Jacob Smillie, the former Bradford Bulls star trying to make it in the NFL

Jacob Smillie joined dozens of fellow hopefuls at Tottenham last week, trying to get to the next level of American football. Megan Armitage reports.

On trial: Bradford’s Jacob Smillie during the NFL International Combine at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last week. (Picture: NFLUK)

A former professional rugby league player from Bradford is hoping to inspire athletes of all ages by his journey to become 
the UK’s next American football star.

Jacob Smillie, 23, is an aspiring running-back chasing his dreams of becoming one of the few international athletes selected as part of the NFL International Player Pathway.

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Smillie, who began his sporting career late, after picking up a rugby ball aged 17 at college, took part in the NFL’s International Combine in London last week.

Jacob Smillie in action at the International Player Combine on Tuesday October 12 (Picture: Dave Shopland /NFL)

He played rugby league professionally for Halifax and Bradford Bulls but left Swinton Lions in May and began training to become an American football player.

“A lot of young athletes get to a certain age and might think they’re too old to start a sport, so I want to encourage others to try and get into different sports,” said Smillie, who now trains himself at Bradford Park Avenue.

“I got into professional rugby late and managed to play first-team, so it is possible to change.”

Smillie posted workouts and videos on YouTube to inspire others to follow his lead, and the American football fanatic was approached by the NFL to take part in the Combine after his videos were spotted online.

The Combine took place at Tottenham Hotspur’s Stadium over two days during the 2021 NFL London Games with the NFL inviting 44 of the best international athletes to compete for 12 spots on the programme.

Each athlete had to take part in a number of tests including a 40-yard dash, vertical jump, bench press and drills for their individual position.

Smillie, who is known for his speed, placed fourth overall in the 40-yard dash, posting a time of 4.66 seconds.

If selected, the running-back will take part in a three-month training programme at the IMG Academy in Florida and compete for one of four spaces alongside an NFL team.

“The NFL, in my opinion, is the greatest league in the world with the best athletes, so when you get that opportunity, you can’t turn it down,” added Smillie, who had the opportunity to meet and work with ex-NFL running back Maurice Drew-Jones during the Combine.

“I got the chance to train with people from all around the world who have the same drive and determination that I have.

“I train everyday by myself so the luxury to have someone help you and develop your athleticism would be a dream come true.

“Everyone’s got their own role to play so, if you don’t get your role right then it affects the whole team and I like that aspect of the game.”

Over the years, the UK has seen a number of athletes try their hand at American football, with the likes of Efe Obada and ex-professional rugby union player Christian Wade currently playing for the Buffalo Bills.

Smillie wants to follow in their footsteps and improve his own skills in the sport, focusing on the professional pathway and his emerging career.

“The Combine was not only an opportunity to test myself against the best athletes around the world, it’s about the job you want as a professional player,” added Smillie.

With the 2021-22 NFL season already underway in the United States, Smillie is not sure when he will find out if he has made the pathway programme but is grateful for the opportunity to pursue his ambitions and inspire others.

“It would be life-changing to be chosen,” admitted the former rugby league player.

“From a city like Bradford to the NFL, people might think there isn’t pathway to American sports but if you look at it and train for it, the pathway is there for you.”