Alex Gray: Atlanta Falcons' new signing on his switch from rugby to the NFL

Alex Gray and Jack Crawford
Alex Gray (left) with Falcons linebacker Jack Crawford, who was also born in England

Alex Gray is about to embark on his NFL dream, but until a few months ago, his only experience of American football was beating his brothers on a computer game.

The former England Sevens captain has signed for 2016 Super Bowl finalists Atlanta Falcons as a tight end in their practice squad.

In 2011, the 26-year-old captained England in the under-20s World Cup final, leading the likes of Owen Farrell, Mako Vunipola and George Ford.

Six years later, while his former team-mates prepare to head to New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions, Gray jets off to begin his new life in the US.

"I am the first ever English professional rugby player to go over there," Gray told BBC Sport. "This is not a PR stunt. It is an opportunity to do something special, it is a life-changing opportunity."

'Atlanta fans have been wishing me luck'

Alex Gray

Gray had been set to compete for Great Britain in Rio 2016, as Rugby Sevens made its Olympic debut, but saw his dream ended by an ankle injury the weekend before the final squad was announced.

He then signed for English Championship side Yorkshire Carnegie as a centre for the 2016-17 season, but a groin injury sidelined him for 12 weeks.

After initial discussions with the NFL, Gray sent off a video of himself completing a 40-yard dash, a box jump and a vertical jump. In January he began his American football journey and took part in an NFL training camp in Florida.

"I had never touched an American football ball, never held a helmet or the pads or anything like that," said Gray, who has played club rugby for Newcastle Falcons and London Irish.

"My only exposure to the sport was beating my little brothers on the Madden computer game.

"All the work and effort has paid off. The crazy thing is I have given up one sport and picked up another at a professional level and to know I am good enough to compete is pretty special."

Gray moves to the NFL as one of four overseas players, three from the UK, on the practice squads, via the league's International Player Pathway program.

He will be ineligible to play in the NFL in 2017, but will train full-time and is expected to play a pre-season game at the Falcons' new 71,000-seater Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"I have had loads of fans from Atlanta wishing me luck, for a guy from England who has never played American football before, that is pretty humbling," he added.

"This year is a case of learning as much about the game as I can, show them I can play ball and earn a second year.

"I couldn't ask for a better opportunity, to be with a great team like Atlanta who have one of the best offences in the league."

'The helmet is heavy, I've been waking up with a sore neck'

Gray, who stands at 6ft 6in, weighs 18 stone and can run the 100m in 11 seconds, says he has found some big differences between the two contact sports and not just with the equipment.

"Rugby is instinctive, especially the sevens game which is very skills based," he said.

"American football is very scripted. The detail of the games is on another level.

"You have to know all these plays, the formations, how the defence sets up. I have never studied for anything more in my life.

"You have your job and if you mess up you kill the whole play. But it is a gutsy confrontational game. Trash talk is a big thing. There is no question some guy will knock me for six at some stage, but you have to get on with it."

He added: "The pads are not too bad, though they are pretty restrictive. But the helmet is heavy, I have been waking up with a sore neck."

Gray says the money in American football is "worlds apart" from English rugby. Despite facing sharing the dressing room with some of the best paid athletes in the world, he says he won't be starstruck.

He added: "I have not grown up with NFL, I probably won't understand how big a deal these players are, I will see them as another team-mate. And I won't worry about who I am playing, I probably don't know who half of them are."

'I had a crazy love affair with rugby'

Enland
Gray (with ball) and the rest of the England Under-20 squad in 2011

Gray captained England's rugby teams to Grand Slams at the under-16 and under-18 level, before the under-20 World Cup, where they lost to New Zealand.

He says he then "lost his way" and it wasn't until he began playing sevens for England in 2013 that he began to rebuild his career, culminating in being named England Sevens Player of the Year in 2015.

"I had a glittering under age career," said Gray.

"I was the great white hope of English rugby, I was told I would be the next England captain and would be a Lion. I got bored of biding my time and looked elsewhere for satisfaction and lost focus of what it was all about.

"I had a personal battle to find myself again and was hugely grateful to England Sevens to help rediscover myself, that was the pivotal turning point in my life."

While seeing former team-mates such as Farrell, Vunipola, Ford and Elliot Daly go on to represent England at senior level, Gray says he is happy with how his career has turned out.

"I have had a crazy love affair with rugby, it has given me so much, but also bought me a lot of pain," he added.

"Sevens provided me an opportunity to rediscover myself and then this NFL opportunity came up.

"It's crazy to think as kids we were running around playing rugby, I have known Farrell since we were 15 and now he's European player of the year. But I am happy with my path.

"I know how to get he best out of myself, everything that has happened in my career has prepared me well to move to a different country and live with no fear."

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