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Ex-rugby player Scotland-Williamson trying to catch on with Steelers

Chris Adamski
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson during ota work outs Thursday, May 24, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson during ota work outs Thursday, May 24, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Spending his childhood and formative years in the London area, Christian Scotland-Williamson’s exposure to American football was limited.

He never played it, and it wasn’t until his teenage years he even got to watch a Super Bowl on television. That was nine years ago while he was on vacation in the Caribbean.

“Steelers and Arizona,” Scotland-Williamson said, noting the Super Bowl XLIII matchup the Steelers won. “So it’s pretty surreal being a Steeler now because that was my first kind of memory of football, so that has kind of become the team I latched onto and liked because of that.

“Any chance I got, I watched ‘America’s Game’ if they had to do with the Steelers. I had a real interest in football, but as an English guy, (playing) it was never really a feasible option.”

Until now.

A player of some repute in England’s top rugby league, Scotland-Williamson was signed by the Steelers earlier this month via the International Player Pathway program that exposes athletes from around the world to the NFL and vice versa.

For a 6-foot-9 Brit who shunned soccer and basketball because, as he put it, “I liked running into people a little but too much,” American football is something of a dream come true.

“That first OTA, for 0.1 second before the first meeting started, I looked down, I’m the Steelers uniform,” Scotland-Williamson said. “You realize you have gone from playing rugby in England in the Premiership to now best franchise ever in history.

“There are certain points where you do pinch yourself. But apart from that, I know it’s all business. Because I know I’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Scotland-Williamson was doing just that after the Steelers’ second OTA last week. He was the last of 90 players to leave the practice field. He outlasted all of the other wide receivers and tight ends in catching as many passes as he could out of the JUGS machine.

Because of the differences in the shapes of an American football and a rugby ball and in the rules, Scotland-Williamson has had to re-teach himself how to catch.

“Rugby balls are bigger, so it’s actually easier to catch, and how you are taught to catch in rugby is slightly different to here,” he said. “If you try to catch that ball like (a rugby player), the ball just goes through your hands. And then over-the-shoulder catching is new, because in rugby you can only pass backwards.”

Too bad Scotland-Williamson isn’t playing defense. He already has shown he can tackle. A video of a tackle he made last year went viral in England.

His Steelers teammates might not be aware of that particular hit, but they apparently are aware of the more general style of rugby play.

“They all think I am crazy for playing rugby, to be honest,” Scotland-Williamson said. “Every person I talk to they say, ‘Oh, you’re the rugby player! They tackle without pads, don’t they?’

“I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s normal.’ So that’s the funniest thing. I didn’t think they would think that we are crazy because we look at some of the hits in the NFL and we think, ‘Oh wow, that must hurt.’ ”

Of course, American football players wear pads, and getting suited up with the helmet and the shoulder pads, etc., wasn’t an intuitive process for a 24-year-old Englishman who never did it before this spring.

Something else Scotland-Williamson never had to do? Learn a playbook.

“In rugby, you can’t script too much. You have to play instincts and play what’s in front of you,” he said. “So having that detail and that quick recall under stress is the biggest challenge (in transitioning to football).

“But even in the week since rookie minicamp, it’s come around a lot. So considering this is just still the early stages, it’s very promising.”

At 274 pounds and with obvious speed and athleticism, Scotland-Williamson has the raw tools to be an American football player. But is he too far behind? Immediate expectations can’t be too high for him or for the Steelers, but the team gets a roster exemption as part of the International Player Pathway. So if the staff sees any promise, there is little downside to keeping Scotland-Williamson around.

From the player’s point of view, there is always that rugby thing to fall back, right? After all, according to Wales Online, the average salary of a player in the Aviva Premiership was about $266,000 in 2016.

Scotland-Williamson, though, is not allowing himself to think that way.

“That’s the thing: You can’t dip your toe into this,” he said of football. “I have left rugby behind. You can’t come in to such a competitive environment thinking you are not going to succeed because you might as well not do it.

“I wouldn’t have gotten on the plane if I didn’t think I could be a genuine NFL player.”

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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