Rugby player gets his shot in Under Armour All-American Game

Published January 3 2018
Updated January 3 2018

ORLANDO — The YouTube highlights show Tyrese Johnson-Fisher doling out punishment to opponents just as easily as he can race past them, often on the same play.

The grace and skill displayed on those two-year-old clips left many of the 2.5 million viewers in a slack-jawed trance, including members of the Under Armour All-American Game selection committee, who extended an invitation months ago for Johnson-Fisher to play in Thursday’s game.

What makes this decision so unusual is that the video showcases Johnson-Fisher’s deceptively powerful, breathtakingly fast moves in rugby, not football.

Johnson-Fisher, 18, lives in London. He has never played American football.

Nevertheless, the organizers chose Johnson-Fisher, making him not only the first rugby player but also the first from outside the United States to participate in an all-star game that boasts 41 first-round picks as alumni.

"This experience has been amazing," said Johnson-Fisher, who went through his first football practices of any kind this week at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. "It’s my first time properly going out in pads and having proper training sessions. I’m learning a lot very quickly."

Johnson-Fisher, 18, always wanted to play football. He went to NFL games in London, watched plenty more on television.

But the opportunities to participate in the sport were scarce overseas. He became even more determined to try football after watching an Elite 200 camp in Germany.

Johnson-Fisher emailed his rugby highlights to the camp organizers in Germany. Those clips were then sent to the selection committee for the Under Armour game.

"I put a compilation of film together of rugby, track and different things that were going on me," he said. "In England, rugby was my sport. I ran track. I played soccer. Football was something we all wanted to do but there was not really a platform. I’m here trying to make that happen for everyone else.

"Before playing football was just a dream and now I’m here living my dream."

RELATED: Cambridge Christian’s Richard Gouraige soaks up Under Armour experience

As a sprinter, Johnson-Fisher is as fast as the other all-star selections. He ran the 60 meters indoors in 6.89 seconds and the 100 meters outdoors in 10.73. His compact frame (5-foot-10, 194 pounds) also suits him well as a running back, the position he was given for the game and one he’s always wanted to play.

The only thing missing is experience.

This week, Johnson-Fisher is adjusting to a bewilderment of nuances to a new game, all while trying to avoid becoming merely a foreign curiosity.

"I’d say every adjustment is big," he said. "It’s as simple as taking the snap or a handoff or running a route. Or just simply running down the field and putting your pads low because you know somebody can hit where in rugby it’s just a different experience."

Johnson-Fisher’s baptism into football did not go exactly as planned. He was sick on his first day.

"I’d say there were nerves," Johnson-Fisher said. "My first day I was throwing up. I think I might have had food poisoning. So I wasn’t in good form and I was thinking how am I going to perform and compete. But the next day I came out and had one of my best-ever training sessions in any sport. I’m just trying to gain momentum and hit the game running."

There have been other rugby players from England who have made the transition to football. Menelik Watson plays for the Denver Broncos. Lawrence Okoye plays for the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes.

Johnson-Fisher is trying to parlay a week’s worth of football exposure into a college scholarship. He has an official offer from Coastal Carolina and interest from big-time programs such as Texas and Penn State.

Better still, Johnson-Fisher has won the admiration of his American teammates.

"He’s really cool," said Cambridge Christian offensive lineman Richard Gouraige, who will be blocking for Johnson-Fisher on Team Spotlight. " I try to talk to him all the time. It’s crazy that they picked him.

"It changed his whole life, really."

Under Armour All-American Game

When/where: 6 p.m. Thursday; Camping World Stadium, Orlando