Time is now Adam Zaruba's ally.
Last week, the Canadian rugby sevens player re-signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. The 26-year-old North Vancouver, B.C., native first joined the NFL club last July, three days before training camp.
Despite not having played in an actual football game since high school, Zaruba lasted until Sept. 1 with Philadelphia, which hosts the Atlanta Falcons in NFC playoff action Saturday afternoon. The six-foot-five, 265-pound tight end obviously showed enough to warrant a second chance with the Eagles but now has the benefit of prep time and NFL experience under his belt.
"I still have quite a lot to learn and master," Zaruba said in a telephone interview. "But going into it I'll feel much more comfortable because I'll know what to expect in terms of how things go day to day and what I need to know.
"Last year I wrote everything down, even stuff I didn't need to . . . and had to learn how to study and learn the plays properly. I still remember quite a bit about the alignments and formations we ran so going into (next) summer it will still feel familiar for me. Same with anything to do with football-related skills. It was good to get my feet wet and feel what it's like to play football again and also get used to the speed guys are playing at."
But it wasn't a seamless transition.
"It took me three, four weeks to really start feeling comfortable in what I was doing," Zaruba said. "At the end of the day it was my athleticism and what I brought physically to the table that carried me through that camp.
"I'm really looking forward to spending six, seven months preparing so when I go I'm ready, or as ready as I'll ever be. I'll have many opportunities here to learn, do on-field reps, get feedback from my coaches to bring back to the drawing board so when I go to camp I'll have done hundreds or thousands of reps and be ready."
Zaruba played football and rugby in high school but gravitated towards rugby because more opportunities existed to play. He was involved in Simon Fraser University's football program but never played a game.
Zaruba said there are few similarities between the two games.
"The physical training you do in rugby is very applicable to football." Zaruba said. "Football is a very aggressive game so having explosive power and strength, you can get those traits and skills by training rugby and having a good weight program.
"But football is its own beast in that every little detail is looked at and measured. There are minor details in rugby but it's a more free-flowing game with a lot more self-expression whereas in football you learn how to do something the right way, you do it a million times so you do it consistently. It's very regimented."
Zaruba had no issues with conditioning at camp. That's not surprising, given the wide-open, fast-paced sevens game — which features seven players a side instead of the usual 15.
Zaruba is also an anomaly because bigger players don't traditionally excel in sevens. Then again, Zaruba has run the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds.
"Nothing I did in Philly took me by surprise or was more than I could handle," Zaruba said. "I think that speaks volumes about the quality of Canadian sevens program and level we train at every day.
"I might not be a football player yet but I feel like I have the tools and regiment to learn it."
Zaruba isn't the first rugby player to transition to football. Jarryd Hayne, an Australian rugby league star, was a running back-returner in '15 with the San Francisco 49ers.
"My biggest adjustment is creating the foundation of skills you must have," Zaruba said. "Many football players have done these things thousands of times and it becomes second nature so the game slows down and you don't have to think as much and can focus on the finer details.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about the simple things, which over time will faze out and I'll be able to focus more on the intricacies of what I'm doing."
Zaruba was surprised by the intense atmosphere at camp, with every workout scrutinzed closely by numerous reporters. And then there was Philadelphia's rabid fans.
"Football is a really big deal," he said. "I kind of knew it beforehand but when you're on the team you can really feel it.
"It's definitely a different beast in terms of the fans . . . Philly is an extremely passionate sports city, I think that's an understatement. They love their teams."
Zaruba understands the challenge he faces trying to make an Eagles team that won the NFC East at 13-3. Starting tight end Zach Ertz was their leading receiver (74 catches, 824 yards, eight TDs) while backup Brent Celek is an 11-year veteran.
Third-stringer Trey Burton is an undrafted free agent completing his fourth NFL season who also plays special teams.
"You learn by playing with the best," Zaruba said. "I'd rather try and fail with the best than succeed with someone less."
Zaruba isn't chasing his NFL dream just for himself. It's also for his late grandfather, Bill McKee, who was Zaruba's biggest supporter.
"He was the driving force that got me going," Zaruba said. "Anything I needed he was there, I definitely wouldn't be here without him.
"I do this because I love it but I also for him. It adds that extra motivation and incentive to succeed and give it everything I've got."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press
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