About the only things Tom Sheldon knew about North Carolina were that Michael Jordan played basketball there and that in football the Tar Heels, in his words, “had a good season last year.” that was it.
“I couldn’t have told you whereabouts in America it was or anything,” Sheldon, an Australian native who has been in America for a little more than one month, said this week. “I had to jump on Google and learn a bit about it pretty quickly.”
Sheldon had just finished another UNC football practice. He was days removed from his first college football game, his debut as the Tar Heels’ 27-year-old freshman starting punter.
It had been, Sheldon said, “a crazy” time. The crowd, 75,000 strong. The energy and the noise, the people screaming and the bands blaring. Back home he’d never experienced anything like what he encountered at the Georgia Dome on Saturday during UNC’s 33-24 loss to Georgia.
“It was crazy,” Sheldon said again, his Australian accent thick. “It’s funny how, like, even the simple things – like just catching a snap, when you’re in front of 75,000 (people), that becomes a challenge. Because all of a sudden it doesn’t seem as easy as what it does when you’re just at practice.”
At UNC, at least, Sheldon is unique. There isn’t another 27-year-old Australian freshman punter roaming the campus. In college football, though, he is another in a long line of Australians who have come to the United States to become punters.
Many of them began their journey where Sheldon started his: at Prokick Australia, which, according to its website “was established in 2006 to facilitate in the transition of aspiring kickers and punters to the grand stage of American football.”
The “American football” part is important, given Australia has its own version of the sport. Sheldon grew up playing Australian rules football, which resembles the American version, in some respects, but includes significantly more kicking – or punting, as it translates to the American game.
That’s why Australian punters have become coveted commodities among American college football coaches – because so many grow up punting while playing Australian rules football. It’s different in America, where punting, as it relates to football, is more of a specialty.
“He’s been punting the ball 27 years,” Nick Weiler, the UNC placekicker, said of the 6-3, 200-pound Sheldon. The two have become close friends. “I hope he can punt it well.”
In Australian rules football, players punt on the run, often while trying to dodge the opposition. That was one of the immediate differences Sheldon noticed during his training and after he arrived at UNC.
“You can really only do your job or not do your job here,” Sheldon said. “Back home, the game was a lot of running around and some guys would sort of run 10 miles in a game. And now I’m probably running 100 yards in a game.”
Sheldon’s journey to UNC began with a conversation between Larry Fedora, the UNC head coach, and Jonathan Rutledge, a former graduate assistant coach at UNC. Fedora, who directly leads the Tar Heels’ punt team, had noticed the trend of Australian punters in college football.
And so Fedora asked Rutledge, who worked with UNC’s special teams, to look into how Australian punters were coming to America. Rutledge had worked previously at Mississippi, and during his time there he had developed a connection with Prokick Australia. He knew who to contact.
“And so we started that way,” Fedora said.
For American college teams hoping to recruit an Australian punter, Prokick Australia is a go-to source. In 2013, Tom Hornsey, a Prokick alum who punted at Memphis, won the Ray Guy Award, given annually to the nation’s best college punter.
Tom Hackett, another Prokick alum who punted at Utah, won the Ray Guy Award the past two seasons. Prokick Australia lists dozens of alumni who have gone on to play American college football, and some who have punted in the NFL.
This season, Prokick alums are on the rosters at UNC, Maryland, Arizona State, Utah, Pittsburgh and LSU, among others. Sheldon’s younger brother, Jack, went from Prokick Australia to Central Michigan, where he punted twice in the team's first game last weekend.
Prokick Australia sells the idea of earning an American college scholarship, and an education, through a talent for punting a football. According to the Prokick website, the organization “has so far saved Australian families (approximately) $9 million dollars in academic fees by placing students into US Colleges on FULL SCHOLARSHIPS.”
Many in Australia, though, have little idea what American college football is. Prokick offers some education there, too, with a description on its website that refers to “college” and “college football” with capital letters:
“While the NFL has a greater social awareness (in) many countries, the College football community outweighs the NFL in a number of areas. In fact, there are many things you may not have heard about College Football.
“Some of the biggest College football teams average 80,000 spectators to each home game throughout the year. To put that into perspective, it means that they get the same crowds every week as the Australian Rules Football Collingwood verses Essendon ANZAC day clash.”
Anzac Day is the Australian equivalent of Memorial Day. For decades there were no Australian rules football games played on that day, but now Collingwood vs. Essendon is an annual spectacle – similar, as the Prokick website noted, to fall Saturdays at college football stadiums throughout the country.
Sheldon quickly noticed that spectacle at the Georgia Dome on Saturday. His arrival there represented the culmination of a long journey, both in the figurative and literal sense.
After Fedora’s initial conversation with Rutledge, the former graduate assistant, Fedora and UNC contacted Nathan Chapman and John Smith, two coaches who lead Prokick Australia. Fedora said, Chapman and Smith responded and said “we’ve got two guys for you to look at.”
One of them was Sheldon, who quickly became Fedora’s primary target. Chapman and Smith then sent video clips of Sheldon to UNC. Fedora and some of his assistants coaches evaluated the film, not exactly 100 percent sure about what they were seeing.
“I knew I wasn’t going to Australia to see him,” Fedora said. “And so I was worried about whether or not it was legit or not.”
He worried, he said, because he couldn’t really tell for sure if it was Sheldon punting in those clips, or if it might be someone else – a ruse, perhaps. In the videos, Sheldon was always wearing a helmet. They were shot at a distance, too, and so “you could never see his face,” Fedora said.
“I never knew what he looked like,” he said. “And so I was concerned, because he was coming over. He wasn’t coming over until right before (preseason) camp. So I was concerned that he was going to maybe look like you and me, you know.”
In July, Sheldon, who’s from Echuca, Victoria in the southeastern part of Australia, about 135 miles north of Melbourne, traveled to Chapel Hill on a recruiting visit. By then, though, it was already nearly official that Sheldon was coming to UNC. His host during that visit was Weiler, the Tar Heels’ senior kicker. Weiler had never hosted a 27-year-old prospect before.
Weiler took Sheldon out to dinner at Tobacco Road, a sports bar near campus. They checked out a bit of the Chapel Hill nightlife at Top of the Hill, a restaurant by day and something of a sweaty, college dance bar by night.
“It was pretty easy,” Weiler said, “because he’s 27 I could take him everywhere. We had a good time, and he loved campus. You know, it was weird for him. He picked the school without ever coming here.”
Back in Australia, Sheldon said he had began taking college courses last year. He said his credits transferred to UNC, where he’s on scholarship as a redshirt freshman with three years of eligibility remaining, after this season.
Before enrolling in those college courses, Sheldon said he had “just been playing Aussie rules footy with the mighty Kyabram Bombers.” He also said he’d been working with his father’s construction business.
Since arriving in North Carolina, Sheldon has assimilated well, Fedora and Weiler said. During the preseason, Fedora found amusement in Sheldon’s penchant for ending his sentences with “mate,” and Sheldon and Weiler have formed a quick bond.
“He definitely doesn’t act like he’s 27,” Weiler said with a smile, while Sheldon listened nearby. “He acts younger than I am. I’m more mature than he is. Age ain’t nothing but a number, I guess.
A while back, Weiler took Sheldon to the quarry to go swimming near the Eno River. A fishing trip could be next. Weiler said he’s “for sure” going to accompany Sheldon on a visit to Australia at some point.
The transition to American football has been mostly seamless, too, for Sheldon, though during his first game he didn’t quite understand Fedora’s directive to “kick the ball on the numbers.” The layout of the field at the Georgia Dome, an NFL stadium, caused confusion.
“It’s a pro stadium,” Fedora said. “Their numbers and our numbers aren’t the same. We have tick marks out there for our numbers. After a couple of kicks, I’m like Tom, why aren’t you kicking the ball out on the numbers? To him, he was kicking the ball on the numbers.”
That was a small detail, though. Sheldon averaged 42 yards on his six punts. Half of them gave Georgia poor field position, inside of its own 20-yard-line. Yet Sheldon’s learning experience continues, both about a sport and a place he knew little about before arriving in late July.