As an outside linebacker for NFL side Houston Texans, 18st 6lb Whitney Mercilus’ job is to make the big hits on opposition players.
And, as such, the 6ft 4in American football star admitted he’d have been proud of the challenge from Rangers defender Lee Wallace which sent Paul Hanlon crashing to the turf at Easter Road on Sunday.
But, he revealed, it was a tackle which would have had the yellow flags flying in his code of the game, leaving him surprised as it was ignored referee Willie Collum, allowing Ibrox hitman Kenny Miller to make it 2-0 and kill off any hopes of Hibs claiming anything from the game.
A huge “soccer” fan, Mercilus jumped at the chance to watch his first-ever match as the two sides battling it out for second place in the Championship table clashed at Easter Road. And, although he admitted it could have “rolled” better as far as Alan Stubbs’ players were concerned, the 24-year-old revealed he enjoyed the occasion so much he’s already planning a return to Scotland to take in more games.
As he joined Hibs players Mark Oxley and Liam Fontaine for a fun knockabout at the Edinburgh club’s East Mains training centre, Mercilus said: “I’ve been over on holiday, doing the whisky trail, visiting places like Speyside and Isla and enjoying the beauty of your country and it turned out the manager at my hotel knew someone from Hibs and it started from there.
“I’m a big soccer fan. I played it for about three years when I was around seven or eight and this was a chance for me to knock one off my bucket list but now I want to do it again sometime in the future.”
And, like everyone else who was at the game, Mercilus admitted he’d been left bemused by Collum’s failure to pull up Wallace for decking Hanlon although, as someone used to having seven officials on the pitch and another three watching on from the “box” in the stand, he confessed to being surprised to see only one referee and two assistants.
He said: “Tackling is my job, so I loved the tackle in the build-up to the second goal. It was pretty awesome to see that – I would have been proud of that. The Hibbies didn’t love it, I understand that. When I saw it I thought: ‘Whoa, we’re not in American football’. I was surprised the referee let it go. In American football a challenge like that would be picked up quickly, the yellow flags would be flying. There’d be a penalty and your coach would be kicking your butt. It would be horrible.
“But, you only have one referee and two at the side so maybe you need a few more eyes. I can see why players get into fights with referees all the time. I would if I was playing soccer.”
Mercilus, however, had a piece of advice for Stubbs’ players, urging them to play to the whistle as a number of those in green hesitated momentarily in anticipation of a free-kick being awarded, giving ex-Hibs striker Miller the space and time he needed to claim Rangers’ second goal.
He said: “It could have rolled a bit better but, as my coach says, keep playing, do not fall asleep, the referee will sort it out in the end but he will call what he wants to call.”
Mercilus, currently on a four-year $7.634 million contract with the Texans where he boasts a career record of 122 tackles and 18 quarterback sacks, believes it was his early years playing “soccer” which laid the foundations for his success in the NFL.
He said: “I enjoyed the sport as a kid, the footwork, the speed which actually translates to American football. But where I grew up, Akron in Ohio, everyone was huge on American football and that’s what attracted me. I was good with my footwork, I was fast and had great agility but I had to work on my strength.
“I didn’t know I was going to end up playing NFL. I felt I was good enough for college or university. After that, I was drafted and here I am.”
Although he’s used to playing before more than 71,000 fans at the AFC South outfit’s NRG Stadium, Mercilus revealed he’d enjoyed the atmosphere created by Sunday’s “rowdy” fans. He said: “Obviously, it wasn’t quite as loud as our crowds back home but it was exciting to be there and to enjoy the atmosphere. The fans were rowdy, very passionate, We have passionate fans as well but we don’t have too many songs in American football so to hear the fans singing their songs was quite interesting for me.”
Now, having had a taste of “soccer,” Mercilus is planning to return to take in more matches, particularly what he tagged “rivalry” games. He said: “I’m flying home today so I won’t get the chance to see any more this time.
“But I’d like to experience more games, rivalry games, perhaps an Edinburgh derby. I’ll have to sit down and work out when I can have the time – but I’ll definitely be back to enjoy more soccer.”
If Mercilus’ name perhaps means little to most Hibs fans, it’s one highly familiar to Easter Road defender Fontaine, as big a fan of the NFL as the American is of football our style.
He said: “I like the game, I watch it every season and always watch the Super Bowl live. I don’t have a particular team although I like the New England Patriots. But I knew Whitney’s name from watching the NFL and it was good to meet him. Obviously, we play totally different games but speaking to him and getting to know what motivates him, what he wants to achieve in his career was good.
“His goal is to make a Super Bowl, that’s what he’s trying to achieve and hopefully he does it.”