Just two weeks after Nathan Chapman signed a contract with the Green Bay Packers in the spring of 2004, the National Football League team traded up to draft another punter, Ohio State’s B.J. Sander, in the third round.
Chapman, a native of Melbourne and former Australian rules professional of considerable repute, wasn’t worried.
“I was like, ‘OK, I come from a game where they draft players, but the best guy plays.’ I didn’t know it but they were paying this guy $1 million off the salary cap, so he’s going to have to work out.”
Chapman, who was then 28, also had no idea his three-year deal wasn’t guaranteed, but he found out soon enough. Prior to the start of the 2004 regular season, the Packers set him free. Sander went to NFL Europe, then spent 2005 as Green Bay’s starting punter.
Chapman returned for another kick at the NFL can, but nothing came of a Chicago mini-camp and a workout in Cincinnati in early 2005. He went back home to Melbourne to work in sales for his father-in-law, but his surprising and disappointing NFL experience had planted the seed for what is now Prokick Australia, a preparatory program that counts seven current NFL punters and 13 drafted recently by Canadian Football League teams among its alumni.
At about $15,000 AUS for the full program, it’s pricey, and by invitation only. Chapman and John Smith, a former kicker who spent some time in the CFL in the 1980s, are the principals.
“For somebody coming from across the world, there is a lot to take in; different culture, different environment, different food,” Chapman said. “There’s also what you’re expected to know, what you’re expected to do, the consistency of kicking needed, so it’s a double-shock. And when I tried it, there were only maybe a couple of people who had done it prior. Now, we set the player up to be able to go over and do a job.”
Prokick has found a successful formula by concentrating on placing its grads with Division 1 schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The program website boasts 190 full-ride scholarships and a financial saving of about $45 million. James Smith, a 27-year-old punter in the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ camp, is one of them. He earned a full ride at the University of Cincinnati worth about $250,000 US, and has nothing but good things to say about Prokick.
“It’s the drive and dedication of those who join and the guys at the top level, so Nathan and Johnny, they do a great job of teaching a punting style and the things we need to know in order to get us over there,” said Smith. “They’re very good at selecting the guys they want to take and the guys they are prepared to teach, to be able to send over guys who will do well.”
They have a leg up, so to speak, by virtue of their Aussie rules background.
“When you grow up playing Australian rules, you’re kicking the ball the same way kids over here would throw a football or a baseball,” said Smith. “So from the age you can walk, you’re outside with your brother or your father kicking a football around. You grow up with that innate ability to drop and kick the ball. And in Australian rules, instead of kicking the ball to a person, you’re kicking to a position on the field.”
Their directional punting abilities are prized by most coaches, and they also have the leg strength necessary to kick it high and long. The best of them have won Ray Guy awards as the top NCAA punter and have landed NFL jobs.
The CFL’s global draft has offered another opportunity. The Hamilton Tiger-Cats selected Joel Whitford in the 2021 global draft and added two more Australians this year; Bailey Flint and Blake Hayes. Josh Bartel, who debuted in 2012 and played seven seasons with Hamilton, Saskatchewan and B.C., was the first Prokick grad to stick on a CFL roster.
“We love the CFL,” said Chapman. “It’s a great game. It’s fast, exciting. The rules are a little different, you get to punt on third down. For us that’s a win, that’s unreal. We love it. The guys get to show their skills.
“I can’t see why it doesn’t continue to snowball and the CFL kicking game becomes really creative because now they’ve got some tools. Our guys do kick from the pocket, they do kick on the run, they do kick around the corner, they do kick it away from the returner. When the coaches understand what’s available to them and find a way to harness those skills, they can get creative and write new plays.”