just as well because his Minnesota Vikings are about to enter playoffs' mode early.
Ellison, who was born in California and spent three years in Christchurch before moving back to the United States when he was 8, this season became the third Kiwi to play in the NFL after his Christchurch-born father Riki, who won two Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, and David Dixon, who also played for the Vikings.
The 24-year-old tight end-cum-fullback is certainly not spending his rookie season riding the pine.
He has played in all 10 matches, primarily in special teams (like kickoffs and kickoff returns) and as a blocking tight end. He has also caught five passes for 60 yards.
Minnesota are having a good season. With six wins and four losses they would be leading some divisions but find themselves only third in the NFC North, easily the most competitive division in the league.
They trail the Chicago Bears (7-2) and Green Bay Packers (6-3), with six regular season matches remaining, though they still have to play the Bears and Packers twice each, Ellison noting "our fate is in our hands".
A descendant of New Zealand's first official rugby captain, Thomas Ellison, and a relative of current All Black Tamati, Rhett is hardly a household name on these shores but, like his dad, he is making it in America's most popular and lucrative sports league, where rookies are paid a minimum US$390,000 a year. And naturally he's loving every minute.
"It's a lot of fun," he said from his home in Minneapolis, before boarding a flight to Atlanta to spend a bye week with his girlfriend.
"I'm getting more used to the speed and the size. It was a little more shocking at the start of the season but I can play a lot faster now and I'm just really enjoying it.
"There are some unbelievable athletes, and I'm fortunate to be playing with and against these guys. These are real professionals and some of the things you see on a Sunday are incredible."
A long pre-season with "full-on" games had helped prepare him for the big time, as had his college career - he was a captain at the University of Southern California before being picked up as a fourth-round draft pick this year.
"USC pretty much ran like an NFL team schedule-wise and practice-wise," he said, noting he would normally get to the Vikings' training facility at 6.30am on a standard day and not leave till 6.30pm.
The Minneapolis climate had naturally taken some adapting to after LA but, unlike the Bears and Packers, the Vikings at least have an indoor stadium as their home base.
After the bye they'll have to brave the northern elements - it was snowing and minus 4 degrees Celsius when Fairfax spoke to him - for back-to-back away matches against the Bears and Packers.
These are essentially must-win fixtures if they want to top the division.
"It just feels like the playoffs right now, with all these rivalry games and must-win games coming up. But it's fun," Ellison said.
Not being a quarterback, wide receiver or star running back, Ellison is enjoying a low profile in Minneapolis. "I like being under the radar and our fans are great."
- © Fairfax NZ News