Scott Harding will never forget his first play for the University of Hawaii.
Recruited as an athlete to play college football in 2011, the former Brisbane Lions and Port Adelaide midfielder was sent out as the Warriors’ punt returner. Deep in the opposition’s territory and close to the sidelines, Harding was forced under the high ball – one of the game’s highest pressure situations – but safely completed the catch and gained a small distance before being tackled out of bounds.
For Harding, it was the beginning of a new journey as a American college player and one that broke new ground as an Australian code-hopping to play as something other than as a punter.
Upon entering the arena for the first time, the matured-age recruit was unsure what to expect from the renowned hard-hitting Americans.
“It was really the first time I’d been hit in American football with all the helmets and pads, so I was a little bit curious as to how it would feel and sound or if I’d even feel it at all. I was actually pleasantly surprised because I got hit pretty hard but it didn’t really bother me,” Harding tells Aflplayers.com.au.
“I don’t know if it was the adrenaline or the pads protecting me but it was fine. During that whole season I got lit up a few times and didn’t feel it, so that’s a bit interesting.”
It was no coincidence he could stand under the high ball and take the big hits as easily as anyone. Harding’s AFL experience of being buffeted taking marks under pressure not only served him well in the foreign competition but became his greatest assets.
“It was really the first time I’d been hit in American football with all the helmets and pads, so I was a little bit curious as to how it would feel” – Scott Harding
One of the more extraordinary sights at Hawaii games for the last few seasons was Harding – while playing as the punter – dodging and weaving around opponents before throwing the ball onto either boot to where his teammates had already congregated deep in the opposition’s defence.
It led the Queensland-born Harding to question why he was the first Australian from another sport to play more than one position in college football.
“To them the positions are so specific and you never really waiver from any one position, so people couldn’t believe I was playing three different positions but to me, while it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t anything crazy.
“That’s where I thought to myself I should really get more Aussies over there to exploit it a little bit because there are plenty of guys in Australia who can catch, tackle, run and do a lot of different things like I did, and over there that seems to be some sort of X-factor.”
That was when the concept for Harding’s Hard Knocks Football Academy occurred.
While most other Australian NFL programs are limited to punting and kicking, Harding has returned to the country to give Australian athletes a chance of playing at a US college in any position.
Launching earlier in 2016, the 29-year-old’s academy has been in the making for a couple of years and aims to educate and test potential members at multiple one-day camps in the coming months at their facility in Melbourne’s east.
Our first tryout camp will be held in Melbourne this coming May! Open for any high-school, amateur, local or professional athletes!
— Hard Knocks Football (@Hardknocks_Au) February 20, 2016
Harding was given an opportunity as a student of Prokick Australia, but when reflecting on his own experiences said there needed to be clearer pathways for players in a range of positions.
“They only do the punters and kickers but I was never really a huge kick, so I came to them and said ‘I’m interested in the sport and have some speed and some good hands, is there a chance I could train in another position?’ and they were open to it. I actually started by catching everyone’s punts.
“They would have five or six guys punting and I would be standing their catching 200 punts every session. Then when I went to Hawaii and started as a punt returner in my first game, the team kept on saying how comfortable I looked under the ball.
“I think Australians can offer a lot more than what we’re given credit for and we take advantage of it in this country. Playing AFL and rugby, they’re so skilful and we possess such a range of skills and other countries don’t understand how we can do that and that’s why I want to give Australia exposure in that respect and show off Australians in the American game.”
But Harding has a warning for those talented enough to get the chance to play for an American college: be prepared to work hard on and off the field.
“In season, it was really intense and I didn’t expect that at all. A normal day would start by being in the locker room by 5.30am and ready for practice by 6.30/7am. Training would start at 7.15 and go to about 10am, then we’d have a team breakfast at 10.30 followed by a class block set out between 11 to 3 and you could have any of your classes between those times.
“You might have an hour or two off before you have to come back again and then lifting or meetings follow. We met almost every single day for at least two hours a day.
“We train in the morning and watch that same training session in the afternoon at meetings. Basically all the staff do is cut the footage while we’re away for class so we can break into our position groups and watch every single rep and second of practice. We’d be out of there at about 7 or 7.30 and back to bed and at it again the next morning.
“Physically, you get used to it because you’re in good shape and it’s your livelihood, but it was more mentally tiring because you couldn’t just go home and have a nap after training due to going to class and you couldn’t miss class because they would class check us and we would get punished if we didn’t go.”
— Daniel Merrett (@Merrett21) February 26, 2016
Fancy yourself as a potential American footballer? Click here and sign up to Scott Harding’s Hard Knocks Academy.