For now, it’s playing as a fairy tale, a buzzy, fuzzy feelgood that has movie predators scrambling for power lunches in Beverly Hills. Here we have this transformative Australian athlete, raised by a single mother and forced to fight for his family’s safety in a housing commission project in southwest Sydney, growing up to become a rugby star who harbored a secret dream:
Jarryd Hayne wanted to play football, the American kind.
So he gave up the world he ruled for one that could have exposed him as a wannabe, an international laughingstock. He arrived for offseason training in Arizona and looked almost flabby, at least compared to Colin Kaepernick and other abs-carved human sculptures. He showed up in training camp and got knocked on his arse several times. He tweeted something about “Jesus” and “the Jews” that drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League, for which he apologized. The Hayne Plane, as he was called back home, appeared to be another dumb idea by the 49ers, a franchise gone awry since changing head coaches last winter, as if cursed by The Evil Harbaugh.
Until we cut to a scene weeks later, which found Hayne hanging out with his mother and two teenage sisters near the Embarcadero on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, waiting for word on whether he had made the team or would have to return Down Under with a kangaroo tail between his legs. “What’s going on?” he wondered. “Do I get a phone call? Is someone going to tell me I’ve got a job or what?”
He called his agent … just as a text message was popping in from Niners coach Jim Tomsula.
“You’ve got yourself to the starting line,” it read, “and it’s a long race.”
And that’s when a 6-2, 220-pound rock, now as chiseled as any of his new teammates, let out a howl and hugged his loved ones by the water in San Francisco, the city he now represents as a sportsman. “That’s the first time I’ve been nervous in a while. Big relief,” Hayne said. “I have a journey I’m on at the moment. I’m blessed and honored to be a part of the 49ers franchise. They’ve given me the opportunity. They’re the ones that put faith in me.”
If you’d like, the final credits can roll here, and the audience can applaud and go home. Already, Jarryd Hayne has accomplished what no less an epic athlete than Michael Jordan could not: He has completed a successful major-league transition from one sport to another in what his hometown paper, the Sydney Morning Herald, described as “one of the greatest code-switches in sporting history,” though I’m not sure what a code switch is. When I was in Australia for the 2000 Summer Olympics, I remember raucous celebrations among the locals — “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi, oi, oi!” — when one of their own won a gold medal, especially against American competition. I’m going to guess they’ve been similarly oiling up all weekend.
“I don’t think words really describe how great it is to see so many people support me, all the Aussies,” Hayne said. “Australia is such a sporting country that we’re very proud of where we’re from. To see so many people get behind me and everyone over here in America obviously just having fun and chasing dreams, I can’t begin to thank them. And I thank everyone back home for their love of sport.”
But don’t count me among those who think the screenplay ended when he made the 53-man roster. After we’ve watched him return punts expertly (163 yards on 10 returns), ramble through defenses as a running back (175 yards on 25 carries) and make some people miss and others hurt with stiff-arms and shoulder blocks — did San Diego’s Lowell Rose ever get up Thursday, when his attempt to tackle Hayne after a 12-yard catch was met by a stone wall? — is it OK to ask if the 49ers have unearthed a weapon who can do significant, multipurpose damage in the NFL? The man is just learning how to play football at 27, yet with his rugby skills transferable to a sport with physical similarities, imagine how the final product might look once Hayne masters nuances and learns the league.
It seems a no-brainer to spring him next Monday night as the regular punt returner. Even Bruce Ellington, the incumbent kick returner, realizes what the Niners have in Hayne, saying, “He can help us a lot. He knows how to set it up and make big plays.” But by no means should we stop there in our wild daydreaming. Employing Hayne in an H-back-style role makes sense, too — assuming the new offensive coordinator, Geep Chryst, is creative enough to cook up the playbook. This is where we’ll find out if the Tomsula regime has the guts, out of the chute, to be bold and audacious. In his first full season as a head coach on any serious level, unless we’re counting nine years ago in NFL Europe, Jimmy T isn’t exactly in position to draw up plays like Bill Walsh, particularly with myriad issues surrounding this doomed bunch. At present, the office hallways are filled with more concern about public backlash over Ahmad Brooks, who is expected to play in the season opener despite sexual battery charges, than how Hayne might look in the slot.
But if the organization has come this far in evaluating Hayne’s rugby tapes, signing him as an undrafted free agent for $100,000 in guarantees, pointing him to the weight room and giving him a quick NFL education via running backs coach Tom Rathman, why not gradually turn him loose? As veteran tight end Vernon Davis said, “When it comes to Jarryd Hayne, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s relentless. He’s passionate and he’s just a special and unique player, his ability to make guys miss and run really well with the football in his hands. It’s amazing to see.” Tomsula and general manager Trent Baalke haven’t had many reasons to take bows, but Hayne counts as one. Maybe they’ve found a gold mine.
“Am I extremely proud in taking a chance and looking outside the box here as an organization? Yes,” Tomsula said. “I’m extremely grateful and proud that the organization did that. I’m extremely grateful and proud of the coaches that coach him every day. I just think it’s a good thing for everyone.”
Including the NFL, which has its own load of staggering public-relations woes amid commissioner Roger Goodell’s Deflategate debacle and can use any and all positive vibes. No matter how many missteps Goodell commits, you can’t say the man doesn’t know how to generate absurd sums of money for the league’s 32 owners. Hayne gives him yet another revenue stream: Australia, where every pub will be tuned into 49ers games to watch the former Parramatta Eel.
What I like most about Jarryd Hayne, other than his cool accent, is his beautiful mind. This isn’t Kaepernick spewing cliches but, rather, a most thoughtful human being. He doesn’t sound like someone satisfied with simply making the team.
“This whole journey was never about making a roster or being on a team. It was all about giving myself an opportunity,” he said. “It was about saying that I want to take a risk, I want to put myself out there. I want to let my faith be in action. Faith without action is dead. This whole journey, I’ve never felt so alive.”
It is incumbent on the 49ers, then, to keep pumping his journey with oxygen, as much as possible, Santa Clara’s entire supply and then some.