How curious that in the same week when there is so much giddy talk about the identity of the 36 players Warren Gatland will bring with him to South Africa on the 2021 Lions tour, RugbyPass was busy on Zoom chewing the pandemic travel red tape with ex-Junior Springboks winger Lloyd Greeff who wants to break out of South Africa and have his shot later this month at fulfilling his NFL dream.
It’s a crazy yarn. Greeff’s rugby career was painfully shelved in 2019 when he did the ACL in his right knee for the second time just weeks before his contract was set to expire at the Cheetahs, putting an end to ideas of a possible switch to France.
As a private citizen, the medical bills usually taken care of in a club environment started to add up and his rehabilitation took a while longer to complete, but a silver lining materialised last December when Greeff spontaneously tried out as an NFL kicker at a talent scouting camp in Pretoria that was also attended by ex-Springboks out-half Derick Hougaard.
Five months later, the 27-year-old is nervously awaiting word on whether his visa application to get into the United States will be rubber-stamped in time for his May 23 trial in San Diego in front of head coaches and general managers from 27 of the NFL’s 32 clubs. Impress there and a brand new sports career could be his. First, though, he needs that all-important ticket to ride.
“At the moment we are actually struggling to get a visa,” he admitted to RugbyPass, talking from an apartment in Vereeniging that had a funky farm lodge vibe to it. “South Africa is on a bit of a travel ban.
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“This is a very important part of my journey where a one-day camp is going to become a month away from home because I have to be out of South Africa for two weeks going into the USA and also we are struggling to get a visa. The embassy in South Africa doesn’t want to expedite my appointment. We have tried everything and we are really trying to get that sorted out, but it feels like no one wants to help us out and it is standing in the way of a dream coming true.”
Ever since getting handed two American footballs a week before last December’s World Wide Scholarships NFL discovery camp, Greeff has poured his heart into giving his new sport his complete attention. He has been consistently kicking 75-yard field goals in practice, a distance eleven yards longer than any field goal in the history of NFL matches.
Admittedly, it’s a practice that has taken place at altitude in the south of Gauteng where the ball travels for longer, but the interest of American NFL scouts has been piqued and they seemingly can’t wait to see Greeff strut his stuff in person in California after he took part in an online combine in March.
“I try to do about six days a week,” he said, explaining his intense training regime. “NFL is a bit different from rugby. They have combines you have to compete in, running, jumping, position-specific testing and you have to prepare for that.
“I needed to run the 40-yard dash in under 4.7 seconds, I did it in 4.6. My bench press needed to be 25 reps for 100kgs, which is quite a lot and I managed to get it, and vertical jump, broad jump were also important. They looked at all that stats and once I finished the virtual combine, I started to do more kicking and I’m kicking three to four times a week whereas when I was doing combine preparation I was only doing once or twice depending on how the body felt.
“I try to do one to two hours of gym a day and then every other day I do a running session and then I kick three times a week. It can be three to four hours of training a day for six days a week. It’s a big adaption kicking an NFL ball that is a bit more pointy at the ends than a rugby ball which is a bit bigger and a bit more oval-shaped. But the dimensions of the ball makes it easy for it to travel if you kick it correctly.
“I didn’t think it would be possible at first. I was, ‘Okay, let’s try, it’s a bit of a far shot’. But the week after the scouting camp, once they said maybe this guy can do something with this, I was set up with people in the United States to help me with all the stuff I needed for NFL and that is when I really started to believe this is going to work because I was training for a purpose, not just holding the ball and going, ‘What must I do with it now?’ That was a big turning point for me.
“At the moment I’m not wondering too much about my distances, even though it is impressive. I just care about consistency because that is what the NFL wants,” continued Greeff. “At the moment I can kick a 60 or 70-yard field goal or a 30-yard field goal, but I just want to be able to do it ten times out of ten. That is very important.
— Sporple (@sporplerugby) November 30, 2016
“I have never been to America but my fiance and I are really open to whatever the NFL throws at us. It’s just a matter of showing up and doing what I do best and then the opportunities will come. Everybody is so intrigued with this whole situation, they are so excited. I’m getting messages from all over.
“People that I haven’t even been speaking to for the last couple of years saw it in the news and asked, ‘What is going on? Tell me more’. It’s a nice feeling to get all that support back again. There is not one negative thing that I have seen or heard yet in this whole process yet. I can be the first South African that can play in the NFL who is preparing for the NFL from South Africa. This is going to be history.”
All the more remarkable is that his kicking leg is the one where he twice did his ACL. “Because of the immense rehab on the knee, it has made my leg a bit stronger because I’m working the leg all the time and doing prehab to prevent anything from happening again.
“It feels like I have got a bit more leg strength than before, feels like I can kick and strike the ball a little bit harder than I used to,” said Greeff before going on to explain the ACL-rupturing incidents that put the kibosh on his rugby but inadvertently set up him for his NFL shot.
“It’s the saddest thing ever – both of them were just freak accidents. The first one we played a warm-up game for the Lions just before the 2014 Currie Cup and the field was very short grass, very hard surface and my studs weren’t the right ones for the field. I wanted to step the full-back because I had made a linebreak, but my boot got stuck in the grass and my knee didn’t take the force. My ACL tore and I was out for a year.
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“And with the Cheetahs, I got tackled and fell in a wrong position but playing for five years without tearing it again was actually a good accomplishment. Two of my friends at the Lions both re-tore their ACL within a month of coming back from the first time, so I actually had it very lucky that I was able to play for so many years.
“The second time it happened about a month before I had to re-sign or go to another union depending on what was going to happen. That was a bit of a setback and financially it was very tough because I now had to pay for everything myself.
“It wasn’t like when I was at the Lions, a five-days-a-week recovery where you get physios, medical experts, gym training, recovery, massaging… all your treatments. When I did it the second time, I went to a physio maybe once a week… it wasn’t as intense. It took me a few months longer to recover but I did my testing for my knee a few weeks ago and it’s 100 per cent.
“It’s now almost two years ago and once that happened, I had to restructure my life and say, ‘Listen, what am I going to do now?’ I decided to take a break from professional sport, from rugby as a whole, and started my own gym doing strength and conditioning training for school children, teaching them what I have learned in my career.”
For sure, Greeff has been telling them how he beat the odds. Vereeniging kids aren’t supposed to make it in professional rugby even if they are 6ft 5ins and weigh a powerful 113kgs for winger. Even playing U19s Currie Cup he did it without a contract, merely doing it for the love of the game at the Leopards before a Junior Springboks call-up for the 2014 World Cup in New Zealand changed everything, that dream team – which included the likes of Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel and Andre Esterhuizen – coming within a point of England in the final.
Lloyd Greeff under 19 currie cup http://t.co/eBmYKNuNzy
— lloyd greeff (@GreeffLloyd) April 20, 2014
“That was the turning point in my career and I really used it to the best of my ability. I had a good season, got noticed and that helped me because I was a standout player and my career got a little bit easier because of the Junior Springboks on my CV. It was like, ‘He is a Springbok, he can come and play’. Before, it was always the background of he is from a smaller school, a smaller union so he must work his way up.”
He loved his post-Lions year at Zebre, travelling all over Europe, and then arriving into the Cheetahs to do the same thing when the South African franchise was accepted into the Guinness PRO14. His rugby adventure ended prematurely, though, yet it’s those adverse and varied experiences that have Greeff steeled for what now lies ahead as he chases an NFL deal.
“I will always be grateful for my rugby experience. If I didn’t go through what I went through, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It was a life lesson and showed me what hard work can really give you.
“I’ll never make peace that rugby ended early. It’s something I will always love, but this is going to be a new chapter for me and the hard work only begins now. I’m so grateful for what happened in the past. I know what happened to me, good or bad, will really carry through for what is ahead.
“I’m putting all my efforts into the NFL and I am going to make it work,” insisted Greeff, signing off on the interview. “I’m committed and really working so hard for it. With my support teams, I can’t see it not working so I’m really excited for what is coming but rugby is always going to be a big part of me… I won’t go back to rugby but I will never leave rugby alone.”
— HUB Football (@HUBFootball2020) April 23, 2021
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