Monday, May 17, 2010

Land of American Football Opportunity

Perhaps only the most ardent of Warriors fans will remember Shannon Stowers.

He was the 24-year-old prop who made his first-grade debut back in 2004, lasted two games before succumbing to injury and was never heard of again.

Until now, that is.

What Warriors diehards might not realise, however, is that Stowers was an American football player first and league hopeful second.

Before he signed with the Warriors, Stowers spent two years at Utah State University on an American football scholarship.

Injury prevented him from turning out for the university side and in the end it forced him home to New Zealand.

But despite the challenges, his passion for the sport never waned.

And now he's back.

Not as a player but as a scout and like those old World War 2 posters with Uncle Sam calling on new recruits, Stowers is on a recruitment drive of his own.

His brief is to find the biggest, best and strongest young kids coming through the rugby and league grades in New Zealand and convince them to try their hand at American football instead.

"What I want to do is basically train guys up to identify if they have the talent and skills to succeed in American football," Stowers, who looks every inch an NFL enforcer, told Sunday News.

"From there, we'll get them playing for the local teams here in New Zealand and get some game footage of them.

"If they are good enough, we'll forward on that footage to some NFL scouts in the States.

"We've already started doing that on a small scale but we are keen to really get some momentum going with it now. I get kids coming up to me all the time and saying they really want to play professional football.

"So this is a chance to help them achieve their dreams.

"If they are under 19, we'll look to get them scholarships in American high schools. If they are older than that, we're talking more about scholarships to American universities and from there they could go on to the NFL."

Stowers isn't alone in his vision of having at least "10 guys in American universities and at least five in American high schools" by next year.

Helping him in his quest to discover would-be NFL superstars are his three business associates who now reside in New Zealand but are no strangers to the college football scene.

Tim Hughley – an American college player who made the practice squad at the Oakland Raiders in the late 1990s, Toa Sagapolu – a former offensive lineman at the University of California – and Jason Vaka – who has played Arena Football (an indoor version of the game) professionally are all working with him.

But it's not just schoolboy rugby and league players Stowers and his well-connected crew are after.
He says NFL franchises are also keen on our professional rugby and league stars such as Warrior Manu Vatuvei, who was linked with the sport a year ago.

Stowers says unfortunately in Vatuvei's case nothing came of a potential deal with the New York Jets in the NFL "for various reasons" but he believes there are "plenty of other undiscovered Vatuveis out there who would have the NFL franchises jumping over themselves to sign.

"We've got the contacts," Stowers said.

"We're pretty much on the hunt for kids who are 19 and under.

"Anyone over that age would go straight into the college system.

"It would be a longshot for anyone other than our professional athletes from the NRL or the Super 14 to go straight to the NFL.

"Those guys already have proven ability and it would be easy enough for many of them to at least get a trial in the NFL.

"Guys such as Manu Vatuvei are the ideal type the scouts are looking for.

"But in saying that, there's plenty of other guys such as Manu Vatuvei out there who just haven't been discovered yet."

While Vatuvei may have slipped through the New York Jets' grasp, Stowers predicts other Kiwi kids will start turning their backs on the traditional sports of rugby and league.

Especially, he says, when you look at the money that players can earn in the NFL.

The minimum contract in the NFL for a rookie is $US325,000 a year but the earnings of starting players are generally in the millions.

In 2009, according to data obtained from USA Today, the median annual salary of players with the New England Patriots – a professional NFL franchise – was $US829,780 a year.

"I think we are going to see kids with the potential to be future All Blacks turn to American football as a career instead," Stowers said.

"Neither rugby union nor rugby league can't compete with American football in terms of salaries.

"Kids are generally interested in the NFL and if they get an opportunity and know what sort of cash they can earn, then they are probably going to go down that path instead of rugby or league.

"When you look at the money up for grabs at these NFL clubs, even making just the practice squad would guarantee more money than the Warriors' best guys are on. And if these guys make the starting team for an NFL club, we are talking about them earning millions."

Stowers and his New Zealand team are not alone in trying to uncover the first genuine NFL superstar from the southern hemisphere.

Over the ditch, Australian company Ozpunt has been identifying potential NFL players for half a decade but director Cameron McGillivray admits his business focuses predominantly on kickers rather than other specialist positions.

Even so, McGillivray says he's aware of interest from NFL franchises in Kiwi boys, particularly those of Pacific Island origin.

"We have been chatting to a few people in New Zealand – player agents and players," McGillivray said.

"We've had great responses from NFL teams wanting to have a look at these New Zealand guys.

"But what it comes down to is whether the New Zealand player is willing to take a risk and get on a plane and head over to the States.

"I recently got back from a trip to the US and one of the NFL bosses of player personnel said to me – `When are some New Zealand boys going to finally come over here?'

"A lot of the teams that I talk to over in the States, they are pretty keen on getting Polynesian players on their books.

"They love their work ethic and they love their competitive drive.

"Historically, they get a lot of players from American Samoa and they do know there is talent in places such as Samoa and New Zealand.

"But because of the distance and the time it takes to scout that area, they don't travel down this way."

That's where scouts such as Stowers come in.

But given his background as a league player – Stowers played for the Warriors' feeder club the Vulcans right up to last year – how does he feel about poaching future Vatuveis from the codes?

"I'm fine with it," he said, laughing.

Got what it takes to play American football as a pro? Stowers can be contacted on

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