Not just another punter

2 June 2011

Written by: Jessica Buccolieri

Last Friday, former Brisbane Lions and Port Adelaide player Scott Harding was announced to be the latest Australian to be recruited to the United States to play American football.

But so what? Other AFL players have switched codes in the past to become successful NFL punters, with ex-Cat Ben Graham and champion goal-kicker Saverio Rocca among the bigger names.

Surprisingly though, Harding was not named as a punter for the University of Hawaii, where he has earned himself a football scholarship. The short-lived AFL midfielder will play as a wide receiver – the first Aussie Rules footballer to play in that position and second Australian not to play as a punter.

The part-academic scholarship, set to commence in January next year, is likely to be Harding’s best chance at making it into the NFL – America’s most popular and professional football league. However, as he told SEN radio, ‘They are trying to get me over a little earlier so I can take part in the season coming up, which starts in September.

‘The guys say that if you can actually attend college football over there it’s a great entry zone into the NFL because it’s the first place the NFL looks at for recruiting, and especially for the division one teams,’ he said.

But the 24-year-old is not what you would call an AFL legend. In a career spanning five years (2006-2010), he played just 50 games in the league – 48 with Brisbane and two with Port Adelaide – and averaged only 11 disposals per game. Few doubted his pace and skill, but at 181cm, he lacked size and consistency, highlighted by his disposal aggregate.

The question now is: can he make a name for himself in gridiron?

No other Australian has ever been a wide receiver, so the only comparisons we can make are with the big guns in America.

A professional wide receiver, or slot receiver, is expected to be able to run 40 yards (that’s 36.6 metres for you metric folk) in no more than four and a half seconds – the same time it takes a punt to reach a similar distance. Figuratively, if a player can match a punt’s travel time, they can also leave the line of scrimmage once the ball is kicked, and catch it on the opposite end.

‘I did a 40-yard test in 4.4 seconds so that’s kind of up there with the receivers in the NFL draft,’ Harding said.

Considering Jerry Rice – regarded by many as the best NFL wide receiver of all time – reportedly only ran the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds while at Mississippi Valley State University, that’s definitely not a bad effort.

‘It’s more of a running position or a skill position,’ Harding said. ‘It’s pretty much the position where the quarterback lines it up and throws to you and you obviously catch and try and make as many yards as you can.

‘They saw me in the trial and obviously saw my speed and my hands and liked what they saw.’

The only other Australian to play gridiron and not specialise as a punter is Colin Scotts, a former rugby player who, like Harding, began with a football scholarship in Hawaii. He was drafted by St Louis in 1987 and made a career for himself as a defensive end and tight end. With any luck Harding will achieve a similar success.

The other question that arises from all of this is: why do Australian sportsmen, footballers in particular, decide to make the move to the States?

Money seems the logical answer. A $300,000 yearly pay check could, in just one NFL season, turn into millions, and no doubt that is the reason for many. But for others, it’s also a well thought out career move.

Aussie rules is a quick-paced game better suited to young legs and, while older players may have gained certain skills that only come with experience, often with age comes injury and fatigue.

Those players who convert to NFL have usually passed their prime in their former sport. Most of them become punters, where a quick running pace is not the aim, just a strong leg for a big kick, maybe five or six times a match.

Rocca is the perfect example. After a long career in AFL, the former Magpie turned Kangaroo set off to play for the Philadelphia Eagles as a punter. The then 33-year-old was ranked highly in the AFL’s all-time goal-kicking records but, despite his expertise, age had caught up with him. Coupled with a dodgy hamstring, he couldn’t keep up with a game that was just getting quicker.

What’s more is that playing football from a young age often means a lack of other job skills, which is why some players fall back on their goal-kicking strengths once their AFL career is over. At the same time a career in the AFL is very rarely a long one, so players must have – as odd as it sounds – a retirement plan. Playing in the NFL for a few years would definitely set them up for life.

In Harding’s case, it’s a little different. He’s still young and definitely nowhere near AFL retirement status; in fact, he never quite reached his prime, with the Power having delisted him just last year. There’s every chance he could turn his college football scholarship into a lucrative NFL career, which will perhaps encourage other young Australian sportsmen to follow suit.

‘The great thing about this is that hopefully it opens up a lot of doors for some other guys who possibly think they have the goods as well and thought that maybe there’s no pathway,’ Harding said.

‘If guys think they can have a crack, there’s definitely a way to do it now, and not just as a punter.’

Jessica Buccolieri is a Journalism Honours student at La Trobe University and a member of the upstart editorial team.  She is currently writing a thesis about the effects of social media on modern journalism. You can follow her on Twitter: @bjessa.