Cessnock Goannas junior Hayden Yates is living the football dream, but not the one he originally set out on.
A NSW Independent School’s representative at under-15 and under-18s, Yates was rejected by the Newcastle Knights as being “too small” and “not the right body shape” for a NRL career.
Twelve months after the most devastating news of his young life, Yates could not be happier after signing to play with Concordia University in Wisconsin, the northern heartland of American football, one of 51 colleges who had sought his signature as a gridiron running back.
"I was playing league at Cessnock not getting really where I wanted to be as I had aspirations of playing NRL but kept getting told I was too small, not the right body shape, not the right weight,” the 20-year-old who has type 1 diabetes, said.
“I decided to give gridiron a go as a bit of a release, to get away and try and have fun again playing sport. I went down to the Hunter Gridiron League’s combine just to see what it was all about.
“I ended topping three out of the five tests and was equal second in the other two. I went No.1 overall draft pick in the Hunter league’s inaugural draft.
“I played for the Lake Macquarie Marauders, who had come last the previous season, and we went from being cellar-dwellers to winning the Hunter bowl.”
A teammate at the Marauders suggested Yates have a look at the Down Under Bowl, an invitational series featuring American high school athletes across various sports on the Gold Coast.
Yates was one of six Australians chosen to play in the gridiron series.
“At the camp I put a highlights video up of my season in the Hunter Gridiron League and it was probably the third day I woke up and thought ‘that’s a bit weird there’s way too many emails’,” he said.
“I clicked on them and I had 14 emails from different coaches saying that they had seen my highlights clip and were impressed and wanted to talk to me.
The tally of interested colleges has risen to 51 and Yates and his family finally decided on Concordia.
“It’s been a whirlwind 12 months, the day I fly out (July 14) it will be 12 months since I played in the All-Stars competition,” Yates said.
“I move into campus on August 14 and the first training session is that night. Our first game is on the road on September 1.
“I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on it. I’ve set myself two goals.
“The first is for 2020, I’d like to score at least 20 collegiate touch downs and then my ultimate goal by 2022 is to go in the third round or before in the NFL draft.
“The good thing about my height in the position I play is that I’ve got a lower centre of gravity so I’m harder to knock over and get tackled.”