My punt on American football
In 2010, when I was 17 and a couple of months away from being drafted into the AFL, I got a letter in the mail from ProKick Australia, Nathan Chapman’s program that works to get Australian athletes an American football gig at college and NFL level. Playing AFL for St Kilda had been my dream since I started Auskick aged four at Hampton Park.
I put the letter to one side and didn’t give it another thought.
I really had no idea about American football, hadn’t watched much of the game at all, didn’t know the rules. My old man was a Dallas Cowboys fan – he had a couple of little pieces of memorabilia, including some shot glasses with the Cowboys helmet on them.
Because of Dad I had a poster on my bedroom wall of Emmit Smith, the Cowboys’ famous running back, but I didn’t have a clue about the game or his impact on it. I might have watched the Super Bowl once as a teenager, but I can’t recall who was playing.
I was familiar with former Aussie Rules players going over to the States and giving it a go – guys like Ben Graham and even Brendan Fevola – but I thought it was just a way they could stay in professional sport after their AFL careers had ended.
When you’ve got a big leg, why not go over there for a few years if you can? It was very much something I thought you’d only consider at the end of an AFL career.
I had three shoulder reconstructions in my last three seasons at the Saints, which wasn’t ideal. My labrum had to be repaired after a bit of bone had been chipped off it. That’s a six-month injury, and in my five years at St Kilda I spent 18 months out of a game that’s pretty tough to get into in the first place.
I was 22 when I got delisted and still felt like I had a lot of footy in me. My body was just starting to adjust to the environment.
I was adamant that I wanted another crack at the top level, which didn’t work out through getting redrafted, so I thought I’d have a season at Williamstown in the VFL and see if I could get back in from there. That didn’t quite work out either.
I’d started getting into the NFL a bit more when I was at St Kilda, through teammates like Nick Riewoldt, whose wife Cath is from Houston and he’s a huge Texans fan. It was always on in the background at the club during pre-season, and there were a lot of boys who loved going over to watch it on end-of-season trips.
I didn’t have a clue about the game. I might have watched the Super Bowl once.
As long as I could remember I’d always kicked the footy, whether just to myself outside or mucking around with my little brother with a small footy inside the house, causing a ruckus. I guess kicking has always been my number one skill.
This time last year I was just starting another season with Williamstown, doing an exercise science and teaching degree at Australian Catholic University and coaching the seconds footy team at Brighton Grammar.
I was getting some great experience there under Robert Shaw’s tutelage, enjoying working with game plans and getting the best out of the kids. I was hopeful that I was on a path to be a teacher one day at Brighton Grammar.
Blake Hayes had been captain of Brighton Grammar firsts and then he got a scholarship to Illinois as a punter. I spoke to Blake and he said he’d loved every minute of it and had no regrets at all, which influenced me to give it a red-hot crack.
BO JACKSON & THE GREAT UNKNOWN
Midway through last year, I got in touch with Nathan Chapman at ProKick and he asked me down for a kick.
It was the middle of the footy season, about 4pm on a winter Wednesday afternoon, and I was walking along Swan St to Gosch’s Paddock with my bag over my shoulder, peak hour traffic starting to build, and thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’
I’d held an American football in my hands, but I’d never kicked one before. Ever.
Chappy just said to kick it how I’d normally kick an Aussie Rules ball. He basically just wanted to see how I kicked the footy, and how much hang time I could get. He wasn’t worried about anything else.
I had no idea how it was going to go, but I knew it could be make or break. I was lucky to get onto a few, and right from the start Chappy told me he’d be able to get me into a good college.
I guess kicking has always been my number one skill.
Late last year, I attended the AFL Players’ Association ‘outduction’ camp with former Western Bulldog Ayce Cordy, Andrew Moore from Port Adelaide and my old Saints teammate Jason Holmes. I knew where I was headed with my studies, I just went there to have a bit of an idea about what other choices were out there.
A couple of days later, I got the news that I was off to Auburn University in Alabama on a full scholarship.
I lived with Jason Holmes for a couple of years after he came out to play with St Kilda, having been a basketballer at Morehead State in Kentucky. I was with him when he took the phone call from Saints’ coach Alan Richardson in 2015 to say he’d been picked to make his debut – we were jumping around and carrying on so much that my dog absolutely lost it.
Now he’s playing footy for Old Xaverians in the Melbourne amateur comp and working in finance, and I’m off to America to play gridiron.
It’s strange how things have turned out. But I guess that’s part of why we became such good mates – I was able to help him adjust to footy here, and he’s been able to give me a rundown on how things work over there.
The only thing I knew about Auburn was that they have a massive rivalry with Alabama, one of the biggest in college football. And I knew Bo Jackson was an absolute legend of the college. Other than that, nothing.
Around Christmas last year my girlfriend Rachael and I went on a holiday to America. We went to New York and I popped the question while we were there, then I took my new fiancée down to Auburn. It’s just beautiful.
The stadium is massive – they get 90,000 there every game. The facilities are through the roof – two outdoor fields, a massive indoor training facility, a huge gymnasium. I’ve come through an AFL environment where the facilities are pretty incredible, but this is just next level. To have that at a college, it just blows your mind.
I realised, gee, these stadiums get filled out. It’s going to be an experience and a half. The biggest crowd I played in front of in my 28 games for St Kilda was about 65,000, but I guess having a rough idea of what it’s like playing in front of a crowd will make life a bit easier. I’m really looking forward to it.
We leave in July, and hopefully through the work I’m doing with ProKick I’ll keep progressing and be in tip-top shape when I get over there.
I can feel my kicking improving. It took a bit of time to adapt to, getting my head around the technique, but it clicked after a while. I’ve become more consistent with my kicking, which brings confidence that I can hit the ball every time.
A TWEAK ON THE DROP PUNT
I’d always thought being a gridiron punter was just about getting yardage and good hang time, but with the amount of Australians who’ve gone over there over the years there’s been a shift to using a drop punt style of kick, and really pinpointing where you put the ball on the field so you can lock down the opposition in terms of them being able to return the ball.
College teams have picked up that the Australian punters do that really well.
When you kick what’s effectively a drop punt with an American football, instead of kicking close to the point of the ball as you do with an AFL ball you have to kick the belly of an American football. If you get too close to the point it will just pretty much go straight up in the air. That took a little bit of adjusting, just having been so used to kicking close to the end of the footy.
To have those facilities at a college, it just blows your mind.
I’ve got four or five balls now, and I train with ProKick three days a week plus gym sessions. Other days I’m practising ball drops to make sure I’ve got the positioning right. I’ve got a good mate at ProKick and we regularly go down to Mordialloc footy ground at lunchtime, take seven or eight balls down and let rip.
We get some strange looks. I had a couple of guys recognise me, come up and say they’d heard about the gig. There’s a new facility being built at the ground so we get the workers stopping and having a look at lunchtime. It’s a bit surreal.
College football is a huge step, but I’m going over there with a clear ambition of getting to the next level and playing NFL football. Obviously I’ve got to perform well in college football first, but that’s the goal.
I’ve got three years at college which will get me through my degree and a masters as well. If I’m playing good enough college ball, things can happen a bit earlier, it’s all about performance.
Rachael works in marketing with BMW and we’re in the process of lining up a job for her. This is a great opportunity for both of us on so many levels – it’s important to me that it’s also a chance to finish off my degree, so that when I get back to Australia I can start working straightaway.
It’s a win-win situation – I get to play football and also finish my degree. If something comes of that in terms of the NFL, great. If not, I’ll be able to come back here and start teaching kids.
THE NEW DREAM
This is the first time in 20 years that I haven’t been playing Aussie Rules footy at this time of year. I’m still involved in terms of coaching Brighton Grammar until we leave, and I went down and watched Williamstown play on the weekend, which felt a little bit weird, not being able to run out there with your mates and get a kick.
It’s a new experience, but I’m not missing it too much just yet.
American football was never my dream, but it is now. The goal is to play at the top level and be as successful as possible. Not many people get this opportunity, and I want to make the most of it. I feel like when I put my mind to something I really want to get the most out of it and do really well.
You never really know what’s next in life.
My background is Hungarian – my grandparents on my Dad’s side were both born in Hungary, came out separately in the 1950s, met in Australia and were together for 50 years.
Unfortunately, they’re not with us anymore. Papa died when I was 14. When I kicked my first goal in AFL footy I pointed to the sky to him, it was a very special moment. He and Mama were both super excited for me when I was on a pathway to playing AFL, and I’m sure they’d be feeling the same about taking this opportunity to go to America.