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How Chiefs’ Louis Rees-Zammit, former Welsh rugby star, plans to make NFL transition

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Before he touched the ball with 21 other players on the field alongside him Monday, Louis Rees-Zammit needed to get his various techniques correct.

Rees-Zammit listened and observed how Porter Ellett, Kansas City Chiefs’ assistant running backs coach, placed his feet and bent his knees before stepping forward. A few minutes later, Ellett corrected Rees-Zammit again, as his hands were not in the proper spot to block a blitzing defender.

Rees-Zammit’s new position (running back) within a new job (with the Chiefs) within a new sport (the NFL) has required different footwork from him, too.

“It’s completely different,” Rees-Zammit said Monday of his transition from rugby star to NFL rookie with no previous experience in American football. “In rugby it’s free flowing — unless you get a set piece. It’s been interesting to learn the (Chiefs) playbook. Obviously, we’re only a few installs in. I’ve only been here for a week but, yeah, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

Neither can the Chiefs. No newcomer to their 91-man roster is as fascinating — or charming — as Rees-Zammit, a 23-year-old who was one of the leading wingers in world rugby. Nicknamed “Rees-Lightning,” Rees-Zammit was named to the British & Irish Lions squad — a combined side of players from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland — in 2021. It’s considered one of the greatest honors in the sport.

After months of training, Rees-Zammit’s first practices as a football player occurred last week during the Chiefs’ three-day rookie minicamp. He was a full participant and displayed his skills — speed, reliable hands and above-average vision — that have intrigued the Chiefs so much.

The most important part of the camp for Rees-Zammit was when he didn’t have the ball in his hands, though. Coach Andy Reid wanted to evaluate how well Rees-Zammit performed the small details of his position — such as being in sync with his teammates on a play’s snap count, lining up at the correct spot among various formations, and executing his pre-snap assignments, whether motioning across the formation or adjusting to what the quarterback wants following an audible.

“This was good for him,” Reid said of Rees-Zammit. “He got a lot of reps. When the (veterans) are here, he’s rotating in with those guys and he doesn’t get a ton of reps there. This gave him an opportunity to really jump in and learn.

“He’s so diligent with everything and wants to be so good at everything. I’ve appreciated that. You can see the progress he’s made.”

Rees-Zammit’s best moment during the minicamp occurred Sunday. On this rep, the offense executed everything perfectly. The play was designed for Rees-Zammit: a screen pass to the right side of the field.

“It’s amazing,” Rees-Zammit said while smiling and laughing. “When there’s open field, I feel like I’m playing rugby again. I can use my awareness when I’m in space and that’s when I can cause the most damage. The more I can do that, the more I can help the team.”

Rees-Zammit smoothly caught the pass from quarterback Chris Oladokun in rhythm and quickly accelerated upfield, sprinting past midfield in a running style that still appears more similar to rugby than football — shorter steps than long strides, the ball held higher and closer to his chest than the average running back and his torso upright rather than learning forward.

“I was sort of picking at him a little bit,” Oladokun said of Rees-Zammit. “You just see Louis running down the field in his little rugby run.”

No defender touched Rees-Zammit because they couldn’t. He maintained his speed while evading multiple defenders, making two cuts that led to him having a clear path to enter the end zone, a rep that ended in a 60-yard touchdown.

“I thought he was going to dive in the end zone,” Reid joked while laughing. “He’s done a good job of working on holding the ball. (Rugby players) do hold it a little bit different, a bigger ball and not quite as pointy as a football. He’ll learn the pad level the first time he gets hit.

“I like the fact that he’s got shorter steps initially. That’s a good thing as a running back. If you’re a long strider in there, you’ve got to really work on making it through those tight (running lanes). He seems to have a nice feel, though.”


In January, Rees-Zammit announced via social media that he was stepping away from world rugby. The decision allowed him to move from the United Kingdom to Bradenton, Fla., where he trained for two months at IMG Academy after entering the NFL’s International Player Pathway program, an initiative launched in 2017 to recruit athletes from around the world and increase the number of international players in the league.

Rees-Zammit’s willingness to switch to the NFL was the biggest coup for the league’s program since its launch.

Listed at 6-foot-3 and 194 pounds, Rees-Zammit ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at his pro day in March in front of scouts from 31 NFL teams. Some scouts projected him to be a skill-position player similar to Pittsburgh Steelers running back Cordarrelle Patterson, who, in 2021 at the age of 30, produced 1,166 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns.

Rees-Zammit also visited the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, and Denver Broncos before signing a three-year, $2.83 million contract with the Chiefs.

“They’ve got unbelievable coaches here, and it was where I was going to learn the best,” he said of joining the Chiefs. “It was just about having a plan for me, being able to prove what I can do and being able to translate my rugby skills into football.

“There’s going to be a versatile role for me, I’m hoping. The coaches are very creative here, so we’ll see what they can do. But it’s all about me learning the playbook and learning the game. Without that, I can’t do anything else.”

Growing up in Penarth, Wales, Rees-Zammit learned about the NFL from Joseph Zammit, his father who became so passionate about the sport that he played in the British American Football Association in 1987 for the Cardiff Tigers as a receiver and running back. Rees-Zammit often watched NFL games alongside his father. As his own passion for the NFL grew, Rees-Zammit said one of his favorite players was receiver DeSean Jackson, who played 15 seasons in the league and began his career under Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles.

“From the age of probably 11 or 12, I used to watch (Jackson’s highlights) on YouTube all the time,” Rees-Zammit said. “He was definitely one where his speed was absolutely outrageous. His change of direction was unbelievable.

“Every Sunday, I’d be staying up late,” Rees-Zammit said. “Obviously, the time difference is five to six hours. My dad is a massive mentor for me and a role model. I achieved everything I wanted to in rugby, so I thought now was the perfect time.”


Rees-Zammit began to follow his father’s path nearly two years ago, hoping to achieve his dream of becoming an NFL player. The first person he trusted to prepare him for his transition was longtime performance coach Chip Smith, who trained more than 3,000 professional athletes, including over 1,600 NFL players.

Smith put Rees-Zammit through drill after drill after drill, sessions designed to improve his skills as a ball carrier and route runner. Whenever Rees-Zammit visited Smith in Atlanta, he tested his progress by performing NFL combine events such as the 40-yard dash, the broad jump, vertical jump, three-cone drill and shuttle run.

“He came into work every day and I saw some potential right away, just the speed and strength,” Smith told The Athletic of Rees-Zammit. “He was extremely explosive for someone who’s never played football before. Of course, he has a long road, but he’s very teachable. He completely trusted the process, even though he’s never trained like we train.”

Based on his rugby success, Rees-Zammit could be comparable to Valentine Holmes, who was one of the best wingers in rugby league in 2019 when he moved to the NFL. As a running back, Holmes spent just one season on the New York Jets’ practice squad.

The most successful alumnus from NFL’s IPP is Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata, who grew up playing rugby in Australia. Mailata, who was 21 when the Eagles drafted him in 2018, has started 57 games in the past four seasons.

Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said that the team is committed to giving Rees-Zammit plenty of time to showcase his capabilities in the NFL. Much of his rookie season could be spent further developing his skills on the Chiefs’ practice squad.

“He’s going to be great for your locker room internationally,” Smith told The Athletic of Rees-Zammit. “To have somebody who is a handsome dude that’s played all over Europe, that was a pretty smart signing, I thought. And of course, who better than the Chiefs. I mean, my goodness. Come on. He couldn’t have picked anybody better organization-wise.”

Less than two weeks after signing his contract, Rees-Zammit was with many of his new teammates in Fort Worth, Texas, for several training sessions led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Bobby Stroupe, Mahomes’ longtime trainer who is the founder and president of ATHLETE Performance Enhancement Center (APEC).

When he wasn’t catching passes or exerting himself in training exercises, Rees-Zammit said he spent as much time as he could next to Mahomes and Oladokun, asking as many questions as he could to learn about the running back and receiver positions and the many intricacies of the Chiefs’ offense. He also spent two weeks living alongside Oladokun in a rented house.

“I told my mom (Jennifer Carter) when I left Texas that I learned more about Louis in those two weeks than I probably know about my own brother (Jordan) — and me and my brother are super close,” Oladokun said. “I think (Rees-Zammit) has a really good personality, and I think he’s going to fit really well into the culture here. He’s been a professional athlete since he was 16. He’s going to be a great addition.”

Already, Rees-Zammit has understood why the Chiefs wanted to have his first reps be at running back. It’s easier on him because he can get the ball earlier into a play than from the receiver or tight end position.

“You catch laterally in rugby; you don’t catch forward,” he said, smiling. “That’s been a bit different. Route running is obviously completely new to me, being able to accelerate and decelerate pretty much (within just a few steps) is pretty tricky. The more reps I do, the better I’ll get.”

Rees-Zammit also realizes that the best chance for him to make the Chiefs’ initial 53-man roster later this year is through impressive production on the special teams unit. The Chiefs are expected to have Rees-Zammit compete for one of the two kickoff returner roles during training camp and the preseason. In late March, just three days before Rees-Zammit signed with the Chiefs, 29 of the NFL’s 32 owners voted in favor of modifying the kickoff, a change that league officials and coaches believe will return the play to relevance.

The modification calls for all players on the kicking team to line up at the receiving team’s 40-yard line while the receiving team lines up nine players on its own 35. Two players will line up downfield as returners. The kicker will still kick off from his own 35. The kickoff team defenders wouldn’t be permitted to move until the ball lands on the ground in the “landing zone” — inside the receiving team’s 20-yard line. If the ball lands short of the landing zone, the ball would be moved to the receiving team’s 40-yard line just as if a kickoff sails out of bounds. Touchbacks would call for the ball to be moved to the receiving team’s 30.

Whenever Rees-Zammit catches a kickoff, whether in practice during training camp or in a preseason game, his returns could be the moments where he can best blend the ball-carrying skills he perfected in rugby with the vision, acceleration and elusiveness he dreams to demonstrate in the open field that he envisioned when decided to start the newest phase of his career.

“It’s definitely going to take time, but I’m willing to put the work in,” Rees-Zammit said. “I’m just loving being able to work on all these crafts because the more I can do, the more I can try and help this team.”

(Photo of Louis Rees-Zammit: Bob Bradford / CameraSport via Getty Images)