Former AFL players helping Australians take a punt on American dream

A soccer field behind the Veneto Club in Bulleen may be a long way from the madness of Super Bowl week in Glendale, Arizona, but Darren Bennett and Sav Rocca understand what their Australian-born NFL compatriots must be feeling this week.

Bennett, 58, is the former West Coast and Melbourne footballer with the booming right leg who went on to become an NFL punting great, as a two-time first team All Pro (1995 and 2000), earning selection in the San Diego Chargers’ 1990s All-Decade team, and induction into the Chargers’ hall of Fame.

Sav Rocca and Darren Bennett will be watching the Super Bowl closely next week.Credit:Eddie Jim

Now based in Oklahoma and a US citizen since 2010, Bennett is back in Melbourne for the first time in more than a decade, joining Rocca, another former AFL star who forged a distinguished punting career, in overseeing their new Puntfactory punting program with a batch of young talent on Monday.

While working with a batch of college and NFL hopefuls, Bennett and Rocca have been keeping a close eye on the US, and understand the excitement and nerves Australians Jordan Mailata and Arryn Siposs must be feeling as they prepare for next Monday’s Super Bowl, one of sport’s biggest events.

Mailata, the 165-kilogram rugby league convert, is guaranteed to play, for he has emerged as a key offensive lineman for the favoured Philadelphia Eagles, but former AFL forward Siposs has work to do to regain his spot from 14-year veteran Brett Kern, having been absent for more than a month because of an ankle issue.

Bennett said he was hopeful Siposs would regain his spot.

“They are saying that he is healthy enough to play, so we’ll see. But Brett Kern, Brett is a good veteran, but he didn’t punt that great in the last game,” Bennett told The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

“If you are ever going to get healthy and fit, it’s for the Super Bowl, and it’s in Arizona, where it’s not cold. At least, he’ll have the warm weather – we’ll see how it goes.

“When I watch Philly, all I do is watch Jordan Mailata the whole time. And then when we get on four down, I watch for the punts. It’s pretty cool to watch – Jordan might be the best in his position in the country now. He is huge. The last game against San Francisco, the guy [his opponent] just gave up. He was trying to block. There were times when Jordan was just there, and he is like: ‘I can’t even see the quarterback. He is that big.’”

Rocca, the former Collingwood and North Melbourne forward who spent 2007-10 with Philadelphia and 2011-13 with Washington, has also kept a close eye on Siposs.

“I hope he can play. I actually hope he knows now whether he is playing or not. It’s just the waiting, but they may only make that call in the last couple of days,” Rocca said.

Rocca had been a goal-kicking coach at Carlton before linking with Puntfactory.

Riley Hubbard in action on Monday.Credit:Eddie Jim

Four of the company’s prospects include Nick McLarty, 19, who played in the NAB League with the Oakleigh Chargers but had his season ruined by injury last season. Bennett says the 200-centimetre McLarty has an “NFL leg”. Riley Hubbard, 21, Chevy Edwards, 24, and Adam Jacklin, 24, are also eying college scholarships this year. All are working on penetration and craft, including spirals, bananas and pocket and drive punts, understanding the need to kick within 1.4 seconds of taking possession in college football, and 1.25 seconds in the NFL.

Former Los Angeles Raider turned AFL convert Dwayne Armstrong, who had two seasons with Essendon under Kevin Sheedy, is also involved in a program rivalling Nathan Chapman’s Prokick.

Bennett said fulfilling academic criteria was crucial to what his program stood for, while he and Rocca also helped support players locally and when in the US, with Bennett having an “open door” policy.

“I retired in 2005 and I already had young guys trying to contact me. Mat McBriar was the first guy – Mat went to the University of Hawaii, then played 10 years with the Cowboys, probably one of the best Aussies who ever played. He was way better than me,” Bennett said.

“It had put us on the track of trying to support those young boys. We know America is a long way from home. We [Bennett and wife Rosemary] have had over 100 guys stay with us, including Sav Rocca, since I retired.”

Amid the bushy surrounds, the bellbirds and a visit from a kookaburra, McLarty, Hubbard, Edwards and Jacklin were like sponges when Bennett and Rocca spoke, the pair tinkering with techniques and whispering the nuances of a craft many don’t fully understand. All know it’s a punt they are taking – but one worth doing.

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