New Zealander Nic Purcell is on the verge of playing in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles. JACK BARLOW spoke to the former provincial rugby player who has the opportunity to fulfil an unlikely dream.
A big challenge for a big man. In less than three weeks, 27-year-old New Zealander Nic Purcell will be mixing it up with seasoned pros for a chance to do what a great many young Americans dream of: competing in America's most popular sporting competition, the NFL.
It's been a rise so rapid as to be almost unimaginable. Four years ago, the tall, broad-shouldered Purcell hadn't played so much as a season of football; now he's an offensive tackle with the mighty Philadelphia Eagles, with only one final hurdle - late July's Eagles training camp - to overcome in order to make the big time.
It's a lot to take in, and for all the late-night studying and day-in, day-out training that he's been doing, Purcell knows there's a lot more to come before August 31, the day the Eagles make their final roster cuts. But after two months with the East Division team that plays in the National Football Conference, he's starting to feel the vibe. Starting to fit in.
"I was expecting a little more ‘hazing' (being hassled by the older players, more or less) but that doesn't really go on at the Eagles, so you just avoid the unnecessary stress," he says.
"The majority of senior players are really helpful just trying to help you transition ... it's a really good environment here."
Which is just as well, since he's had to a lot of learning to do. Because he didn't grow up around football, Purcell never harboured any aspirations to play in the rough and tumble of the NFL. It was a scenario that didn't even occur to him.
Basketball is his first love. It's what he mostly played growing up, his gigantic frame - he's now 6ft 6in (2.01m) - combining nicely with the nimble footwork required for the fast-paced game.
Rugby came later, with his first game taking place while in Year 10.
However, it wasn't until he returned from his two-year Mormon mission to Kiribati that he really started getting serious about sport.
"All I wanted to do was play rugby," he reflects, and that's what happened. He did well, ending up playing a few games at lock for the Thames Valley NPC team in 2008 and, also, at one point breaking into the Waikato development squad, too.
A move to Australia with his wife curtailed his progress, although he still immersed himself in lower-level club rugby.
All well and good, maybe, but not a patch on what was to come. The turning point came when he moved with his American-born wife to the United States just over two years ago. It wasn't anything to do with sport - rather, he came with academic studies in mind, ending up at Southern California's Golden West College with the intention of studying kinesiology (human movement).
Purcell, it's not hard to imagine, is the sort of man who stands out in a crowd. It was this visibility that led to his break. A coach at Golden West College, with little inkling of his previous sporting history, suggested he give American football a try. "You're a big guy," he said, "so why not?"
Purcell wasn't so sure.
"When they asked me to play over here I was a little hesitant, because I knew the football would be on a whole different level from the two games I played in New Zealand," he says. "I was absolutely right," he adds, with a chuckle. "American football in New Zealand is a bit of a joke, to be honest."
A few hard knocks followed, but he impressed. Starting out as a defensive player, he struggled with the complexities of the role, and ended up switching to offense. It paid off: his two years starting at left tackle left a big impression, and overtures began coming in from NCAA - college football - teams.
Everything was coming together, and a deal to move to the University of Oregon and play under successful coach Chip Kelly was almost done. But then, for the first time, he hit a roadblock. The NCAA ruled him ineligible for college football, on the grounds that he'd already played organised sport in New Zealand - most likely his previous rugby stints.
Purcell and Oregon tried their best to overturn the decision but after six months of persistence and several appeals they came up empty-handed.
It could have been the end but, just as it looked like all hope was lost, fate intervened. An Oregon coach involved with the recruiting process mentioned the situation to Oregon coach Chip Kelly - Kelly, then leaving Oregon for his new high flying job with the Eagles, became intrigued. Purcell was invited to a rookie camp on a try-out basis - and clearly impressed.
In May, the man who grew up playing basketball, who had never played football in front of more than a few hundred people, became the latest Philadelphia Eagles signing.
"It's been a bit of a journey," he says, with a degree of understatement.
"I'm not going to lie, it's been stressful, especially with the NCAA eligibility ruling. The transition's been one thing but it's really been being in limbo and not really knowing what's going on."
As for his chances of sticking with the team beyond this month's training camp, nobody can really tell with any certainty. It's going to be tough - he is, somewhat by default, up against players far more steeped in the ways of the game. Pundits, though, think he may just be in with a shot. American football writer Matt Verderame thinks the new Eagles coaching staff - and their familiarity with him - could play in his favour.
"I definitely think it'll be a challenge for him to make the team, but at the same point it is a new coaching staff and he's a very athletic man and that'll really help in (coach Chip) Kelly's system," he says. "I would be shocked if Purcell started but, as for making the roster, he's somebody that they could use on a lot of roles . . so he might be something of value because of his athletic ability."
For his part, Purcell knows time in the NFL is usually fleeting - the old joke of it standing for "Not For Long" holds true, with most careers lasting around three years.
So it's pretty simple. Surrounded by a young family and with the chance of a lifetime beckoning, he's going to go for it.
"I want to play in the league as long as I can," he says. "You just plan for your career to end since they're not very long . . . I'm not sure how I'll go but if I can have a successful three years, then so be it. I'll just try to make as much money as I can, and get as much out of the league as I can, and then move on.
"I'm just going to go hard and make the most of the opportunity I have in front of me."
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