Born in Sydney and still an Australian citizen, San Diego Chargers punter Darren Bennett is permitted to play in the U.S. on a P-l visa, which designates him as an athlete "with an internationally recognized level of performance." Recently the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) informed Bennett that he could be deported unless he can prove that his employment does not deny a U.S. citizen a job (i.e., that he is uniquely qualified for the work he does). The INS suggested that a letter from a sportswriter might bolster his case.
Greetings. Or as Darren Bennett would say, G'day. Believe me, I understand the sensitivity of the alien issue in San Diego. The Mexican border. Heaven's Gate.
That said, do you really want to deport Bennett, his wife, Rosemary, and their sons, Will and Tom? Do you really want to punt an affable Aussie back across the Pacific less than two years before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney? Do you really want the Chargers' lone change-of-possession option to be a Ryan Leaf pass?
Bennett never played college football, so he wasn't an All-America. Yet in 1995 he was All-World, which for him was a better fit. Now 33, Bennett has been a professional football player since he was 16—Australian Rules for 13 years and, for the last five, the American version, which Aussies call "gridiron" and "a game for fat guys and wusses." He has played on three continents in two hemispheres.
In '95, as a punter for the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League of American Football, he was selected All-World after recording the season's longest punt (70 yards) and top net punting average (35.1 yards).
That autumn, at age 30, Bennett made the Chargers. He averaged 44.7 yards a punt, second best in the NFL, and capped off the season by being elected to play in the Pro Bowl, in which he equaled the game record with a 64-yarder. This season he is averaging 45.5 yards a kick and tied a team record with 11 punts in an ugly 7-6 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 11.
If you want an Australian with better hang time than Bennett, try Qantas. Don't just take my word. " Ray Guy is the best punter ever," says Cincinnati Bengals punter Lee Johnson, a 14-year NFL veteran, "but Bennett has the stronger leg, the best punter's leg I've ever seen."
Before games at Qualcomm Stadium, Bennett punts from midfield and regularly deposits balls in the bleachers 70 yards away. "After pregame warmups I usually chat with the other team's specialists," says kicker John Carney, Bennett's best friend on the team. "As Bennett's legend grew I began to feel like Jimmy Olsen answering questions about Superman."
What is the yardstick for measuring a legend? How about a yardstick? In his first season Bennett led the NFL in punts of 50 yards or more, with 27 Seven times in his NFL career he has launched a punt exactly 66 yards. The FAA reroutes single-engine aircraft when Bennett punts.