Darren Bennett was the first Aussie to trade kangaroo hide for pig skin and convert from AFL to the NFL. Since then Ben Graham, Sav Rocca and Chris Bryan have all played in the NFL and college stars Jesse Williams and Brad Wing have recently joined the NFL ranks.
The Aussie invasion into the NFL is in its infancy, but given the enormity of the transition it’s remarkable how much success these guys have had. Bennett is a hall of famer, Graham played in a superbowl, Williams won back-to-back NCAA titles, but potentially the mosty influential is Nathan Chapman.
Despite posessing a modest NFL CV, through his kicking school Chapman is buidling the next Aussie NFL star.
Prokick Australia was established by Chapman, who played 76 AFL games with Brisbane and Hawthorn, in 2006, to simplify the pathway for young Aussies to play American football at college and professional level. Over 12 to 18 months Chapman works with his pupils to break down the muscle memory ingrained in young men from hours of kicking the Aussie Rules football and builds it back up to be able to punt the smaller and pointier American ball.
The idea for Prokick was born from Chapman’s bid to make the transition to the NFL after his retirement from AFL.
Following a chance meeting with Bennett in the US on a post-season footy trip in 2000 Chapman decided to transform himself from key defender to punter.
After 18 months of watching video tape he taught himself how to kick the American football like a punter should; high and long. Then after hours more practice, hundreds of phone calls and thousands of emails Chapman finally got a tryout with an NFL club. He signed as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 2004 but in the fickle world of the NFL, this Aussie abroad managed just three preseason games before being cut.
He returned home with the prize still firmly in his mind. He sold cable hauling equipment for his father in law, while he continued to sell himself to NFL franchises from the other side of the world.
Chapman returned to the US for mini-camps with Cincinnati and Chicago but failed to earn a contract. While his pie in the sky NFL dream was over without a regular senior game, the enormity of the challenge gave birth to an idea.
“Back then you literally went in blind with what to do and how to practice, what training was going to be like, I could have been much better prepared,” he says.
“It was a case of just recognising the number of mistakes I’d made or things I could have done better. Through my naivety more than anything else and not really having that guidance I realised there was a better way for guys to go over and that’s why I started up Prokick Australia.”
“I knew there was a calling in kicking…There are pitfalls and you need to know how to jump over those hurdles as quickly as you can.”
Prokick has placed 30 Australians into American football programs, most of those into college football, with some in second tier competitions and former Collingwood and Carlton player Chris Bryan into the NFL.
Bryan is not the only player with AFL experience to make the transition through Prokick, former Brisbane and Port Adelaide midfielder Scott Harding is blazing a trail of his own, achieving enormous success with the University of Hawaii as a wide receiver and punt returner.
Former Melbourne rookie Cameron Johnston has recently earned a full scholarship with the Ohio State Buckeyes and former North players Gavin Urquhart and Tim Hutchison have gained opportunities in the CFL.
When screening prospective Prokick candidates Chapman looks for strength, power and flexibility, however it’s not always the biggest kicks of the Aussie football who make the best punters and as Scott Harding has shown there is room in the American game for Aussies in positions beyond punting.
“To make it onto an AFL list you need to be a quality athlete and most of those guys have attributes we could adapt to get them to the college level. We’ve seen with Scott Harding that guys with good speed and hands can succeed in the wide receiver role.”
“What guys need to realise is that you don’t have to be the biggest kick on the team to make it, we will make you the biggest kick.”
“We’ve a lot of kids in massive football programs in the US who are 5ft 11, small guys who didn’t play AFL, didn’t necessarily have a big kick but are now on scholarship in the US and playing in front of 70, 80, 90, 100 thousand people week in and week out.”
NCAA sport is a big deal, in reality it’s a billion dollar industry and with more than 120 Division One schools there are plenty of opportunities for young Aussies, including guys who don’t make the grade in the AFL. Chapman says it’s not just about bumper crowds and frat parties; a place on the football team is also a free education at some of the best schools in the world.
“It’s a huge opportunity for some of these kids to have a crack at a second career and get educated and walk out with a degree,” he says.
“Cameron Johnson was on the Melbourne list for a year and within 12 months he will be playing against Penn State in front of 112 thousand people and there will be another 120 thousand in the car park.
“That is literally how big the environment he is going into, he might not have made the AFL but he just brought the right skill set for us to work with to convert his kicking motion.
Chapman has recently moved his family, wife Britt and three children, from Queensland to Victoria to be closer to the football environment and he hopes to provide more opportunities for more young men who either don’t get the chance at AFL level or don’t make a career of it.
“They’ve got nothing to lose, a doorway might open to a life that they would never have even dreamed of and can be a reality within 12 months.”