MIAMI (Reuters) – Australian is known for many things — kangaroos, koala bears, beaches and barbies.
Now you can add American gridiron punters to that list with Mitch Wishnowsky, who will handle punting duties for the San Francisco 49ers when they face the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday in the Super Bowl, as the poster boy for what has become an Australian boutique industry.
“It’s crazy, a dream come true,” Wishnowsky told Reuters as he stood in Marlins Park soaking up the excitement of Super Bowl Opening Night. “It crazy just even that I’m playing in the NFL so is getting to the Super Bowl is wild.”
A high school dropout turned glazier who had his dream of a career in Australian Rules Football scuppered by injuries but found his way to the U.S. to play for one of the NFL’s glamour team’s in American sport’s biggest event, Wishnowsky’s story would seem to be a one-off Hollywood fantasy.
But it’s not.
Wishnowsky is simply the latest product of an Australian punting pipeline that is pouring players onto the U.S. football market place.
In fact, the 49ers rookie isn’t even the first Australian punter to play in a Super Bowl, with that distinction going to Ben Graham, who played in the 2009 championship game for the Arizona Cardinals.
Punters have become a prime Australian export with six of the last seven winners of the Ray Guy Award, which goes to American college football’s top punter, hailing from Down Under.
Wishnowsky took the honour in 2016 playing for the University of Utah while Max Duffy, a former member of the AFL Fremantle Dockers, took the award for 2019.
Michael Dickson won the trophy in 2017 and Tom Hackett twice in 2014 and 2015.
The flood of Australian punters into the U.S. college system, from where they can be drafted into the NFL, has become so great that it has created a backlash.
New Orleans Saints punter Thomas Morstead and former Colts punter Pat McAfee have both criticized the NCAA, U.S. college sport’s governing body, for allowing what they see as men who have played professional sport in Australia to come to the U.S. and take college scholarships from young Americans.
The road to the NFL for Wishnowsky and many other Australians begins in Melbourne at Nathan Chapman’s ProKick Australia, a sort of academy for aspiring punters.
According to ProKick Australia’s website, 75 of its students have gone on to earn U.S. college scholarships worth more than $19 million.
“When I first came into the league, there’s 32 punters and they are the best at what they do,” said the 27-year-old native of Perth.
“It wasn’t until pre-season game you finally see other punters and you hit the same ball, that’s when you know you belong, that you deserve to be here.”
There is a reason Australian punters are in vogue and it is the unique set of skills they learn growing up playing Aussie Rules, rugby league and soccer that allows them to do magical and befuddling things with an American football.
No longer are punters simply required to boot a ball as far as they can, they must be able to put devilish spins, flips and curves on their kicks, dropping them into pinpoint areas with plenty of hang time so coverage can get down field and pin opposing teams deep in their own end.
“I played soccer most of my life and Aussie rules,” Wishnowsky said. “I think soccer helps me kick off, that muscle memory from kicking a soccer ball and then the muscle memory from Aussie Rules helps me punt for sure.
“There are a lot of different punts you have to be able to do back home playing Aussie Rules, you can make it curve if you are kicking for a goal.
“There’s ways to manipulate the ball’s flight.”
Editing by Ed Osmond