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Former England rugby star Alex Gray loving life in the NFL

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Alex Gray is an impressive athlete. Not only an NFL tight end for the Atlanta Falcons but he is a former captain and star of the England sevens rugby union team. Alex recently signed a brand-new two-year reserve/futures contract with the Atlanta Falcons, rounding off a hugely successful couple of years since making his leap across the Atlantic to swap sports in 2017.

NFL UK's Chris Pilcher has been catching up with Alex to look back on Atlanta's 2018 season, his journey to the NFL and what advice he is offering to former rugby colleague, Christian Wade, who has also switched sports with high hopes of playing in the NFL.

New year, new contract

Alex could not have had a better start to 2019, putting pen to paper and committing himself to the Atlanta Falcons for another two years in January. It was a special moment for the 27-year-old, who hopes this latest milestone on his NFL journey is just the start of a particularly special chapter.

"It was a big relief because you don't get told anything until the very last day. We were away in Tampa Bay for our last game and Thomas Dimitroff kind of cornered me in the hotel and asked me if I'd spoken to my agent yet. I was wondering what he was talking about. In the end he told me: We want to offer you another deal."

As a member of Atlanta's practice squad over the past two seasons, Alex has impressed players and coaches with his hard work and determination to master the nuances of American football at the highest level. As the NFL franchise that placed its faith in his potential two years ago, Alex says there is nowhere else he wants to be.

"He (Thomas Dimitroff) said I should go away and think if this is where I want to be, do I want to challenge my arm somewhere else? I just turned around and said: 'Look, you guys have put a lot of work into me and I like how I've progressed here and the opportunity you've given me so far.' I just shook his hand and said I'd love to stay."

"It's an exciting time for me"

Since signing his first contract in 2017, the tight end has left some of his teammates baffled by how far he's come. "It's almost laughable the state I was in when I first joined. When I mention it to other football players, they literally can't believe that my first-ever time lining up at a line of scrimmage was at an NFL practice."

Not only did the 2018 NFL season end up in a new contract, it also delivered a special highlight amongst his already-impressive sports career, captaining the Falcons during one of last summer's preseason games. So used to running out as the main man during his rugby days, it was the kind of experience Alex is striving for as an American footballer.

"It's amazing being involved with the Falcons and being involved with the NFL, but I have missed running out at the weekend and playing in front of a crowd, because that's what I used to love when I was a rugby player and that's something I want to get in the NFL. I think there's definitely going to be a shift in my own mindset. These past two seasons have definitely been about learning, I feel that time has done me good. I think I've obviously shown enough to the guys at the Falcons, the coaches, and I've shown to myself that this is something I can do. It's an exciting time for sure, I feel like I've done my learning and it's time to put that into practice when the time comes in training camp, in the games and the preseason because I'm expecting myself to make that team come September 1st."

"The Falcons will be back"

While Alex can count the 2018 NFL season as another successful one from his perspective, his Atlanta Falcons teammates endured a frustrating season, culminating in watching Super Bowl LIII played out at their own Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"It is just a massive shame (not to have reached Super Bowl LIII) and I think this is what hurts us most because at the start of the season we had a legitimate shot to be at that Super Bowl. I know everyone says that, but I think we actually did. I think the hardest thing was that we know how talented we are and to have the record that we had just wasn't us, it didn't show what we are capable of. Sometimes that's the worst, when you let seasons and games get away from you."

Offering advice to Christian Wade

Alex made almost 50 appearances at club level for Newcastle, London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie. His string of England captaincies throughout youth level was followed by his three-year-spell as England Sevens captain, which included winning the 2015 RPA sevens player of the year and a call-up to Great Britain's extended sevens squad for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Now it is the turn of Christian Wade, a former England and Wasps rugby star, who embarks on his own transition to the NFL, starting with the 2019 International Player Pathway programme. As someone who has navigated Wade's road ahead, Alex confirms he's offered some advice.

"Speaking as a rugby player, it is just so different. The challenges: Will he enjoy the locker room? Will he enjoy the way the league is? It isn't what people think it is, it is hard work. People aren't out on their yacht or their boat down in Miami all year. The days are long, the days are hard and there's a lot of pressure on you because there's a lot of pressure on the coaches so everyone's just trying to make ends meet and try to win the game."

But Alex is tipping his compatriot for success: "He's definitely got the physical gift, this lad. There's absolutely no doubt about that. He's in a good position where I think he's going to play running back and probably return some kicks as well. So the ball's going to be put in his hands, he's going to have opportunities to show what he's about. It's just going to be about getting his head around the nuances and everything new.

"I tried to give him an honest reflection of what his life would entail because I'm sure everyone who was selling it to him up until that point has been telling him how amazing it is and painting this grand picture of what being in the NFL is like. Once you've been in the trenches you certainly do get a different look at it. So I just tried to be as honest with him as I can. I told him the upside and I told him the side he might find hard. He's backing himself and you love to see that, especially as a guy who's been overlooked for so long in rugby. I think it's great and I really hope it works out for him."

Inspiring Brits to follow his steps

Of course, Alex has fond memories of his own participation in the International Player Pathway programme back in 2017. Gray was among a trio of British NFL hopefuls, including Alex Jenkins, now with the New Orleans Saints, and Efe Obada, whose explosive Carolina Panthers debut against the Bengals last September shook the NFL, producing a sack, an interception and earning himself Player of the Week honours.

"It's awesome, especially for Efe, He's got a place in my heart for sure after coming through with him in that programme and learning what he was about and everything he'd been through. But I know him, he will want to push on, he won't want to be a one-game wonder. Now his foot's in the door he'll want to make make sure it stays there, create himself a little bit of a legacy."

In Alex's opinion, an ever-growing pool of Brits climbing the NFL ranks can only help boost the sport's UK profile: In Alex's opinion, an ever-growing pool of Brits climbing the NFL ranks can only help boost the sport's UK profile: "It's only good for the game, it's only good for the growth, and the main thing is it's good for all those kids that want to believe that it's possible.

"For anyone who is sat at home thinking, 'I would love to do that but I don't think I could,' or that there's no opportunity, well, that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to show that you can do it, whether you come from a different sport or you come from walking in off the street and picking up a football like Efe. That's what we're trying to do. We're trying to show that it is possible if you put your mind to it and you stay on the path. Hopefully we'll be able to do that."

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