Former Brisbane and Port Adelaide midfielder Scott Harding is making a huge impression on American college football.
In two seasons for the Division One University of Hawaii Warriors Harding has earned a reputation as the ‘Swisse Army Knife’ of college football such is his versatility and ability to excel in a number of positions.
Harding began his college football career as a punt returner, earning selection in the All-American Freshman team, but in 2012 he widened his portfolio to include the roles of slot receiver, punter and holder.
Harding scored four touchdowns in his sophomore season including an eye catching 69 yard punt return against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
There is a history of Aussies and even AFL footballers changing codes and playing American football. There are more than 10 Aussies playing in the American college system and the NFL journeys of Bennett, Rocca, Graham and Bryan are well documented. But all the aforementioned are punters, which makes Harding’s success as a positional player all the more remarkable.
Harding admits he is “pretty surprised” at how quickly he has learned the nuances of American football but he has found the skill set developed in the AFL has been invaluable on and off the field.
“That is why AFL was so good because it has so many different skills involved with playing the sport. You come to American football and in my position I just need to run a nice rout and catch the ball,” he said.
“Off the field they know I am a little bit older than everyone and the coaches and players respect the discipline I bring from my time as a professional athlete.”
Harding played 50 AFL games before he was delisted by Port Adelaide at the end of the 2010 season. He admits to being “down in the dumps” when his time in the AFL was over, but confident he had something to offer another sport.
He always had an interest in American football and after less than a year of training with Prokick – a company founded by former Brisbane and Hawthorn player and Green Bay punter Nathan Chapman, Harding was awarded a full scholarship with the Warriors. He believes his story is evidence that being delisted is “not the end of the road”.
“There are so many opportunities out there whether that is in sport or other organisations. The one good thing I have learned from football is that even though we are just players we learn a bunch of things; discipline, commitment and how to work hard. That’s already helped me make the transition and I am sure it helps guys in the real world,” Harding said.
Given the unique skill set AFL players can bring to college football Harding believes the option he chose should “definitely” be explored by more guys who leave the AFL system. The route from the AFL to the punter’s free agency circuit is becoming well-worn. But Harding believes there is plenty of opportunity within the college system, especially for those leaving the AFL before the age of 25.
Ben Graham, the first Australian to play in a Super Bowl, agrees. “My advice to young kids who make the decision early enough is to go to college. Not only like Scott has done but like Brad Wing (LSU punter) has done. They are playing college football, getting an education and a shot at playing in the NFL,” Graham said.
Graham describes Harding’s progress as “fantastic” and believes he has the tools to take his talents beyond the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association).
“He has got ability, he has got speed, and he has got good hands. He has had to earn the trust of the coaches. He started as a punt returner, and he has gradually immersed himself in the play book and emerged as a vital weapon,” Graham said.
“If continues to go well and he goes to training camp for an NFL roster anything can happen.”
Harding, 26, hopes another strong season for the Warriors will allow him to nominate for the NFL draft before his senior year.
“I am a little bit older than everyone so I didn’t want to spend my full time here if I didn’t have to. Every year I get older and everyone else stays the same age,” Harding said.
If Harding doesn’t make the grade in the NFL or the Canadian Football League he will have a business degree to fall back on. With athletic scholarships come a free education and the chance to study basically anything. A benefit not lost on Harding. But he says the workload was initially a challenge.
“It is tough with the football schedule because you have practice in the morning, and you can’t then go to lunch or have a nap you have to go straight to class or a tutor group. But that’s my life and that is what I pay to be here,” he said.
Harding follows the AFL through the Twitter accounts of his former teammates, in particular the progress of his future brother-in-law Karmichael Hunt. When asked to nominate a current player who could make the transition to American Football he selects two former teammates.
“Jared Brennan; I’ve seen the way he plays, he probably has a forty inch vert [vertical leap], he has got sensational hands, he would be a pretty big threat as an outside receiver. He could even play tight end if he put on some weight or John Brown as a line backer or tight end would be a sensational addition to any team,” he said.
Warrior’s defensive coordinator Nick Rolovich describes Harding’s progress as “pretty unbelievable”. But it is Harding who has been more liberal with that phrase. Whether it is the facilities, the chartered flights around the United States to away games or the passion of the Warriors fans in Aloha Stadium; the gravity of his new life is something Australians fail to appreciate.
The best way for Harding to communicate the enormity of college football leads him to the scene of his first touchdown. An away game against the University of Southern California (USC) at LA Memorial Coliseum, before 93,000 fans and beamed live around the world on ESPN.
“Arriving at the game there was people everywhere tailgating and the student sections were full an hour and a half before the game. The sound of the game was just ridiculous and the moment for me when I realised this is NCAA college football.”