Meet the man who chose rugby over ‘American dream’ of the NFL draft

1:04 PM GMT

If Psalm Wooching had ignored what he felt was his sporting destiny, then he would have been in Hawaii this week, with his family, waiting on the call from his agent to tell him which of the interested NFL franchises had drafted him. Instead he is in Seattle, having just returned from a trial at French top-flight side Pau, planning his rugby union career.

Wooching, 23, captained the Washington Huskies in 2017, anchored their top-ranked defense as an outside linebacker and was hot property. But amid the calls from agents, it just didn’t feel right.

“I could’ve entered the draft and I could have had the American dream that every kid wants,” Wooching tells ESPN. “But there was something in me that was telling me that it wasn’t my future. I tried to get rid of that nagging feeling, but I knew that it was time to hang up the pads and transition to something else.”

That something else was chasing the dream of a professional contract in rugby union and international recognition.

The young Psalm Wooching in action for Hawaii’s Kona Bulls Atavus Rugby

Psalm Fa’afoisia Pulemagafa Wooching was brought up on Hawaii in a Christian family who were part of a missionary group called Island Breeze.

Faith and heritage runs through his veins. Tattooed on his well-inked torso is a proverb from his father’s village, Taufusi, on Samoa: ‘la sili e le tai se agavaa’ (may the wind and ocean guide your canoe). It is the philosophy which guides his life.

“It’s very important, I just follow my heart,” Wooching says. “That phrase stood out to me — wind, ocean and canoes can translate it however you’d want but it reflects family, rugby, my friends, anyone, influencers, mentors and they all slot into the ocean, the waves, the winds.”

He was brought up on Hawaii, but with Samoan parents rugby was always on his radar. Wooching grew up watching clips of hard-hitting centre Brian Lima — nicknamed the chiropractor for his bone-crunching tackles — and hearing stories of Islander rugby stars from his father Luki Siliako Mafua Pulemagafa Wooching.

The first time Psalm Wooching touched a rugby ball, he ended up going 50 metres to score. Atavus Rugby

Aged 12, he went along to his first training session at Hawaii’s Kona Bulls. The coach asked the group to split into forwards and backs. Wooching headed towards the forwards, a little confused over exactly what was expected of him, but his brother, Caleb, steered him towards the backs and he found his home on the wing.

It was a perfect marriage. In his first session, his team’s fly-half popped him the ball, he darted down the blindside, crashed through flailing arms, went 50 metres and scored.

“I was so fond of the sport. I loved the contact, the hit. In football you have the grind, where it’s stop and go but with rugby it’s a constant battle.”

He was making quite some impact at high school level, and caught the eye of football coaches. He was earmarked originally as a running back but shifted to linebacker.

“I found out I could get a free education and could take care of my family and play at one of the top schools in America — University of Washington — and I went full force into that. It meant I had to turn down the opportunity to play for the U.S Junior National rugby side as I wanted to pursue football.

The Huskies’ Psalm Wooching leaves the field after playing the Arizona State Sun Devils in Seattle. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

“I had a great university and college career. We had a good team, we were ranked fourth [in the college football rankings]. But my first love was rugby and that’s what fuelled my football career. Rugby was perfect for tackling, wrapping, hooking the legs which I transitioned to the football field.”

Wooching’s obsession with rugby got to the point where in football’s off-season he was sneaking off post-session to train with the rugby team. “I was a bit of a dual-athlete,” he says, but then came the moment of truth where he had to choose one over the other. “It wasn’t about money anymore, it was about passion and a love for the game. So I had to switch.”

Those closest to Wooching knew of his inescapable dilemma. While franchises were showing interest in his talents, there were no guarantees he could make it professionally in rugby. But it was the itch that could not be satisfied.

On Feb. 16, 2017, he made his decision.

“I was in Seattle, with my fiancée — Courtney Gano, a professional softball player in Italy — and I spoke to my family and I knew it was the right time to send out the release. I had already drafted the statement and I just felt it was the perfect time with the draft coming up.

“I remember that at 12’o’clock I posted it after working out and put my phone away. I went back to do some cardio, play some basketball and looked at my phone and it had just blown up – football agents, to coaches, to NFL teams, to media – you name it they were contacting me.”

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