American Football: Mid Term Report: The Aussie ruling the roost in San Diego

In 1994 Darren Bennett was kicking in Melbourne. Now, after taking in Los Angeles and Amsterdam, he is punting in the NFL.
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The Independent Online
Heard the one about Aussie Rules footballer who makes it to Hawaii for the NFL's Pro Bowl via a honeymoon in LA and a spring spent among the tulips in Amsterdam? "Yeah, it's a bit crazy," Darren Bennett, the punter for the San Diego Chargers, said. "I sort of have to pinch myself every now and then."

You couldn't make this up. Bennett, a 6ft 3in, 16st Aussie Rules professional won two tickets to Los Angeles in a long-ball kicking contest in Melbourne, where he had played for the local team for six years. Bennett uses the prize as his honeymoon and, through a contact who sells computer software to NFL teams, arranges a try-out with the Chargers, thinking "it would be a bit of fun."

The Chargers invited Bennett back, place him on their practice squad for the 1994 season and then send him to the Amsterdam Admirals to play in the World League in the spring of 1995. Back with the Chargers, Bennett won the punter's job and is eventually acclaimed as one of the best in the league, representing the AFC in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. And, just to prove his old Aussie Rules habits die hard, he made every highlight reel in the country by virtually decapitating a Pittsburgh Steelers opponent in a manner most unbecoming for someone in a position where physical contact is generally shunned.

All the while, Bennett's celebrity is growing so rapidly that he sets up his own Internet page (www.nflaussie.com) to tell the world about Darren's Excellent Adventure.

The Crocodile Dundee of the NFL, Bennett is living proof that truth can be stranger than fiction. Ask Ernie Mills, the almost-headless Steeler, how real Bennett is. "I just clothes-lined him," Bennett recalled happily. "When the Steelers players were discussing the Pro Bowl voting, Mills told his team-mates that he didn't know my name but they all had to vote for me."

Bennett, a 31-year-old born in Sydney, put his own eloquent case before the Pro Bowl jury by finishing his rookie NFL season ranked second in the league with a 44.7-yard average per punt and has been just as successful this season.

Not bad for someone with this recollection of receiving his first snap at his Chargers try-out. "It hit me right on the end of my nose. I didn't know how fast snaps came. I'm sure everyone there thought I didn't have a clue. Then I shanked the punt and I thought, `I've blown it.' All the coaches were laughing behind their hands."

But the power in Bennett's boot more than compensated for the Teflon on his hands and his virtual ignorance about the sport. The first problem was overcome with practice, the second by a season in the World League.

"It was kind of weird being an Aussie playing American football in Amsterdam," says Bennett. "But I had the chance to learn about punting in a game situation with guys coming after you. I knew that one of the big barriers for me getting the Chargers job was that I had never played in a live game."

Bennett's success made a nonsense of the initial suspicions harboured by Chuck Priefer, the Chargers special teams coach. "I never imagined he could kick in the NFL," Priefer said. "The only thing I saw was great leg strength. He didn't know how to catch a snap, the time constraints, the steps you need, where you want to kick the ball, how to drive the ball, how to pooch kick the ball. Nothing. He didn't even know the rules.

"It was like dealing with a six-year-old in relation to the game. But he is amazing."

Coming from a nation which prides itself on the macho nature of of its sportsmen, Bennett also needed to come to terms with American football equipment, both philosophically and practically.

"When I first got here I thought, `These guys are just big, fat and slow.' But when I actually got to see them in camp and how athletic and strong they are, you know why we have to wear pads," he said.

"The first time I put on a helmet, I didn't know what a good-fitting one was, so when I went to punt the ball, it slipped down over my eyes and I couldn't see. The coach was again laughing at me. The first time I wore shoulder pads, they were so restrictive I couldn't breathe, so I thought I'd better loosen them - and when I went to catch the snap they were up around my ears."

At least living by the sea in southern California with wife Rosemary and baby son Will can't be too much of culture shock for the big Aussie, who intends to return to a coastal life in Australia when his unlikely NFL career comes to an end.

"I want to get my charter boat captain's license and maybe eventually work or own charter boats," he explains. "We have a big marlin fishery up in the north of Queensland and Western Australia.

"That's a bit pie in the sky but playing in the NFL was a bit pie in the sky a couple of years ago." Sounds like just another chapter in Darren's Excellent Adventure.

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