Naas Botha has had a fascination for American Football since his groundbreaking move to the United States in 1983 when he tried out as a placekicker for the Dallas Cowboys. It was a sensational move by the best flyhalf in the world of rugby, from the amateur game to the different world of American pro sport.
While it helped Botha establish himself as a true professional athlete, since 1995 and the end of amateurism in rugby union, there has been little interest by other rugby players in playing American Football.
But Botha believes it won’t be long before a top-class player is lured by the promise of a massive payday in the United States.
“The problem I had when I went over was that I turned up with nothing, with no track record. Half of the people there didn’t even know where South Africa was and they thought we were wandering around with lions. The whole structure of American Football means College football is very important and they take all your stats from there.
“It would be much better now for a player to go over. The rest of the world has a much better knowledge of American Football now and I think a lot more people involved in gridiron know about rugby. Thanks to social media, I think a lot of them will even know about Handre Pollard for instance.
“Organisations like Laureus also bring a lot more attention to American sports. World sport is at a different level these days: in the U.S. they know about our top rugby players and South Africans know about what opportunities there are outside the country. Look at how many players are in France or England; compare that to when I went to play in Italy in 1987 and there was such a big hoohaa,” Botha told The Citizen.
Kicking in American Football is of course not just about distance and accuracy: Botha estimates you have about 1.2 seconds to kick a field goal and it requires a different frame of mind compared to slotting conversions and penalties in rugby. Plus one has to get used to being allowed to be tackled without the ball in gridiron, hence all the protective equipment.
It was thanks to the innovative Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, considered a legend in American Football after 29 years at the helm of the Texan franchise, that Botha played gridiron. But it was the presence of another Cowboys stalwart, Rafael Septien, that prevented the Springbok hero from making more of an impact. Botha was brought in as the back-up kicker, but Septien rarely broke down and so his appearances were limited.
Another South African placekicker, Gary Anderson, had better fortune and became one of the NFL’s leading all-time points-scorers with the Pittsburgh Steelers, even playing against Botha once.
It remains a regret for Botha that during those couple of years of gaining splinters on the bench, he did not take up other offers that came his way, particularly from College (university) teams.
“It was a great experience, being with a big team like the Cowboys, but I was just there at the wrong time. I hung around with the Cowboys, but I should have taken one of the university contracts I was offered. I could’ve taken my experience with the Cowboys with me, built a reputation and a stats base and worked my way through the ranks, but I didn’t know the set-up then,” Botha said.
As it was, he caught game time with the Dallas Harlequins in the national championship, inspiring them to their only triumph in that second-tier competition.
So what of this year’s SuperBowl?
Botha remains a Dallas Cowboys fan and was gutted when they lost 26-21 to the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs, but he concedes the New England Patriots have what it takes to claim their fourth SuperBowl title.
“I’m still a Cowboys fan and how they lost that playoff I don’t know, they blew it. I’ve watched both the Patriots and the Seahawks this year, they’re two very good sides, both very balanced. But I went for a mini-training camp with the Patriots and they are the team to beat, they’ve been fantastic lately,” he said.
What really intrigues SuperSport’s long-time rugby analyst about American Football though is what it can teach those running rugby in South Africa.
“The United States is where sport is at a different level, they’ve shown how professional sport should be run, why try and reinvent the wheel? They have franchises and I wonder if our top rugby teams should not be privately owned? Why postpone it any longer? The unions all have schools, junior and women’s rugby all to look after as well.
“In gridiron, players are on $50 million contracts, in baseball it can be $200 million. Here, if a union wants to keep Bryan Habana, they need to offer R30 million over three years but nobody can afford it. Do we really want to see all the top South African players based overseas?”