FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Former rugby league star Valentine Holmes had been practicing with the New York Jets for two months, learning football on the fly, when it finally hit him. It was June 3, media day at One Jets Drive. He slipped into full uniform for the first time and walked into a massive photo shoot with the rest of his teammates. In that moment, the impact of his NFL adventure — which didn’t sit well with many fans in his native Australia — was palpable.
“To wear the full suit — the tight pants, the jersey, the pads and the helmet — it was pretty cool,” said Holmes, who, in his previous line of work, had no use for pads. “To see my name on the back of a New York Jets jersey, that was pretty cool, too. It’s something I’ll hold close.”
Holmes is on the Jets’ roster via the International Player Pathway Program, which allows overseas players to get a shot in the NFL. He will remain on the roster until the end of training camp, at which time he’s eligible for a practice squad exemption. That would preclude him from being activated in 2019, but he could practice with the team with the hope of securing a future contract. Each team in the AFC East, which was chosen at random for this year’s program, has an overseas player on its roster.
To appreciate Holmes’ situation, you have to understand what he left behind. He was one of the most recognizable names in Australia’s National Rugby League, a 23-year-old star fullback/winger for the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks. He was signed at the age of 17, represented his country in the World Cup and set records with five tries (touchdowns) in the quarterfinals and six in the semifinals.
If they had a Madden video game for rugby league, he would be on the cover. He was at the peak of his profession when he up and left, going from the Sharks to the Jets. (“West Side Story,” anyone?) He admitted “a lot of die-hard fans were disappointed and pretty angry” by his decision. So why do it?
“I feel like I want to challenge myself as a person and as a player and as an athlete,” Holmes said. “There’s no better way than to compete over here in America in the NFL. It’s the pinnacle of sport in America. I’ve always been watching it since I’ve been in high school. The opportunity arose for me and I was toward the end of a contract at that time, and I kind of fell into it. There were a couple of clubs that were keen on me and wanted to get me over for a tryout.
“It kind of worked its way out. I’m young and I don’t like to live with regrets. If it doesn’t work out or I don’t like it, or if I’m not good enough, I can always go back and try rugby again.”
Holmes had one year left on his deal with the Sharks — his salary equated to $720,000 in U.S. dollars — prompting some in the Australian media to speculate he’s killing time in the United States before becoming a rugby league free agent in 2020. The North Queensland Cowboys reportedly are prepared to make him a lucrative offer.
For now, Holmes seems earnest in his desire to make it in the NFL, where he would earn $129,000 on the practice squad. There’s no doubt about his athletic ability — he ran the 40-yard dash in the high 4.4s, he said — and you certainly can’t question his toughness. He’s listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, enough size for a running back, his new NFL position. He also will get a shot as a kickoff returner. In offseason practices, he looked smooth at times, even as a receiver (a new concept for him), but there were mental errors. That was to be expected.
Holmes’ biggest challenges are learning the plays and teaching himself to think like a football player. Football is more choreographed than rugby league, requiring precise footwork for a running back on both running and passing plays. One false step, especially on a blocking assignment, can wreck the entire play. Rugby league allows for more spontaneity than football. To use a computer analogy, he must delete that rugby program from his hard drive.
“I tell you what, Valentine is a unique guy,” running backs coach Jim Bob Cooter said. “He’s an intelligent guy. He’s picking it up well. He showed up here and he’s ahead of where I thought he would be. He’s done a good job working on his own to get ready for this opportunity. He’s a guy that has some physical ability.
“Guys that are moving from one sport to another, sometimes it takes them a little time to totally get comfortable with the different sport. I would say he’s ahead of the curve.”
This isn’t uncharted territory. In 2015, former Australian rugby league star Jarryd Hayne played in eight games (starting in one) as a running back for the San Francisco 49ers, rushing 17 times for 52 yards. In 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles used a seventh-round pick on Jordan Mailata, a 6-foot-8, 345-pound tackle from Australia, also from a rugby league background. He made the roster, but has yet to see regular-season action for the Eagles.
The Jets were one of the first teams to look Down Under for a player. In 2005, they signed punter Ben Graham out of the Australian Football League, and he stuck around for three seasons. In 2012, Aussie rugby union player Hayden Smith made the Jets’ practice squad as a tight end, but his football career was short-lived. He played only five games and finished with one reception.
Current punter Lachlan Edwards, a fellow Aussie who played his college ball at Sam Houston State, has befriended Holmes. Aside from Edwards, not many players on the team know Holmes’ backstory. Running back Ty Montgomery was surprised to hear Holmes was a rugby sensation.
“He said, ‘I didn’t know you were that good in Australia,'” Holmes said. “He was pretty shocked at where I came from to where I am now. He’s pretty pumped for me to see how it goes.”
Holmes said his goal is to make the 53-man roster. He’s a long shot in the Jets’ crowded backfield, but that won’t douse his competitive fire. His plan is to stay healthy, play in the preseason games and prove his value.
“I hope to put on a show and play well,” he said.
Decked out in his New York Jets football suit, of course.