Australian Football Players Coming to the NCAA

Nathan Chapman of Prokick Australia wants to help Australian football players receive their education at American universities. (AFL.com)

Nathan Chapman of Prokick Australia wants to help Australian football players receive their education at American universities. (AFL.com)

If you’ve never heard of Australian rules football before, then you might not know precisely what it is. After all, the general assumption is often that America has “real” football, while every other country simply has soccer. In fact, you might assume that the closest thing any other country has is either Canadian football (which is fairly different) or rugby (which is another sport entirely). But try telling that to the Australian football players gearing up to fly stateside and participate in the NCAA, and you’re likely to encounter some resistance.

Yes, Australian football players are going to be taking America by storm. And if you don’t know much about Australian rules football, then you might wonder whether or not they’re going to make much of an impact. So we’d like to take a little bit of a look at their current training, as well as some information regarding Australian rules football and the history of Australian football players in the United States.

So What Is Australian Rules Football?

Aussie rules football can get pretty intense at times. (Img Stocks)

Aussie rules football can get pretty intense at times. (Img Stocks)

Australian rules football, generally played under the Australian Football League (AFL), is played on an ovular field with a ball that looks somewhat similar to the footballs we have here in the States. Similarities include the structure of four quarters per game, with certain instances stopping the clock. Rather than a kickoff, the game starts with an umpire either bouncing the ball on the ground in the center square of the field or tossing it up into the air, much like the tip-off with which basketball fans are familiar. During the “ball-up,” two players known as ruckmen must vie for control of the ball.

The other players have relatively designated positions, although they may place themselves wherever they want (for the most part) and there is no such thing as an offside violation. One interesting difference between Aussie rules and American rules is that there is no passing, at least not in the sense with which we are acquainted. The ball can be kicked, and it can be handed (or punched) from one player to another, but it cannot be thrown. Australian football players in possession of the ball must get rid of it when tackled, or else they encounter a rules violation. Also note that they cannot tackle each other from the back.

In some ways, Aussie rules might sound easier. But this is not necessarily the case. One writer refers to is as “an easy game to learn, impossible to master,” despite noting that rugby is somewhat more intense from a physical standpoint. But Australian football players are still larger than the average man, and while rugby may do better than the AFL in terms of television ratings, AFL does far better than actual attendance in Australia. In fact, going on average weekly attendance alone, AFL is the fourth most popular sport in the entire world.

Australian football players do not wear the sort of padding that we often see in American football. There are no helmets to speak of, with light clothing considered preferable for the sake of allowing the players to gain extra speed. One would think that this would result in more injuries, given that helmet-wearing NFL players are currently undergoing a rule change as part of an attempt to reduce the number of concussions suffered by players. However, the most common injury amongst Australian football players is actually simple hamstring strain. Concussions do occur, but appear to be more prevalent in rugby than in the AFL.

For those requiring more info on the differences between Australian and American football, there is a pretty neat infographic that contains a brief rundown of the two sports, along with rugby. One of the more interesting similarities is that, by sheer coincidence, we both have Hawks as our current champions. It also gives a brief rundown on scoring, which revolves around kicking in the AFL rather than running the ball. Also not that their field is not only a different shape than ours, but is much larger than the fields used in either American football or rugby.

Australian Football Players and the NCAA

Pat “Kangaroo Kicker” O’Dea was one of the first Australian football players to join the NCAA back in 1898. (University of Wisconsin digital archives)

Pat “Kangaroo Kicker” O’Dea was one of the first Australian football players to join the NCAA back in 1898. (University of Wisconsin digital archives)

Before getting onto the subject of Australian football players joining the NCAA, it should be mentioned that not all is well in the world of Aussie rules right now. A beloved coach from Adelaide, Phil Walsh, was recently stabbed to death, leading to murder charges against his own son. This led to the cancellation of a game between the Adelaide Crows and the Geelong Cats. It is therefore difficult for some Australian football players to focus on the future, as many are currently paying tribute to the past while they mourn and honor a figure of authority in the AFL community.

But the future is nonetheless a bright one, and that fact is due in no small part to Nathan Chapman of the Prokick Australia academy. Chapman nearly had a career with the Green Bay Packers after his career with the AFL ended, but he unfortunately never got to start the season. With some reasonable distrust toward NFL contracts, he thought up a new way to help Australian football players break into the world of American football. Even more importantly, he envisioned a way of doing so which would potentially yield great benefits for their education.

Chapman is aware that Australian football players actually have some history playing NCAA football. In fact, they’ve been involved with college football in the United States since as early as 1898. This was the year that Melbourne’s Patrick O’Dea (also known as the “Kangaroo Kicker”) became a fullback at the University of Wisconsin. And his NCAA career didn’t end there. He eventually coached the football team at Notre Dame, and he did well enough that in 1962 his name was added to the College Football Hall of Fame. Recent seasons have seen the benefits of players such as Memphis punter Tom Hornsey and Utah punter Tom Hackett.

Both of these Australian football players have won the Ray Guy Award, an award specifically geared toward talented punters from American colleges. This is why it’s helpful to know something about Australian rules football when gauging the impact that Australian football players can have on the sport of football in the NCAA. As we said earlier, Aussie rules focuses largely on kicking. It therefore follows that many decent punters would come out of the sport, since they’re used to kicking with a similar style to that used by many American punters.

Prokick Australia has already turned out a couple of decent prospects. Just one example is Nick Porebski, whose very first punt at Snow College went for 65 yards. He’s now been recruited by Oregon State, and is looking forward to facing off against Utah to play against Tom Hackett. And if one man gets his way, a few Australian football players might get a chance to play for the NCAA in a bowl game a little closer to home; there’s been talk of a possible bowl game in Melbourne in 2016. The game would be hosted at Etihad Stadium and would include teams from Mountain West and the Pac-12, meaning that at least one or two of the players mentioned above may get a chance to participate.

Australian Football Players and the NFL

Tom Hornsey is one of the more recent Australian-born additions to the NFL. (Geelong Advertiser)

Tom Hornsey is one of the more recent Australian-born additions to the NFL. (Geelong Advertiser)

While Prokick Australia may be focusing on the NCAA, that is not to say that Australian football players have never gone on to play in the NFL. While Nathan Chapman’s experience with the NFL was somewhat regrettable, others have been a bit more successful. For instance, one prime example is Tom Hornsey. We already mentioned his college career above, but he did not graduate college and simply return home to Australia. In fact, his career is still going fairly strong.

Hornsey went on to get signed for the Dallas Cowboys, although he was released during the 2014 preseason. Back in February of this year, they signed him again in order to ensure that they would have talent if current punter Chris Jones (now a restricted free agent) is unable to return to the team. Before he was initially released from the team, he had punted five times across two games. His average distance of 50.2 yards is not quite as far as Porebski’s first punt, but it isn’t quite terrible, either.

There is also the case of left-footed Australian football player Ben Graham. Originally offered a position on the New York Jets in 1997, he continued to play Australian rules football until 2004. He was signed by the Jets the following year. He then played one London game with the New Orleans Saints before joining the Arizona Cardinals and beating the Philadelphia Eagles (as well as fellow Aussie punter Saverio Rocca) to become the first Australian football player to ever play in the Super Bowl. He then joined the Detroit Lions in 2011, but was ultimately let go with an injury settlement.

We mentioned Sav Rocca above, and it is worth noting that his career was similarly successful. He did not play for as many teams as Ben Graham, playing from 2007 to 2010 for the Philadelphia Eagles and then from 2011 to 2013 for the Washington Redskins. He actually maintains a record in the NFL—he began playing for the Eagles when he was 33 years of age, making him the oldest rookie in the league. He had been playing for the AFL since 1991, so it is fair to say that he was well established as an athlete by the time he made the journey stateside to become a gridiron punter.

Both Graham and Rocca are among the more successful Australian football players ever to don an American helmet, and their present status may have some people wondering where Hornsey might end up. This is because both Graham and Rocca made their return to the AFL in one form or another once their American careers were over. Graham is working for the Western Bulldogs as a Strategic Operations Manager, and Rocca is going to be playing alongside his brother Anthony at the EJ Whitten Legends Game. This game will take place at Etihad Stadium, which you may recognize as the same stadium that might be hosting an NCAA bowl game in 2016.

How Will This Affect NCAA Football?

Legendary punter Ray Guy wants people to remember that punters are important. (Jon-Michael Sullivan/The Augusta Chronicle)

Legendary punter Ray Guy wants people to remember that punters are important. (Jon-Michael Sullivan/The Augusta Chronicle)

Truth be told, we can’t be sure how (or even if) this possible new run of Australian football players coming to the NCAA in the next few years will have a sizable impact on the sport itself. It does appear as if those who have spent some time in the AFL will have something to offer, and we may even see some more Australian footy players taking home the Ray Guy Award in the next few years if such turns out the be the case.

There’s an obvious counter-argument to be made here, which is that games are seldom won or lost on the basis of the punters alone. And to take on that view, we’ll look to Ray Guy himself. In 2012, he had this to say: “I guess it all stems around people just don’t understand the importance of a punter. They really don’t. Unless you played. You have to be in there. You have to understand every player on that team has a position or play to do. And all they do is drag and fuss about ‘well yeah he can punt and this and that and the other thing,’ but they don’t really respect that and they think it shouldn’t be alongside the other guys in the Hall of Fame.”

Two years after Ray Guy made that soundbite, the San Diego Chargers were reminded of these lessons the hard way. Punter Mike Scifres was injured during a game against the New England Patriots, and they had to sub in a kicker. To the unobservant, they might seem like about the same job. But they really aren’t, and their first punt after Scifres was removed only went for 27 yards. To put that in perspective, punters usually have averages that are somewhere right below or above 50 yards.

We learn another thing from that example with the Chargers, something more important than the sheer fact that punters matter. More specifically, while punters may be important, many people are much more likely to realize just how important they are when their job is done badly. When it’s done well, people take it for granted. Unless someone manages to really change the game somehow, rare is the fan who looks out at the field and says: “Man, great punt!” But you should hear some of the words that escape their lips when the guy shanks it. We actually talked about all of this in regard to kickers some time back, during which we linked a rather humorous Adam Sandler video. The lack of appreciation he sings about might apply doubly to punters.

So will Australian football players impact the NCAA with their unique punting skills? It’s actually more likely than you think. The real unknown factor lies in just how many guys Prokick Australia will be able to send our way. But we’re hoping for a decent turnout. We so often like to think of football as one of the quintessential American sports. It’s time to see what the boys from down under can add to it.