A FEW YEARS AGO, Lou Hedley was working as a tradie—as a scaffolder, to be precise—in the Western Australian coastal city of Mandurah. Today, at 30-years-old, he’s one of the oldest rookies in NFL history. But he’s in the NFL nonetheless. Hedley took an atypical path to the NFL, working as a scaffolder, co-owning a Balinese tattoo parlour, and playing in the West Australian Football League (WAFL) before making the career switch, and he’s proof that many Australians are uniquely qualified for top-level punting.
Like many other Australians, Hedley grew up playing Australian rules football. He was quite good at it too, rising all the way to the WAFL with the Peel Thunder, although he never made it to the senior team. After failing to get his big break in the AFL, Hedley decided to risk it all. He called time on his Aussie rules career, instead opting to work with ProKick to help him make the transition to American football.
Hedley’s hard work paid off, and he found opportunities to play in the American college football system, but there he encountered another problem. Because he dropped out of high school, Hedley didn’t have the qualifications to attend an American division one college. He spent a year playing for the San Francisco City College before gaining eligibility to join the fabled University of Miami.
It was at the University of Miami—affectionately dubbed ‘The U’—that Hedley began to shine. He spent four years at Miami, frequently sending punts over the heads of returners, becoming a finalist for the coveted Ray Guy award, and even attracting the attention of University of Miami alum Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
Hedley’s talents garnered the interest of several NFL scouts, and despite going undrafted in the 2023 NFL Draft, the punter landed a deal with the New Orleans Saints worth $1.1 million AUD. Hedley took on all comers on his way to earning a roster spot, and has since made his NFL debut, helping the Saints to a respectable 2-2 record. Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played the sport until his mid-20’s. Although, he is six foot four, 100 kilos and a naturally gifted sportsmen, perhaps that helped.
Why do Australians make for good punters?
Punter is the one position that many Australians could excel in without ever playing American football. You see, ‘punting’ is essentially just kicking, and that’s a crucial skill in Australia’s most popular sports. Kicking is obviously central to Australian rules football, but it’s also important in rugby union and rugby league. Even soccer goalkeepers perform a duty similar to NFL-style punting.
Punting isn’t something that the average American can pick up with ease. The act isn’t exactly common in most American sports, and it might just be the least glorious play in American football, as it only occurs when a team’s offense has failed to advance further down the field. Most Americans don’t grow up dreaming of becoming punters, and neither do Australians, but Australians do dream of becoming AFL players, so mastering the skill of long-distance kicking is far more prevalent.
It’s the similarities between punting and aspects of Australian sports, as well as the propensity with which we train our kicking skills from an early age, that makes Australians uniquely qualified as NFL punters. A background in kicking has enabled a handful of Aussies to easily make the switch to American football and find success.
Ben Graham, who once captained the Geelong Cats in the AFL before switching to punting at 31 years of age, is the prime example of AFL-to-NFL success. Graham played in an AFL grand final, became the first Australian to play in the Super Bowl, and remains the only person to captain both an AFL and NFL team. Sav Rocca had a similar path, as the former Collingwood and North Melbourne player led his team in goalscoring 10 times throughout his career, and is 14th on the AFL’s all-time goalscoring list, but also found success in the NFL as a punter. Lou Hedley is cut from the same cloth, with a background in Australian rules football, although he never played professionally.
Is punter the easiest NFL position?
Punter is by no means the easiest NFL position, per se, but it is one of the most specialised. While most NFL positions require multiple superhuman skills (quarterbacks in particular need immense arm strength, mobility, vision, and mental toughness), punters really only have to do one thing: kick a ball so far that opponents wouldn’t dream of catching it.
There isn’t really such a thing as an easy NFL position. But being a punter only requires proficiency in one area of skill, and it’s a skill that plenty of Australians have spent their childhoods improving. For Australians with at least some experience in kicking a football, the easiest path to the NFL could very well be punting.
How many Australians are in the NFL?
Hedley’s path to the NFL may have been atypical, but it’s becoming increasingly common avenue for Australians. There are currently seven Australians on NFL rosters, while an eighth, Arryn Siposs, was cut just one day before the 2023 season began. Hedley isn’t the only Australian punter in the NFL, with Mitch Wishnowsky, Michael Dickson, and Cameron Johnston bolstering the ranks. All of whom have backgrounds in Australian rules of football.
Outside of punters, Jordan Mailata and Daniel Faalele are two young, formidable offensive linemen. While Adam Gotsis is the sole Australian defensive player in the NFL.
In recent years, a number of high-profile Australians athletes have attempted to make the switch to American football, notably Jarryd Hayne and Valentine Holmes, who both found minimal success. More athletes could follow, and we’d tip the NRL’s Matt Burton, with his dizzyingly high kicks, or the AFL’s Nick Daicos, with his pinpoint accuracy and tireless work ethic, to have the best shot.
Could you make it as an NFL punter?
That depends. There’s a monumental difference between someone who played footy casually from ages 6-10 and spent the rest of their lives citing mysterious injuries as the reason they couldn’t crack the AFL, and a professional footballer who’s made a career out of kicking balls. If you’re one of the latter, particularly if you’re a strong-legged defender with a penchant for long-distance clearances, then an NFL tryout could be worth a shot.
If you’re more similar to the former, you probably shouldn’t get your hopes up. But as Lou Hedley’s career trajectory shows us, a background playing professionally in another sport isn’t a ‘must have’ to make it in the NFL. Who knows, maybe you do have what it takes. It won’t hurt to head down to the park and put your skills to the test.