The Super Bowl dream that saw a Wales rugby star go from Neath RFC to the Los Angeles Rams

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Millions of people worldwide will watch the Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Philipelphia Eagles.

Paul Thorburn won’t.

The former Wales full-back admits he has little interest in staying up for the ‘big game’.

“I guess that reflects my level of interest in American Football. I’m not one of those guys to stay up to watch it. I certainly won’t be watching Sunday night,” says Thorburn.

Perhaps that is why he never grabbed his shot at the bright lights and big bucks of the National Football League with two hands.

Paul Thorburn won 37 caps for Wales – but he nearly had a career in American Football

Back in 1987, Thorburn was fresh off the back of helping Wales to third-place in the inaugural Rugby World Cup when he received an offer that could have changed his life immeasurably forever.

The Los Angeles Rams signed Thorburn as a trialist for their pre-season American Bowl match at Wembley in August of that year. The story goes that the reason behind their experiment was down to Thorburn’s incredible 64-metre penalty against Scotland the year before.

However, the 55-year-old denies that his unforgettable penalty was the only reason.

“It wasn’t just on the back of that kick,” he explained. “The link was a chap at London Welsh called John Rendall.

“He was married to an American who was a good friend of Georgia Frontiere, who was the owner of the LA Rams.

“Because of the Welsh connection, I was mentioned as a potential kicker ahead of the American Bowl at Wembley.

“Georgia said bring him down for a trial at Crystal Palace and if he passes that, he can play in the game and potentially become a rookie with a view to playing in the NFL.”

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How Thorburn found out about his NFL audition was typically Welsh. It’s hard to imagine that New England Patriots star Tom Brady’s start in American Football involved an agricultural show in Mid Wales.

“Well, I got approached by Gerald Davies as it happens. I think John Rendall is godfather to Gerald’s kids.

“Gerald approached me as I was walking around the Royal Welsh and said it might be an opportunity for you.”

Indeed it was an opportunity. If the financial benefits of playing professional sport in America were not clear to Thorburn beforehand, it would not take him long to find out.

Hall of Famer John Elway was the quarterback for the Denver Broncos, Jim Everett playing the same position for the Rams. These were stars of football – names known worldwide – and Thorburn was rubbing shoulders with them.

The American Bowl at Wembley in 1987 where Paul Thorburn made his only American Football appearance

The differences could not have been more vast.

“The contracts that those guys were on were incredible,” explained Thorburn. “I was only allowed to take part under the permission of the WRU because it was professional.

“I had approval but subject to me only receiving the standard travel expense allowance which was 14p a mile back then!

“And there was me sharing rooms with guys on multi-million contracts! It was a completely different world.”

It was also his first real exposure to professional sport, with the Neath kicker not used to the vast amount of coaches and players – a far cry from the amateur era of rugby.

The professionalism was not the only thing Thorburn could not quite grasp.

“In training, I hit a guy on the back of the head with a kick. I wasn’t used to the set-up of the snap and having teammates in front of me when I kicked.

The Los Angles Times were not so kind at the time, reporting that Thorburn had kicked the ball “squarely into the backside of Hank Goebel, Ram reserve tackle.”

“That was only one case but I kicked all the others no problem,” continued Thorburn. “The plan was, had I really pushed it, going over to America as a rookie and doing summer camp with the hope of becoming an NFL player.

“There wasn’t much adjustment to the game. It’s a different style of kicking, getting used to the snap and people running down on you. I’m sure I would have got used to it. The ball itself is smaller but it’s denser so that makes up for it.”

“It’s very stop-start. I found it very strange, especially with the commercialism of it. You could be two yards from a touchdown and there’d be a timeout for an advert so that was odd.”

Paul Thorburn in his Los Angeles Rams uniform at Wembley in 1987

As for the game at Wembley itself, Thorburn’s big trial saw him consigned to just one kick-off as the Rams kept their first choice starters in with the scoreline so tight.

He would have to make do with just the one kick-off. The Rams edged a 28-27 victory but Thorburn’s chance of an NFL contract had come and gone just like that.

However, it was not an opportunity that Thorburn particularly rued missing out on.

“I’m not sure it was quite my cup of tea, coming on just to kick. I guess with hindsight I could have tried a bit harder and had a go. But I played rugby because I loved rugby. I had offers from rugby league as well but that never interested me.

“I didn’t particularly want to take that risk. Rugby was my backgournd. Financially it could have been good but that wasn’t the be all and end all.

“As I say, it wasn’t something that grabbed me. Had I thought of my pension at the time, I might have given it a go. I’m confident I would have made it. I could kick goals. The problem was my heart wasn’t in it but I enjoyed the experience.”



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