"Ready, mate," Bennett replied.
Hurney signaled to the snapper, whose snap flew through Bennett's hands and smashed into his nose. The fit, middle-aged man—actually Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard—grimaced. Bennett knew that this might be his only opportunity in the land of opportunity. "No worries," he told Hurney. "I've broken my nose four times before."
In the next half hour Bennett convinced Beathard that he was an NFL-caliber talent. "I'd never seen anything like it," says Beathard. "The punts Bennett hit traveled 75 yards and sailed as high. Now our only problem was teaching Bennett the game."
Beathard told Bennett that the Chargers would sign him, which they did the following April. After spending the 1994 season on the San Diego practice squad, then the following summer playing in Amsterdam, Bennett was San Diego's punter for the '95 season opener. Fifty-five games later he has had only one punt blocked—on a play in which San Diego had only 10 men on the field.
Prodigious punts are just half of Bennett's legend. The other half is his unique—at least for kicking specialists—approach to Aussie Rules' American cousin. "Darren's not a wuss," says Chargers long-snapper David Binn. "He loves to hit, and he's big enough to do some damage."
In his fifth game with the Chargers, at Pittsburgh, Bennett averaged a team-record 59.5 yards on four punts. Also that afternoon the 6'5", 235-pounder saved a touchdown by leveling Steelers punt returner Andre Hastings with a forearm collar that left Hastings groggy. "I'm an Aussie, mate," Bennett said at the time. "The only thing I like to send in the air and have return is a boomerang."
In a 13-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Bennett was at it again, forcing a fumble by punt returner Allen Rossum inside the Chargers' 30. "We need to have him in our meetings," says Chargers defensive tackle Norman Hand, "because the defensive line hasn't stripped the ball yet."
Listen, I know the INS drill. You have quotas to keep, people to deport. You're still a little touchy about Green Card. But, please, don't boot Bennett out of the country. If you must kick out a sporting Aussie, there are options. Such as Graeme Lloyd (the Yankees' bullpen is plenty deep without him) or Luc Longley (if Michael's gone, who cares what happens to the Bulls?).
Next August the Chargers and the Denver Broncos will kick off in Stadium Australia at Homebush Bay, the track and field venue for the 2000 Olympics. Guess who had a huge role in making this game happen? Guess who everyone in Sydney will come to cheer? "It's going to be brilliant, mate," Bennett told me. "I hope I'm still with the Chargers."
"No worries," I replied.