Sports

‘I believe God’s called me’ – Jarryd Hayne on forsaking the NFL for Olympic glory

In 2014, Jarryd Hayne left the NRL to pursue his dreams of NFL stardom. Two years later, he’s retired from the NFL and trying to reinvent himself as a sevens player. He tells Scotty Stevenson it’s all part of God’s plan.

The Uprising Resort is 45 minutes up the coast from Suva City. It is a laid back affair, with traditional bures lining a white sand beach framed with towering coconut palms, and the restaurant, bars and poolside entertainment area all set in a neatly manicured landscape of tropical gardens and edged pathways.

It is similar to so many other resorts in the Fiji Islands but it has one thing you don’t often expect to find on an island holiday: a full size rugby field, complete with analysis towers and shade cloth fences.

The Uprising Resort is the training base for the Fiji Sevens side, known locally as “the People’s Team” and when I stopped by with SKY Sport New Zealand Producer Paora Ratahi and cameraman Jon Hill, we were greeted at the gate with a handwritten sign that read “No International Media”.

The reason for the sign was the presence of one man: Jarryd Hayne. His shock decision (should we say, latest shock decision) to quit the NFL and try his luck at making the Fiji Sevens side for the Rio Olympics had drawn plenty of attention, especially from the Australian Rugby league media who descended on London for Hayne’s debut sevens event at the end of May.

Jarryd Hayne at the London Sevens. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jarryd Hayne at the London Sevens. (Photo: Getty Images)

It was, according to Fiji’s coach, Ben Ryan, an eye opener. It made the organisation re-think its entire media strategy. But it didn’t make him re-think including in his three-week Olympic trial camp one Jarryd Hayne who, as we arrived at Uprising, was wandering out to the field with the rest of the 21 Fijian men, each of them fighting for one of twelve places in the Olympic side.

To put Hayne’s chances in perspective, this is ground zero for Sevens. Every village has a team, and every team is conditioned by years of mass tournaments at which they can play as many as ten games a day. Sevens is the national sport, and Hayne is competing against men who have been on the World Series for years. He has one tournament to his name.

It was the beginning of the third week of the camp when we caught up with Hayne. He was injured and planning a quick fire trip back to Sydney to seek treatment from his chiropractor (business opportunity: there are no chiropractors in Fiji). After our interview, he headed to Nadi, where he was spotted by an onlooker. That onlooker tipped off the media. Within minutes, his return to Sydney was front page sports news in Australia.

The Hayne Plane, indeed.

I thought about writing about the interview for you, but if I did that you would be reading what he had to say through my words. Enough words have been written about Hayne and what I know now is that he’s more than capable of speaking for himself. So, we sat down on a tackle bag, on a rugby field at a resort, and we filmed an interview for SKY Sport New Zealand. The following is a full and unedited transcript of that interview.

Scotty Stevenson: One minute you are trying to earn another contract in the NFL and the next thing we know you are in London, about to try your hand at sevens. What on earth possessed you to make that kind of decision?

Jarryd Hayne: Well, there was an offer there, and with what I had been able to do in the first year [in the NFL] I thought I had actually overachieved. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined playing eight games for the San Francisco 49ers and being a starting running back, so I had exceeded my expectations.

It was as great journey and something I’ll remember for a lifetime but there was an opportunity to join up with the Fiji Sevens team and try out for the Olympics and that was something I didn’t want to pass up.

I spoke to Ben and there were a few issues to work through in terms of IOC eligibility and other process matters but once that was sorted I was able to join up with the squad.

Jarryd Hayne with the San Francisco 49ers. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jarryd Hayne with the San Francisco 49ers. (Photo: Getty Images)

What is it with you? Are you restless? Do you just love challenges? What drives you internally?

JH: I just don’t fear things. I don’t fear a challenge. That’s the biggest thing. I enjoy that and embrace it. I look at things and if it’s something that challenges me mentally and physically and, more importantly, spiritually, then I am all for it.

It’s been such a God journey more than anything else. To be able to go to another sport and another country, another culture – something I hadn’t experienced before – that was huge. I needed God more than anything else because there were a lot of dark days [in the NFL]. I think just in general as a person I want to take myself out of my comfort zone and go on an adventure.

I have lots of friends who love to travel the world and see the sights and I have been lucky to do this for a job – I’ve been able to travel to great parts of the world with Rugby League, to great parts of America with the NFL, and now to great parts of the world again with sevens.

The adventure continues and I pray and hope I will be like that for the rest of my life because I love experiencing different things, different cultures and generally going outside my comfort zone.

Do we focus too much on the actual football, on the players and what they do or do not do? Do you think we – especially blokes – should embrace our spirituality more?

JH: Definitely. You find out a lot about yourself when you go on these kinds of adventures. You really test yourself and the one thing I hate is a missed opportunity. I don’t want to be kicking stones when I am older or in retirement thinking what if?

I want to be that person who does it, while not being afraid to make mistakes. I think that’s the biggest thing people worry about. ‘I don’t want to do that in case it doesn’t work out,’ or ‘I’m a superstar in this sport about to earn 1.5 million dollars and what if I do this? What if it doesn’t look good? Will it ruin my reputation?’

I just didn’t worry about that sort of stuff. I was more concerned about going on the adventure, or going where God was calling me – or at least testing me. That was the biggest thing for me, and I achieved that. It was a life experience more than anything else. Take away the football, the NFL, the fame. The life experience was the biggest thing for me.

Youve experienced plenty of pressure. The pressure of the NRL you were used to but the NFL – thats next-level pressure you surely couldnt imagine. People were lining up to say you were going to fail. So how did you handle that pressure?

JH: That’s where my faith stands up and takes all that away. I put it on God’s shoulders. If I believe God’s called me to do something, God’s going to take a lot of pressure off me. That was big for me. That first game when I fumbled that first one, that’s when I started thinking more about me than about my faith. When you put the onus on yourself you lose sight of what you are there for. I was able to regather myself and get a few good touches. Probably my best touch was three games later against the Cardinals, being able to set up a touchdown for [49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick] a couple of plays later – that’s something I’ll remember for a lifetime.

The biggest thing when you are on one of these faith-filled journeys is that if God’s called you to it, God will call you through it, and it’s important to remember that. That’s something I have learned along the way and I would never have learned it if I had stayed in the NRL, in my comfort zone. I wouldn’t have learned a lot of things.

Was it tough to leave the NFL?

JH: Yeah – especially with Chip’s [49ers coach Chip Kelly] offence. The first thing he said to me was that he tried to get me to Philly when I first came over. He knows that his offence suits my style. He knew that and I knew that. It was probably the most exciting and creative playbook in the NFL with the different looks he gets, so it doesn’t matter what option is called, it’s all about how the defence lines up, how they rotate after the snap.

That was the hardest thing because I knew that if I had stayed there I would have succeeded and taken my game to the next level. But unfortunately in life you have to make tough decisions, and opportunities don’t come around very often. Sometimes you have to lose something to gain something.

I wish there was two of me! One that could have stayed in the NFL…I wish there were four of me!

There are not enough headlines for four of you Jarryd! There are not enough newspapers! Seriously though, this is s a brave decision and its again come with the critics. Here you are learning your culture, language, a new sport. And that clocks ticking ahead of Rio. its another pressure cooker environment in the most sevens obsessed country in the world! Whats going through your mind now?

JH: Like I said I just put it all back on my faith. You have to give yourself the opportunity. And you can’t take that opportunity unless you are prepared to open the door. That’s what I am doing. I’m trying to make the team. Whether I make the team or not – I’m not sure. But I know I wouldn’t have made it if I had stayed in the NFL.

I’m here now and giving myself an opportunity and if it comes about it comes about. If it doesn’t I’m proud of what I have done. I’ve proven to myself what I can do. I’ve transformed my body, worked hard, tried to fit in and to get used to the all the conditioning. It’s not easy and it’s extremely hard on the body.

I’m doing what I can with what I have. If it breaks me it breaks me, but so what? I am going to step up, dust my shoulders off, grab a map and go on my next adventure.

You speak a lot about your God and spirituality and that is also a big part of this Fijian team. Does that in itself make this feel like a homecoming?

JH: Definitely. I found God when I played for Fiji in 2008 [at the Rugby League World Cup] and coming back here we pray twice a day and we really are a God-based team. We also just play football and no one’s worried about the money or the fame and it reminds me of when I was a kid. Everything else, it doesn’t matter. We have fun, we have a laugh, we’re more worried about Playstation than headlines.

It keeps you real because the way the media is these days they can take a player and either build him up or bring him down. Here it is just about football. Every session is competitive and we compete like we are playing every day. That’s why Fiji is the best team in the world, because every day is game day for us. It’s intense but that’s what it takes.

You may make the team, or you may not. But regardless of this outcome, whats the map from here?

JH: The world’s my oyster. I just have to figure it out. I don’t really worry about the future. I’ll just see where I am. I could never have predicted I’d be here twelve months ago. So who knows where I will be twelve months from now.

One thing’s for sure: I will be enjoying myself, and I pray and hope I’m going where God’s taking me. That’s the biggest thing for me.

Youre enjoying yourself though, arent you?

JH: It feels great. It’s a great journey and that’s what it is. Put things in perspective. So many athletes get lost in the hype of what they are supposed to be doing, but for me it’s good to be humbled and this is very humbling for me to be in these surroundings among guys who are very humble themselves. That’s huge for me. To come here and work hard, to get in shape and do my very best.

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