The last time Solomon Thomas visited Sydney, his sporting idol, Ian Thorpe, was still dominating in the pool and American football’s footprint in Australia was largely reliant on the Madden video game franchise.
When the former Sydney resident stepped onto Allianz Stadium on Thursday, the venue that will host the season-opening American college football game in 100 days, it was as a No.3 NFL draft pick being touted as one of the game’s most promising defensive talents.
Thomas was there to represent California’s Stanford University, which will take on Rice University as the harbour city hosts a college game for a second-straight year.
He was joined by three-time Super Bowl winner and fellow Stanford alumnus Ed McCaffrey, and surrounded by the carnival atmosphere that tends to follow this sport, complete with a marching band, burgers, doughnuts and cheerleaders.
Almost 20,000 international and interstate visitors are expected to descend on Sydney for the August 27 blockbuster, by which time Thomas will be firmly entrenched in his first NFL pre-season with the San Francisco 49ers.
The 21-year-old was drafted to the storied franchise in April, and will join his new teammates to start training next month.
It’s a far cry from Cremorne on Sydney’s lower north shore, where he lived for five years as a young child thanks to his dad’s job as an international salesman. Back then Thomas was a soccer player and a swimmer who modelled his style on Thorpe.
“It’s so amazing to be back here,” Thomas said. “I would love to claim it as my place and home – I want to spend more time here.
“It was just the best time. I was loving life, being able to go to the beach, go travel around the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, everything.”
Thomas moved back to the US while he was still in primary school, living in Connecticut before moving to Texas and then finally California after earning his place at Stanford.
He’s now at the franchise that hosted Jarryd Hayne’s brief NFL fling, and said more Australians should try the unfamiliar sport.
“If that’s what they want to do they should definitely try it out,” he said. “It’s not impossible, it’s something they can do, they just have to learn the game, understand how it works.
“It’s a way-different game, it’s still a physical game like it is here, but how it works, how it’s processed, how it forms, it’s definitely something Aussies could do.”
McCaffrey, who won a Super Bowl with the 49ers before moving to Denver where he won two more, said Australia was a potential goldmine for NFL talent.
“It’s very similar to Aussie rules football, or league, or union in that you have different-sized players, big, small, fast, strong, different personalities, you bring them all together, you ask them to do a specific role,” he said.
“I saw some of the players walking outside the stadium earlier today and they look like they’re a football team.
“Without pads on they look like they could be football players. The running backs and line backers in the American game are similar to the quicker, faster players here. Some of the bigger guys, the forwards, are more like the linemen or fullbacks in the American game.”