When you have played on the MCG before thousands of screaming fans, a drizzly astro-turfed soccer field in Monbulk is hardly the land of opportunity.
But for three recently delisted AFL footballers it might just be the starting point of a life-changing journey.
Former AFL Players Patrick Veszpremi, Joel Wilkinson and GWS Giant Josh Growden spent yesterday morning in pads and a helmet attempting to punt, catch and run the American football.
At the inaugural AFL Players’ and Prokick combine, recently retired or delisted footballers were invited to participate in a day of testing, to determine whether they have the potential to follow in the footsteps of Scott Harding or Cameron Johnston and win a college football scholarship.
They spent the first half of the morning honing the specific biomechanics required to punt the ball, before putting on the pads and attempting to catch a high ball like a punt returner would and finally receiving some passes from a quarterback
They also went through a series of physical tests under the guidance of Conquest Fitness trainer Dave Tuinauvai – the man responsible for transforming Scott Harding’s body into a power machine.
“Its not about endurance…its about power and speed, Tuinauvai said.
Former University of Hawaii and Victorian Alex Dunnachie was on hand to give the boys a few pointers and he liked what he saw.
“All these guys are natural athletes and there is a market for guys in the States who can kick the ball, its not something they do naturally and have the other attributes to run, catch and tackle as well; it’s a huge advantage,” Dunnachie said.
Veszpremi, 24, was delisted this year after 23 AFL games and since watching college football over the past two months, thought he would give it a go. He was not alone in finding the game is a lot harder than it looks on TV.
“It’s a whole different feeling putting on the helmet and the pads compared to just a footy jumper. Trying to kick and mark, you feel quite restricted, that was the hardest part,” Veszpremi said.
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All three guys kicked desired distance of 45 yards and by the end of the session they achieved four to five seconds of hang-time. According to Prokick boss Nathan Chapman, this would be considered elite in the college system.
“In Cameron Johnston’s first session with us he was only kicking 40-yard flat torps, but you could see the power. Now he is the punter for the second ranked team in the country – Ohio State University. You can see that some power in these guys too,” Chapman said.
Growden, 20, was delisted from GWS after three injury-riddled seasons. The long time American football fan flew down from his home state of South Australia then caught a cab before hitching a ride to the combine.
He’d never kicked an American football until yesterday but his left foot looks very promising. At just 20, he is seriously considering a career in the states if the opportunity presents.
“If they think I’m good enough and if they think I can make it then yeah, I would love to give it a go,” Growden said
Wilkinson, 22, also flew down for the combine and he fancies a receiver position. They all had the chance to put the sticky gloves on and receive some bullet like passes simulating the arm of Peyton Manning or RGIII…again it looks easier on TV.
“The speed of the ball, it’s a lot quicker and it spirals. It surprised you, but I got used to it quickly having the footy experience,” Wilkinson said.
The boys will be given further feedback on their suitability to the transition and will then decide whether they enroll in the 12-month Prokick program with a view to a college scholarship.
Alumni Manager Brad Fisher believes this initiative is just another option the AFL Players’ Association can offer its players upon leaving the game.
“The ability to gain a full college education in the States and to stay involved in elite sport is worth exploring, especially for the younger kids who might want to travel overseas and pursue study abroad,” Fisher said.
Dunnachie says it was a dream he had never dreamed. Within 12 months of kicking the pigskin for the first time the former junior Aussies Rules star signed with Hawaii and was punting before massive crowds and playing live on ESPN.
His advice…”Go for it”.
“The options there, you would be silly not to take it. For these boys who came down today congratulations because they’ve taken that first step towards something they wouldn’t have known existed a couple of months ago.”
Harding and Johnson are the only former AFL listed players to play NCAA football, there are only four ex-AFL players who have played in the NFL and Chapman has placed more than 30 students in US colleges through Prokick.