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Aussie rugby league star Holmes tackling NFL dream with Jets

August 7, 2019
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New York Jets' Valentine Holmes participates during practice at the NFL football team's training camp in Florham Park, N.J., Thursday, July 25, 2019. Holmes was a big star in the National Rugby League in Australia. And then, he stunningly left it all behind. Holmes is in training camp with the New York Jets, trying to fulfill a dream of playing American football in the NFL. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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New York Jets' Valentine Holmes participates during practice at the NFL football team's training camp in Florham Park, N.J., Thursday, July 25, 2019. Holmes was a big star in the National Rugby League in Australia. And then, he stunningly left it all behind. Holmes is in training camp with the New York Jets, trying to fulfill a dream of playing American football in the NFL. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Valentine Holmes was as massive a star in Australia as he could have ever imagined.

The standout winger and fullback for the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks of the National Rugby League was recognized wherever he went, with die-hard fans donning his team’s jersey and wide-eyed youngsters wanting to play just like him.

And then, Holmes stunningly left it all behind.

He headed to the United States for a chance to play American football in the NFL, a decision that angered some of those same fans who once cheered him. But Holmes needed to tackle his dream — no matter what everyone else thought.

“I just felt like I wanted to test myself as a person and an athlete,” the 24-year-old Holmes told The Associated Press. “I wasn’t really thinking about what I was giving up, I guess. It was just that I wanted to chase more.”

Holmes is in training camp with the New York Jets competing for a roster spot as a running back, wide receiver and return specialist.

He’s here — 10,000 miles from home — as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program. This summer, all four AFC East teams — the Jets, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots — can carry an international player in camp. It’s a long shot, but players can earn a place on the 53-man active roster. If they don’t, they are eligible for a practice squad exemption, meaning they wouldn’t count against the team’s allotment of 10 non-active roster players during the regular season.

Holmes first worked out for NFL scouts in Los Angeles in 2016, and spent three months early this year learning the game at IMG Academy in Florida before joining the Jets in the spring.

“I’d say it’s been kind of like a roller-coaster,” Holmes said. “Obviously, I’ve had some ups and downs. Learning the playbook and getting stuff wrong is not always good, just making mistakes on the field or even in the classroom. And then, also making good plays and making good stops is also a good thing, as well.

“So, yeah, I’m just excited to be here.”

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Holmes has been working in the backfield with the likes of Le’Veon Bell, Ty Montgomery and Bilal Powell, catching passes and also returning punts — doing whatever he can to stand out.

Holmes has shown flashes in recent days after a back ailment limited him early in camp. He had a 50-yard touchdown catch in a drill Monday that had his teammates fired up.

“He’s picking up the offense,” Jets coach Adam Gase said. “That hasn’t really been his issue. It’s just when everything starts moving super-fast, he’s trying to get used to that and I think it’s starting to work for him. It’s slowing down for him and I think it just keeps slowing down.

“I’m excited to see him get to play in some games and just kind of see how he reacts to all that.”

Holmes might get that chance Thursday night in the Jets’ preseason opener against the Giants.

“It’ll be cool just to be on the sideline and interact with the guys,” he said, “and watch with them rather than just watch on the TV, you know?”

Holmes was fascinated by the NFL as a kid, checking out highlights of games and reading about the league’s biggest stars.

That stuck with him, even when he was 17 and moved out of his family’s home in Townsville on the northeastern coast of Queensland to Sydney to begin a career in rugby league. Holmes quickly discovered he was good — really good — and racked up 369 points in five seasons with the Sharks. He represented Australia in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, where he set a record with 12 tries — the equivalent of touchdowns — in the tournament.

“I was a big fish in Townsville, but then when I went over to Sydney, it was 10 times bigger and a lot more competitive because they had a lot more people,” he said. “I worked my way up there.”

Holmes had one year left on his contract with the Sharks, but instead had the team release him, passing up about $720,000, to pursue the NFL.

Some speculated Holmes is merely passing time in the U.S. until next year when he could potentially make big-time bucks as a highly coveted free agent in rugby league.

“It wasn’t really about my situation financially or anything,” said Holmes, who would earn $129,000 on the Jets’ practice squad. “The opportunity came up and I’m sure a lot of people would take it if they wanted to and if they could. It’s also kind of creating a pathway for other guys who’d like to do that in the future.”

What Holmes is attempting is not unprecedented, but is uncommon.

Jarryd Hayne was the first rugby league player who never previously played American football to make it onto an active NFL roster when he spent the 2015 season with San Francisco as a running back and return specialist.

Offensive lineman Jordan Mailata became the second after being drafted by Philadelphia last year in the seventh round, although he didn’t play in any games as a rookie.

Holmes is on his way to forging his own legacy, but he refuses to look too far ahead. There’s no time for that. He’s living his dream right now.

“I’m just trying to focus on being healthy and staying fit, and the longer I do that, maybe the more time I get on the field and maybe that helps my chances,” Holmes said. “I’m not really worried about the future of myself at the moment. I’m just kind of worried about what I’m doing now and needing to get better at learning the playbook and needing to get better on the field.”

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