By Patrick Cochran
It was fourth down and the Rams were backed up on their own third yard line with little space to maneuver. The Rams were up 30-12 against a tough American River squad and needed to hold and win the game to avoid starting the season 0-3. American River could easily block the punt and either force a safety or recover the ball and score a touchdown.
The Rams snapped the ball to punter Louis Headley, who rolled out to the right and instead of punting the ball bolted downfield. Fans in the stands went wild as Headley got the first down and more before being forced out of bounds, gaining 22-yards on the trick play and ultimately helping the Rams win their first game of the season.
Fans were shocked to see a punter run so fast, but Headley isn’t your average punter. The 24-year old from Mandurah, Australia is much more athletic than most punters. Built more like a wide receiver or shooting guard in basketball, Headley is 6’4, 215 lbs. and has a lean athletic build along with the ability to punt the ball well over 60-yards downfield.
A former Australian rules football player, which is a modified version of rugby that plays on an oval field instead of a square one, Headley is part of the trend of Aussie players coming over to America to punt with the hopes of making the NFL.
Headley’s first game
For Headley there has been a transition to get use to punting and coming to America, but he is handling it well.
“The first game I ever watched was the game I was playing in. I’ve only been here three months and I first picked up a football six months ago. But I am learning fast,” Headley said. “With rugby punts, or as you guys call them ‘pooch punts’, it is similar since you gotta get under the ball a bit, but the spiral is completely different so that’s why I moved to Melvin, Australia to train for four months before I came here. I am still learning every day but hopefully I got it by the time I am in a four year college.”
But even with the learning curve Headley still offers many advantages that American-style punters can’t.
“Australian punters offer a unique advantage since they roll out, opposed to American punters who just drop back,” Rams offensive line coach, Eduardo Nuno, explains. “The extra seconds that adds allows the punt coverage team more time to get downfield and down the ball to give the defense good field position.”
Headley on the field
Having an Australian style punter has paid off big time for the Rams in recent years. In the 2015 State title game against Saddleback College Australian punter Michael Sleep-Dalton played a critical role in helping the Rams win the game 26-14.
“In the 2015 title game Saddleback started inside their own 20-yard line nine times. It was very critical in helping us win that game,” head coach Jimmy Collins said.
Since Headley can take off and run, it forces the opposing team to adapt their strategy. On two separate occasions this season Headley has taken the ball and ran instead of punting and in the process making big plays. The first was the aforementioned 22-yard run against American River, but the second time Headley did it against Santa Rosa it was even more spectacular.
On a fourth and 15 on their own 21-yard line, Headley got the snap and ran towards the left. Burning past the the defenders, Headley streaked down the opposing team’s sideline before being hit out of bounds at the Santa Rosa 23-yard line, gaining 56-yards on the trick play and electrifying the stadium in the process.
“Louis has converted two first downs this year on the ground, one real critical in the American River game where he really helped swing momentum back in our favor,” Collins said. “All of our Australian punters have been very athletic since they come from that rugby background.”
Since Headley can run with the ball on trick plays the opposing team has to adjust their special teams unit to account for Headley’s athleticism. Instead of running a full on punt block against the Rams, opposing teams have to leave players back to cover the edges in case Headley takes off.
The Road to America
Headley decided to try out punting when someone who had watched him play Aussie rules football told him he had a big boot and should try punting. Before that Headley had been playing since he was three years old and had played semi-professional for three years in Western Australia.
Headley connected with Prokick Australia, a company that helps Aussie rules players learn to punt so they can head to America to play football. Prokick Australia has helped send multiple punters to City College, many of whom moved on to play at the Division-1 level.
“We have had great success with Australian punters, providing them the academic success on campus to be able to graduate and transfer to Division-1 schools,” Collins said. “All of them know each other, some of them can qualify right away to a D-1 school but for the rest of them they will call or email us and say ‘Hey I want to play for you.’ Word travels and they know City College of San Francisco is somewhere where you can get right academically and we play a good brand of football.”
Since Australia has a different education system than the United States many potential punters have to take classes in certain subjects, like U.S. History, so they can qualify to play Division-1 football. Since City College is barred from contacting recruits from outside of California, perspective punters have to make the initial contact with City College.
Coach Nuno is instrumental to the process since he helps them navigate the difficult visa process. A former college football player at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Nuno came to America on an athletic visa from Mexico so he has first-hand experience navigating the byzantine visa process.
The Rams have had this Australian connection since 2009. It started when Collins was contacted by a former teammate at Portland State who was looking to find a junior college that would enroll an Australian punter he was helping out. Since then the Rams have a series of punters from Australia that have played and moved on to Division-1 schools.
Headley has a fellow compatriot on the team in Australian punter Corey Dunn. Dunn was the punter last year for the Rams, and was signed by Iowa State to play for them but was grey shirted, meaning he doesn’t enroll until spring semester. Dunn decided to stick around City College until then and practices with Headley.
Headley’s Future Plans
“It’s great having a mate,” Headley said. “Me and Corey work together and he has been through the same transition that I am going through now.”
Headley mentions a couple things that have made the switch to punting in football hard. “In rugby the ball has more of a bladder, so for kicking there is more a sweet spot,” Headley said. “In football the sweet spot is smaller so it is harder to boot.”
Another difficulty for Headley is that he has to sit on the bench most of the game. In Aussie rules football the action is constant, so keeping still for most of the game until being called upon to punt can be hard for Headley.
Punting at George Rush Stadium, the Ram’s home field, can prove a challenge too.
“I’ve never seen fog like this before,” Headley said. “With the wind and fog it makes it difficult but they say ‘If you can punt here you can punt anywhere.’”
The change of culture however has been easy for Headley.
“It was pretty easy coming over, I thought it would be difficult but it wasn’t.” Headley said. “But I think back home I was a little bit different so to be honest I like the American lifestyle more.”
After the season ends Headley plans to transfer to a four-year college to play. He is optimistic about what the future holds.
“It is paying off so far, I am really excited to see where the next few years take me,” Headley said.
With the skill level Headley possess he has more than enough reason to be optimistic.