Christian Wade hasn’t looked back on rugby once since departing the sport for the NFL, opting to head to the gym rather than watch any of the Rugby World Cup matches at the sound of his alarm clock in the morning.
The Premiership’s third all-time leading tryscorer switched sports and timezones when he signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills in April of this year and is steadfast in his need to continue to improve as an NFL running back to make the team’s 53-man roster.
Wade showed flashes of his natural ability which saw him rack up 82 tries for Wasps in scoring two touchdowns for the Bills during their preseason, his first coming off his first ever touch on the football field.
But as a complete newbie to American football, Wade was never likely to be picked for the final 53 and instead had to settle for a place on the team’s practice squad since the start of the season in early September.
Explaining the role of the practice squad as ‘like being a reserve player’, Wade still trains every day in front of the team’s coaches and is party to the teams most tightly-controlled asset – the offensive playbook. But his chances of playing in a regular season match for the Bills remains a distant goal, at least for now.
“I came into it with an open mind, knowing I had a huge mountain to climb,” Wade, 28, told The Rugby Paper. “To be able to come here and just get on the field and take snaps, and to then, when I am on the field, be successful in what I do and to try and make the team. So I knew the challenge was going to be very difficult but I just trusted the process and I still trust it now.
“There’s definitely been days where I’ve been like ‘yo, this is really tough’ and I really had to push through and draw on my support network to help me, to keep pressure on myself to push myself forward.
“I still do have a lot to learn. There are times when I make mistakes and I am trying to perfect the execution of the plays. I’ve gone from learning the playbook when I first come in and getting to grips with that, to now knowing the playbook and making the plays.”
The sheer scale of analytics at the core of most NFL teams’ success means Wade spends most days bridging lifting weights in the gym to get him in the ‘best possible shape I’ve ever been in’ with team meeting after team meeting.
Most involve reviewing videos of his own work on the training field with Bills running backs coach Kelly Skipper. Others have allowed Wade to watch the stars of the league and strike up a tightly-knit bond with his teammates in a sport he doesn’t consider to be alien to him.
Wade identifies one player he is looking to glean some tricks from in Christian McCaffery of the Carolina Panthers.
“To see him beating players and scoring touchdowns, he’s a player I admire and a player I aspire to be like on the field,” Wade said of the NFL MVP candidate. “The footwork that he has and running routes from the backfield and in empty personnel packages where he’s lined up like a receiver, makes him one of the best in the league.
“Likewise, Tarik Cohen. He’s another player who’s similar to McCaffery in that he’s quick on his feet and runs great routes and gets open.”
Catching highlights of Rugby World Cup matches on Youtube, the former England Sevens flyer felt disappointment for some of the players he had developed a respect for after his nine seasons in the Premiership.
“I didn’t get to watch much of the World Cup because of the time zones,” added Wade, who was capped for England by Stuart Lancaster in 2013 for his lone Test appearance. “The matches were coming on the TV at 4am or 6am, I’m awake then sometimes but I’m usually working out.
“For England to get to the final I thought was amazing. It was a shame we couldn’t go on to relive 2003 and lift the cup again. Those are the guys I grew up with and some were my teammates when I was playing.
“I’m really proud of Siya Kolisi, he’s one of my boys. We played against each other way back in 2008 when we travelled to South Africa for an U18s tour and we had the opportunity to play against each and been friends since.”
Looking to create new memories in the NFL, Wade draws on his experience at the top level of rugby to compensate for the competition posed to him by rookies who have played in high school and at college level.
“In terms of our running backs room, we all have the ability to play football but I’m still probably the weakest link, ” added Wade, with the Bills currently destined to make the play-offs with their 8-3 season.
“We had nine of us at one point, but we were all really tight. We would help each other get up to speed, help each other with plays and make sure they were running the right play. And it’s like that at every position in the team.
“Our team at the Bills is like no other team in the NFL. Obviously, I haven’t been in the league long enough to know what every team culture is like but we have over 30 new signings here from different teams and they all said that this isn’t normal. The bond that we all have and the locker room culture, the staff, it’s all completely different to what they are used to. They say it’s really unique and a special place. That’s testament to why we’re doing so well on the field.
“When I first got here and scored the first touchdown, you can see how crazy the sideline was going and all my teammates running on the field to celebrate. In the last game of preseason when Marcus Murphy scored off a punt return it was the same.
“It all starts with our coach, Sean McDermott, he gives us freedom but at the same time we obviously respect him and his leadership. We all buy into the culture, we’re all one family and very humble. No matter where we’ve all come from or how much money we earn, we’re all on the same level.
“It’s not been easy, but I’ve been able to cope with it because of my ten-year professional career.”
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