Tight end Hayden Smith got a lot of help from a lot of teammates and coaches in his newest sporting endeavor.
But Smith had a good base of his own to build on. Playing basketball in Australia and on the U.S. small-college level, moving on to professional rugby in England and to the U.S. national rugby team, and then graduating in April to an NFL roster shows he knows how to cross-train. And he was a football rookie who certainly knew how to act like a pro in the Jets’ locker room this past season.
That last is in fact one of the requirements for the Bill Hampton Award. And Smith this week was informed that he was the ninth winner of the Hampton Award, presented annually by equipment director Gus Granneman and his staff.
“It feels good. We have a great group of equipment people, and I guess they were happy with me in the locker room this year,” Smith told me today. “I didn’t know specifically about Bill Hampton, but I had seen Josh Baker’s jersey hanging in the equipment room, and I wanted why that was. Now I know.”
Hampton was the former longtime Jets equipment director who retired to Florida in 2001. Clay, his son, took over running the equipment room then, and remains with the club as the senior director of operations. Granneman has been with the team since ’94 as well and has run the equipment room since ’06.
Gus said this year’s final vote, taken among the five-member staff and the three previous award-winners still with the team — Darrelle Revis, Matt Slauson and, last year, Baker — was the closest since the award was first presented to S Erik Coleman in 2004, with Smith edging rookie DT Damon “Snacks” Harrison by a single vote.
“Hayden had a built-in advantage, being an older guy that had played a professional sport already,” Granneman said. “We try to take into account how they are with their teammates, not just the support staff, and a lot of times rookies coming in don’t realize that. Hayden was the kind of guy that worked hard and had a positive, friendly attitude every day, whether it was first thing in the morning or he was walking in from the practice field. It’s always nice when you have several guys that are deserving of the award, like Hayden and Damon.”
Smith, 27, acknowledged the hard work it took to make the transition from rugby to getting that all-important toe- and handhold on an NFL roster.
“It was, I guess, quite a big transition to make, probably mentally more than physically. I had a lot to contend with in really learning the sport and its intricacies, learning the different techniques and coming to terms with exactly what was required,” said Hayden, often the last player off the practice field during the season. “Slowly but surely, I became more comfortable as the season progressed.”
Smith looked like a big (6’7″, 245), raw rugby player in his first OTA practices in May, but he quickly made adjustments and began looking the part on into training camp. He was a final cut on Aug. 31, cleared waivers and was signed to the Jets’ practice squad the next day. In late October he was signed to the active roster.
He got his feet wet with four plays in the home game against Miami on Oct. 28, was inactive the next four games, then played in the final four games, getting in 32 plays for the season. His most noticeable contribution was his 16-yard reception on a behind-the-line throwback from Greg McElroy to convert third-and-9 in the second quarter of the final home game against San Diego. But he said the Jacksonville game two weeks earlier, when he got in half his plays for the season, was quite meaningful to him.
“I got to get in that game and get a little momentum,” he said. “It definitely makes a difference, being able to have a few plays on special teams, then a few more on offense. That also gets you to stop overanalyzing things and just getting into the flow.”
The Jets, like all teams, occasionally take an extended look at players from other sports. Pete Carroll brought in U.S. World Cup goalkeeper Tony Meola as a potential kickoff man in 1994. Eric Mangini invited college heavyweight wrestlers Cole Konrad and Tommy Rowlands in for tryouts at the 2007 rookie minicamp. Cleveland State basketballer J’Nathan Bullock got a look in Rex Ryan’s first offseason as head coach in ’09.
Most of them wash out quickly. The fact that Smith has survived through an entire NFL season indicates that the Jets like his prospects and he just might be tougher to run off. But he knows the hard work has just begun. After taking a few weeks to reunite with his old Saracens rugby mates in England, he is now back in Chicago to begin his personal training and will return to North Jersey when the Jets’ offseason strength and conditioning program commences in a few months.
“I think going into any of these situations, you have to make a conscious decision that you’re going to be a success with it,” he said. “If you’re not willing to do the work that’s required, you have zero chance of success. Obviously, even with the work, it’s not guaranteed. Going into it, I knew I had to work as hard as I could physically and academically to give myself any sort of a chance. I felt I’ve done that this year, just to be in the position where I am now. But it’s the same dilemma. I’m going to have to work as hard as I can in the classroom and on the field to continue to progress and get where I want to go.”
There are clearly a few goals ahead for the one of the first Aussies to stick in the NFL at a position other than punter. One is to make it onto the Jets’ active roster for a full season. And if he’s done that, at this time next year he’ll get an added bonus. He’ll get to vote on the 2013 Hampton Award.
Tags: Bill Hampton, Greg McElroy, Gus Granneman, Hayden Smith, Josh Baker
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