The world of rugby union was shocked earlier this month with the announcement that Wales’ Louis Rees-Zammit’s had decided to quit the game to follow his dream, which is to play in America’s National Football League( NFL).

Louis Rees- Zammit

He has been offered an opportunity to follow ‘The International Player Pathway’ (IPP), which was developed to get more overseas players into the NFL and is therefore, open to non-US and Canadian athletes with no high school experience.

Prospective players are assigned to an NFL franchise and attempt to make the eventual 53man squad; if he does play in competitive NFL matches, it is likely not to happen until next year, after a season on the practice squad.

He is not the first British sportsman to make the transition and in recent times names such as Christian Wade (former England and Wasps Rugby Union) and Christian Scotland –Williamson (former Worcester Warriors Rugby Union) have both attempted to make the switch, with varying degrees of success; Wade made a decent impression with the Buffalo Bills, but never played a competitive game and Scotland-Williamson made it into the Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad but only lasted two years.

Whether Rees- Zammit  is a success in his new venture we shall have to wait and see, but 50 years ago a young man from rural Oxfordshire was doing just that.

For John Smith the first NFL game he ever saw was also the first he ever played in and in a career that lasted over ten years, he would kick 128 field goals in 191 attempts and achieve a 67% success rate keeping him fourth on the Patriots All-Time list, forty years after retiring from the game.

Smith was born in Leafield and attended Burford Grammar School in West Oxfordshire in the early 1960’s where he showed particular promise as a footballer (soccer player), playing for Oxford City and Swindon Town before training to be a teacher at King Alfred’s College Winchester.

Burford Grammar School in Oxfordshire

In 1972 he took up an opportunity to coach soccer in Massachusetts New England and was ‘spotted’ kicking an American Football by one of the coaches at the camp. This eventually led to a phone call in May 1973 when he was back in the UK, offering him a try out with the New England Patriots NFL team, based in Boston.

John Smith circa 1982

Smith was 22 and about to get married, but was told that his wife could come too

 I had never seen a game

said Smith speaking years later about his first experience of the game that would eventually change his life.

I kicked off to start the second half and miskicked the ball! After the match they sent me packing and decided to trade me with the Pittsburgh Steelers

Kicking for Goal!

He was reclaimed by the Patriots a year later who invited him to play for the New England Colonials (a feeder club), where he broke the league record for points scoring; he was subsequently signed in the summer of 1974 and led the league top scorers for three consecutive years.

Despite that, he is best known for his role in ‘the Snowplow Game’ towards the end of his career in 1982, when his 33 yard fourth quarter field goal  (worth 3 points and kicked between the posts), accounted for the only points of the victory over the Miami Dolphins. His career highlight was being named in the Patriots ‘All Decade Team’ for the 1970’s

When his career ended in 1983 after a knee injury, Smith was heavily involved in bringing NFL to the UK,

I did the first Super Bowl in England

said Smith and his NFL shows were televised on British television throughout the 1980’s; once ranked in the top ten shows on television, which consisted of a 45 minute edited NFL footage on Channel 4, who were the first British channel to broadcast the sport in the UK.

The sport became incredibly popular and regularly attracted more than 4 million viewers and since 2020/21 Sky sports have broadcast live and recorded games and ‘free to air’ coverage is currently shown on ITV which includes the rights to show two of the three NFL London games and the Super Bowl.

Smith ran an indoor sports complex in Massachusetts until 2020 and continues to run ‘The John Smith Soccer Academy’ and soccer camps in New England based at schools and colleges; despite his NFL odyssey he has never forgotten his roots.

John Smith Soccer School

John Smith today( centre)

Rees-Zammit’s potential role as a ‘running back’ (an attacking player who can run with the ball and also catch passes thrown by the quarter back) is often thought of as one of the most important positions on the field but a player can regularly risk injury,  the place kicker however, is considered by many to be more important because they score so many points and rarely get injured and John Smith’s long career seems to bear that out.

Whether Louis Rees-Zammit makes it in the hostile world of NFL remains to be seen, but maybe we should spare a thought for John Smith who fifty years ago perhaps against all the odds, definitely did.

John Smith- Kicker  for The New England Patriots 1974-1983

Article copyright of Bill Williams