FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Alex Gray just completed the journey of a lifetime.
As one of four overseas players granted a spot on an NFL practice squad – part of the league's International Player Pathway program – Gray earned the opportunity to learn the tight end position with one of football's premier teams – the Atlanta Falcons.
"It's been an amazing journey," Gray said. "I knew it was going to be difficult, and it was, but I've had some amazing help from a lot of amazing players, amazing coaches. I can't speak highly enough of the people here. It's a great atmosphere they have here with the Brotherhood. That's not everywhere in professional sports, I've seen that. But people really buy into and live the values of the culture of this team. To be a part of that, I feel very privileged to be learning my football here. Talking to other people and how they do things, I really feel like I couldn't be anywhere better."
The 26-year-old isn't like other first-year NFL players, however. Gray has had plenty of experience playing sports at a high level. Prior to leaving his native country of England, Gray was a star rugby player. He captained England's national Under-16s and 18s teams to Grand Slams and was named the RPA Sevens Player of the Year in 2015 with England's primary national sevens team.
While his experience as a rugby star at a national and international level may have prepared him for life as a professional athlete in the NFL, he still had to tackle the learning curve that accompanied learning a brand new sport.
"Through the course of the season, obviously at the very start it was kind of just getting my head around what the NFL was – the day-to-day life, the playbook, how a practice operated. I'd never been in a football practice before. That Miami preseason game was the first football game I'd ever been at," Gray said.
As part of the international program, Gray was guaranteed a spot on the practice squad for the entire season in order to learn and improve his skills. Although he was assured a place with the team, Gray was ineligible to play in any regular season games this year.
The purpose behind the program is clear: Help provide the opportunity for international athletes to learn the game of football at the highest level without worrying about job security. Gray is proud of the improvements he made over the course of the year, learning from some of the best football minds in the game, but he missed playing in games that mattered.
"Through the season, the hardest thing for me was putting in all of the work during the week and not getting to play on the weekend," Gray said. "Last season, I played 60 games of rugby in a season. So, to be working your butt off all week and then to not get that prize at the end, you see the guys out there and you just want to be out there straining with them. That was definitely the toughest thing. But, that kind of fires me up to make the improvements that I need to to be able to get on the 53-man roster and really experience what the NFL is like. Playing week in and week out, battling with your brothers. For me, that's what sports is all about: Pulling together for a common goal with the guy beside you. That's what I'm excited about, and I'll do whatever I can to get there."
The Falcons have a unique strategy in place to help develop their in-house talent. Referred to as "Plan-D," many of the team's stars and backups, alike, spend extra time working after practice to hone the individual skills that may not have been entirely trained during the main practice session.
This plan has been in place since Falcons head coach Dan Quinn's arrival in 2015, and it makes Atlanta a great opportunity for a player like Gray to get better every single day.
"As a player, I've seen myself develop so much," Gray said. "When I first got here I'd never really worn the pads or the helmet or been on a line of scrimmage. To go from knowing absolutely nothing to the improvements I've made, I'm very proud of that. Like I said, there's a lot of hard that had to go into it – not just for myself, but the people who have been helping me."
Gray was one of nine players the Falcons signed to a reserve future contract this offseason, meaning he will be under contract with the team once the new league year begins on March 14.
Until then, Gray says he's going to head back home to England to visit with friends and family, undoubtedly bringing plenty of interesting stories back with him. Once he's taken a few weeks to rest and recover, however, he says he's going to get right back to work.
He doesn't want to be missing any more NFL games.
"A couple weeks off and then get back into it," Gray said. "I know what I need to do now. I've seen the standard. I know the improvements I need to make. So, I'll just get back to work. I'll be heading back out to the U.S. I think in March to do some training with the other international guys. "I feel really confident with myself moving forward. I really feel like I add value to this team; hopefully, that will be next season. It's been the challenge that I wanted, and I've enjoyed every second of it. It would have been great to go further this season, for the guys who were involved in playing, but to get a taste of it myself, it makes you that much hungrier."