JARRYD HAYNE LIGHTS UP THE NFL
NO CHEERING WHEN THE HAYNE PLANE TAKES OFF
After 20 years as a sports journalist, I’m not the guy you accuse of being an athlete cheerleader. I’m not the jaded, disparaging, apathetic type either. It’s just that, well, live sport rarely does it for me any more. I call it my “live sport mojo” and in recent times, it’s disappeared.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the contest. I watch more football, all codes, than anyone I know. Hardly a ball gets bowled, pitched, layed-up, passed, kicked or thrown without my eyeballs seeing it. But being there, on location, well the buzz I once got has evaporated over time.
There’s plenty of reasons for that. Crowds. Price. Queues. Noise. Comfort. Transport. Weather. The quality of TV coverage. I know what you’re thinking. They sound like all the symptoms of old age. That may be true. But it takes something special these days to lift me out of my seat. On Saturday night, that happened.
Over the years, I’ve had my moments. When Lote Tuqiri scored first in the 2000 NRL Grand Final, I launched a fully torn newspaper of confetti into Sydney’s Olympic Stadium. Yep, those seated around me were thrilled. I joined the chorus on pooldeck when Geoff Huegill won Commonwealth gold in Delhi. When Nick Malceski kicked the game-winner in the 2012 AFL Grand Final I collaborated with the Swans faithful in a mini fist-pump. (Note – they’re not even my team). And I remember sharing the moment as Steve Smith and Brett Lee led New South Wales to the inaugural Champions League T20 title in 2009. (Note – I’m a Queenslander). But in a couple of decades front and centre, they’ve been few and far between.
So, Saturday night? What happened? Well, the Hayne Plane landed. Houston had a problem. An Australian was making his mark on the NFL after taking one of the biggest career gambles in the history of world sport.
I sat in the press box for the San Francisco 49ers first pre-season game of the 2015/16 season against the Texans. There were three of us. Us? Aussies. The journalists from down under. The ones that had the whole room asking pre-game – “what are you doing here?”
I proceeded to tell them about “our boy.” Our Jarryd Hayne. The kid from rugby league – yes RUGBY LEAGUE – who was “a superstar back home.” A “two-time MVP” (yes I said MVP instead of Dally M Medallist because, well, with all due respect to the great Dally Messenger …). A “national representative” (because if the notion of rugby league didn’t confuse them, calling him a Kangaroo may have just sent them over the edge). A bloke who “put his team on his shoulders and carried them to every win they ever managed in his time” (and he even did it without shoulder pads? I didn’t dare mention he was an Eel).
Now, with all due respect to my colleagues alongside me, they’re not the sporting fanatic type. Ask them. They’ll tell you before I do. My old newsroom buddy Emma Dallimore (below) who was there for Channel 7 and Channel 9′s new LA bureau journalist Laura Turner. Two of the finest journalists Australian TV has in its ranks. Give them crime, court, politics, human interest or a spot reading the news and they’ll engage you like few others. But American Football featuring a guy no one in America knew anything about? The overseas bureau throws everything at its correspondents. They’re very lucky to have such versatile, talented ladies at the helm. And alongside them – me. A sports journo from days gone by with a thirst for America’s Game. You’d struggle to assemble a more unlikely trio if you tried.
Together we stood as a young boy gave all in attendance goosebumps, nailing the national anthem. I looked for Hayne among the 49ers line-up. I was intrigued to see his reaction among his new peers. I couldn’t find him. I locked in on him soon after and lamented a lost opportunity as others were given game time ahead of him.
Then, with just over a minute to go in the first quarter I nudged Emma on the arm and said excitedly, “there he is. He’s on.”
In a weird way, I felt this bizarre allegiance to the moment. To Jarryd himself. Almost as though his support unit sat as one, a trio of Aussies among 71,000 passionate Texans, seeing him take his first baby steps on foreign soil. I felt nervous. Pride. Incredible pride.
Jarryd’s time in the NRL coincided with my own journey in national sports news. I distinctly remember his NRL debut. At Sports Tonight on Network TEN in Sydney, we would be the ones at the airport awaiting a teams return from away games the day after.
Jarryd was the whiz-kid I would turn to. Not brilliant on camera back then, but quite articulate for a kid of his age. And unlike the others, he gave me no grief. Most of all though, he was the news. A teenage sensation with a habit for scoring tries. Our conversations were limited to the camera vs athlete dynamic, usually at airport baggage carousels, but Jarryd never once turned down a request. Never once refused a tough question. Never once flicked responsibility to more senior teammates. Forget the magic he was performing on the field, this kid was a breath of fresh-air in the code. His star continued to shine.
And so, nine years on, so it was that with an assuring two-yard first-quarter carry behind him, Jarryd was in position as the 49ers moved into their offensive formation early in the second-term. Again, I noted to my Aussie colleagues. “He’s about to get the ball again here.” Together we had a focal point as San Francisco’s new running-back took the hand-off from the quarterback just behind the line of scrimmage. Men moved in formation and the gap opened like the Grand Canyon I had flown over en route to Houston. Hayne pierced through it and set fly in the same swift motion I’d seen so many times before when covering his time with Parramatta.
On my way into the ground, I had told my cameraman, Joe the cameraman – a Houston local, that Jarryd would “do something special tonight. I can just feel it. He’s the sort of guy that relishes these big moments.” Joe said he “hoped so” but I sensed there was a feeling that I needed a reality-check. Most of the locals I’d spoken to had that same “this guy is crazy” look about them in pre-game conversations about Jarryd.
In 53-yards, Jarryd Hayne announced himself to America. His run would end just shy of the end-zone. It brought out the athlete in Hayne. It brought out the cheerleader in me. Three of us, our eyes locked on our boy, let out a spontaneous rally for Hayne. “Go Jarryd!” “C’mon Haynesy!” The girls shrieked something slightly more high-pitched. It was unplanned. It just happened. We couldn’t help ourselves. We all had high hopes. But this exceeded our expectations.
Australians may wonder what all the fuss is about. 53-yards. Really? Well, pour cold water all you like. Just being there, on that field at all, was huge. Those 53-yards put America on notice. This was a massive moment in Australian sport. For a night, my live sport mojo was back.
Veteran hacks will tell you expressing an emotional opinion beyond the news cycle is a no-no. Cheering in the press box isn’t on back home. Not that it’s a rule. It’s just not cool.
Here in America, we Aussies quickly found out it’s more than that. The man next to me, an old-school reporter with years on the Texans beat quickly issued me with a gag-order – for my own good. “You can’t cheer in the press box. They’ll come and take your accreditation off you.” Whoops. We quickly realised the entire room full of eyes were locked on us. And the Texans press box stretches about half the length of the football field! Within seconds, a female voice came over the press box loud speaker. “A reminder there is to be no cheering in the press box.”
There were murmurs and giggles (mostly from us) and soon there were tweets. And blogs. All about us. The Aussie journos who had been sent to report on this new “Rugby Star from Down Under” had created a stir. At halftime, a number of local journalists approached me. They lamented the archaic rule that prevents any sign of emotion. And they wanted to know more about this kid Hayne who had grabbed their attention. If our rookie mistake helped bring our NFL rookie prominence then I’m happy to ride the wave of criticism.
Post-game, Jarryd was a man in demand. We made a beeline for him in the locker-room and he seemed to struggle to contain his excitement over his performance. In this country, people usually head to Nevada to gamble. Jarryd Hayne came to a state where it is illegal to bet to roll the biggest dice of his life. He said he wanted to “look like an NFL player.” He achieved that. I pointed out my sense of deja vu. Think back to 2007 when a young Jarryd Hayne took flight down the left touchline on his New South Wales debut to etch his name into State of Origin folklore. I wondered if it had dawned on him that something similar had taken place in an identical position on the field as this new chapter in his life began.
Jarryd was accommodating and gracious. Humble and self-depreciating, yet confident and assured in the progress he is making. When everyone left, I hung back to make small-talk off camera. His joy was evident. He knows this is just the start. The reality is he has a long way to go to guarantee his future. But what a launching-pad.
A day earlier I had been searching for locations and storylines to reference Hayne’s NFL arrival in Houston. I chose NASA, the home of America’s own journey of exploration and discovery. It seemed appropriate. In hindsight, so appropriate indeed. There is no need for tenuous links any more. The Hayne Plane has taken flight. The Jarryd Hayne story is now writing itself. What a privilege to have been part of this prominent chapter. I’ll be the one cheering from my loungeroom as the story continues to unfold.
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