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Reuters/Dylan Martinez
A freak.
WHAT IF

The greatest football player never to play the game

By Aamna Mohdin

Jonah Lomu was arguably the greatest player to set foot on the rugby field. Perhaps he’s also the greatest player never to play American football. 

The Kiwi legend, who passed away from complications due to a rare kidney disease, was incredibly close to making the switch to American football and breaking ties with the sport that would go on to make him famous.

In the run-up to the 1995 rugby World Cup in South Africa, unsure if he’d even make the All Blacks squad, Lomu was seriously considering joining the National Football League (NFL). The Dallas Cowboys reportedly offered Lomu a lot of money to bring him on, though the Cowboys denied this at the time.

In an interview with The New Zealand Herald, Lomu admits that if it wasn’t for fellow team-mate Eric Rush persuading Lomu to “play one more game with the brown brothers,” he would have been a Cowboys football player. ”If it wasn’t for that, I would have been on the plane, it was that close,” Lomu said.

The worlds of football and rugby may have looked dramatically different.

Instead, Lomu stayed in New Zealand, made the squad, and went on to become rugby union’s biggest star, scoring 37 tries in 63 matches for New Zealand between 1994 and 2002. He was the game’s first millionaire, the first player to have global appeal. In that 1995 World Cup, after he single-handedly bulldozed the English defense, England’s captain described the-then 20-year-old Lomu as a “freak” and said “the sooner he leaves rugby the better.”

It didn’t happen—though others have seen Lomu’s potential; the Denver Broncos offered Lomu $10 million in 2003 to join its team. His decision to not play football has led some to speculate the impact he could have had on the NFL had he ever made the switch.

Despite weighing around 280 pounds, Lomu 40-yard dash time was predicted to be just under 4.5 seconds at the time the Cowboys were supposedly making their offer. It’s this remarkable combination of speed, strength, and agility that has pegged Lomu as football’s best running back never to put on pads.