For BCS title game participants LSU and Alabama, two Aussies rule
LSU punter Brad Wing, Alabama defensive end Jesse Williams are from Australia
Impressive debut seasons could have coaches scurrying Down Under to recruit
Took different paths to college football, but wound up in same spot: New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS -- Brad Wing's long journey to the Superdome began before his final year of high school when he was cut from the Sandringham Dragons, his local Australian rules football club team. Two years earlier and 1,700 kilometers north in Brisbane, Jesse Williams began his own trek to the Superdome when the former rugby and basketball player strapped on pads for the first time at the request of some friends who had taken up a strange sport the Aussies call "Gridiron."
"A couple of my friends that played told me to come down and hit a couple of people," Williams said. "I was really good at hitting people, so I just stuck with it."
Much of the preamble to Monday's BCS championship matchup between Alabama and LSU has been a debate over whether the brand of college football played in the South is so far superior to the rest of the nation that it merits a rematch of two SEC West teams on college football's biggest stage. What we learned in the first meeting between the Crimson Tide and Tigers -- and what likely will be reinforced in the rematch -- is that they also make some excellent football players Down Under.
LSU punter Wing starred in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5, altering field position with a dazzling display of accuracy and distance unequaled by any punter in the nation. Alabama defensive end Williams, meanwhile, logged five tackles as the Crimson Tide held LSU to 239 total yards. Wing and Williams have been so impressive in their first seasons on the field at their respective schools that they may send college coaches scurrying across the Pacific in search of more Aussie talent.
That's especially true for Wing, a redshirt freshman from the suburbs of Melbourne who has weaponized the punter position with his ability to kick for distance (see the 73-yarder against Alabama that flipped the field and saved the Tigers or any of Wing's other 17 punts of greater than 50 yards), accuracy (23 of 50 punts have pinned opponents inside the 20; only five have reached the end zone for touchbacks) and hangtime (opponents have returned those 50 punts a total of 21 feet).
For Wing, kicking under pressure for distance and accuracy isn't unusual. As a centre half-forward in Aussie rules football, Wing's job was to catch the ball and boot it through the inner set of goalposts. Usually, this required kicking from an odd angle with several large men trying to tackle him. Wing did this with a variety of kicks, including the torpedo kick (similar to a standard American punt) and the banana kick (think David Beckham from the corner with an oblong ball). So, protected by blockers (and pads), Wing has no qualms about holding on to the ball a beat longer than most punters. He also can hit a specific spot on the field almost as accurately with his foot as a player could with his arm. This also is the product of an Aussie rules upbringing. "That's how you score," Wing said. "It's how you pass. In Australia, every kid kicks. It's like throwing in America."
Wing's father, David, had a tryout with the Detroit Lions and punted for the Scottish Claymores of the World League of American Football. When Brad was cut from the Dragons, David suggested he try kicking an American football -- in America. The elder Wing had some friends in Baton Rouge, La., and they agreed to host Brad for his final year and a half of high school. So the younger Wing traded Vegemite for etouffee. (He still loves Vegemite, and he sounds an awful lot like a Southerner talking about how to eat grits when he explains the proper protocol for a Vegemite sandwich. "You have to put it on toast," Wing said, "with a slice of cheese on top.") Wing enrolled at Parkview Baptist High -- the school his host family's children attended -- and Parkview Baptist coach Kenny Guillot knew early that a gem had fallen into his lap. "Second game of the year," Guillot said, "he punted one from the back of our end zone to the 25-yard-line on the other end." The distance wasn't the only factor Guillot noticed. "It was close to being blocked," Guillot said. "He didn't flinch. He just hit the snot out of it."
If Parkview Baptist crossed midfield but got stopped before four-down territory, Guillot never had to sweat the decision to punt or run a play. He always punted, because he knew Wing would pin the opponent inside the 10-yard line. "He could drop it on the five yard line and back it up, almost consistently," Guillot said. "It looked like a great golfer like Tiger Woods working chip shots."
LSU offered Wing a scholarship soon after an assistant saw him punt. Because Wing did not spend years on the camp circuit, he remained a secret outside Louisiana. Northwestern State and McNeese State were the only other schools to offer scholarships. Wing chose the Tigers, redshirting in 2010 before taking the nation by storm in 2011.
Wing is as close to a rock star as a punter can come. The what-me-worry gesture that got Wing's fake punt touchdown run called back against Florida has inspired a dance (2:25 mark). Meanwhile, Wing has become LSU's second most recognizable player behind cornerback and Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu. "My own daughter wanted a football signed by him," Guillot said. "And my daughter is 37 years old."
Wingmania seems even more unusual because Wing is so unassuming. Out of uniform and wearing his glasses, he looks like one of two people: your accountant or Butler basketball coach Brad Stevens.
Williams, the other Aussie in the title game, is the one who turns heads wherever he goes. He stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 319 pounds. Then there's the Mohawk. And the tattoos, which cover his hands, arms, chest, legs and neck. Inked into one hand is the following sentence: I stopped checking under my bed for monsters when I realized the monster was me. The explanation? "I was just kind of messing with quotes. I saw one that was kind of like that. I kind of rewrote so it was better toward me. Two hours later, I had a tattoo on my hand." Inked on Williams' left forearm in intricate cursive are several paragraphs from this speech, which became a YouTube sensation after San Jose, Calif., high school coach John Flowers used it to fire up his team. Yes, you read that correctly. Paragraphs.
So did the tattoos hurt? "Have you ever cut your neck before?" Williams said. "About 100 times worse. Once you get used to it, it's not too bad. Tattooing on your throat is not the most pleasant feeling. It takes something else to persuade you to get that."
Williams added the verbose forearm tattoo while playing for Arizona Western, a junior college in Yuma, Ariz. He was originally discovered by coaches from Hawaii, but Williams and Hawaii had a falling out, and he wound up in junior college. After his first year, practically every school in the country wanted Williams. When Williams chose Alabama, he drew plenty of comparisons to Terrence Cody, who went from JUCO to stardom on the Crimson Tide's defensive line.
But Williams and Cody bear little physical resemblance. When Cody played JUCO ball, he weighed almost 400 pounds. Williams is cat-quick, can bench press 225 pounds more than 50 times and has a remarkably low body fat percentage for a 300-pounder. He resembles former Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus far more than he does Cody.
How he came to be so big, Williams has no clue. His mum and dad are "five-foot-nothing." He was born on Thursday Island, a map dot in the Torres Strait, the body of water that separates the northeast tip of Australia from Papua New Guinea. When Williams was young, his family moved to Brisbane. As a teen, he had friends who played for an American football club, but Williams had little exposure to the sport at higher levels. "I had probably watched about one whole NFL game in my life," Williams said.
While many Americans don't begin playing tackle football until high school, most grow up with a basic understanding of the game thanks to televised college and pro football and football video games. Williams didn't have that knowledge base, so he had to learn quickly when he got to Arizona Western. The learning curve got steeper when he reached Tuscaloosa. "The defense is a bit more -- intricate would be the word that I would use," Williams said. "They run similar stuff to what I did in junior college, but it did take a while to get my mind around the complexity of it, especially the way coach [Nick] Saban runs it."
What Williams lacks in X and O knowledge he more than makes up for with instinct. "When we were in pros there were a couple of occasions -- and I don't want to mention any names -- where we had guys that were really physically talented that came from other countries. But they really weren't instinctive football players," Saban said. "Jesse is an instinctive football player. He's got natural reactions for the game. I think that's what helped him progress like he has." Still, Williams wants to improve his football IQ. "I know enough to get me through," Williams said. "But I would like to continue to learn so I don't have to rely on the help of others."
Football is only part of the cultural education Williams has received in Tuscaloosa. He misses the ability to go to the beach on a whim, but he has enjoyed his immersion in the American South, even if he hasn't adopted the local attire. "They're wearing hunting gear and camouflage everywhere," Williams said. "I only wear it if I'm trying to hide from someone."
Williams said Americans also should ignore what they've learned about Australia from Outback Steakhouse ads, Foster's commercials and the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. "Probably about three percent of what people think about Australia is true," Williams said. "We don't ride around on kangaroos. There aren't sharks filling every bit of water in the ocean."
But there are athletes whose bodies and skill sets might lend themselves to a game played an ocean away. If Williams and Wing are any indication, the next recruiting goldmine might be the land Down Under.