There is seemingly no end of sports statistics for those obsessed with numbers, and recently, a new record, straight from the department of dubious records, was established in America’s National Football League, when for the first time in a regular season game, an Australian player fielded a punt from another Australian player.
When you examine the disclaimers offered by this record, you need to ask if this achievement has ever taken place in an exhibition or playoff game.
The punter was Jordan Berry, who hails from the Essendon suburb of Melbourne, where his father served as a skills coach for the Bombers. Jordan Berry is described as an Aussie Rules player, but he attended university in the United States, playing as a punter for the Eastern Kentucky Colonels, where he was recognized as the Special Teams Player of the Year all four years in which he played gridiron in the Ohio Valley Conference.
We feel it is a bit of a stretch on the part of those who claim Berry was an Aussie Rules player. First of all, he never played in the AFL. Secondly, born in 1991, Berry would have been just 19 when he made his debut as a college punter, so if he played Rules, it was not for long. We do acknowledge, however, that at 1.96 metres tall and weighing 88 kg., he certainly had the physical attributes of an AFL-er, and would be considered huge by any American football punter standards.
The recipient of Berry’s record-setting regular season punt, which he kicked in the first quarter of a regular season game as a regular member of the Pittsburgh Steelers special teams squad, was an Australian expatriate whose name NRL fans will no doubt recognise, the 2014 NRL Player of the Year, Jarryd Hayne.
Here is a look at his early rugby playing days, followed by another at his exploits with the Parramatta Eels of the NRL.
Jarryd Hayne (15 February 1988) first stepped onto a rugby field at the age of six. In those days, he was playing junior rugby league for three different teams, Campbelltown City, Cabramatta and East Campbelltown. He had the DNA of an athlete, thanks to his Fijian father Manoa Thompson, who played rugby professionally for the Auckland Warriors, South Sydney and Western Suburbs. He also played representative for his Fiji homeland. Jarryd Hayne attended, amongst others, the Westfield Sports High School. In a school filled with future athletes from all sports, he had such prodigious talent that he won the national schoolboys championship in the 100-metre hurdles, even though he never truly trained for that event. With his size and speed, was it possible that he simply ran through the hurdles rather than going over them? In any event, he dropped out of school to chase the dream of playing in the NRL.
He was just a few months beyond his 18th birthday when he made his first appearance for the Eels in May of 2006 in a match against the Penrith Panthers. He played in 16 games that season and scored 17 tries, including a four-try outburst against the Newcastle Knights, which the Eels won handily. His efforts in that debut season earned him the Rookie of the Year award for the league, the similar award from his team, and a spot on the Kangaroos Squad. He had started the season at centre, but was moved to fullback, where his scoring improved. Hayne scored the winning try in the First Qualifying Final of the 2007 series.
Continued success attracted controversy when he was accused of diving in a narrow victory over Brisbane, accusations that were later declared without merit.
His best season in the NRL was arguably in 2009. He tried playing five-eighth, but did not display the same productivity as he did at fullback, so he returned to that position. He had six consecutive Man of the Match awards in the latter part of the season from rounds 19 to 24. He was just the second fullback in history to wear the crown of Dally M Player of the Year. He ran over 4,400 metres with the ball to lead all players in the competition. That season did see him slighted by the selectors for the Golden Boot Award. His performance in the Grand Final was declared sub-par, but still, many pundits and astute observers as one of the greatest individual efforts ever in the league’s history.
Hayne’s good play continued for the next three seasons, and 2013 saw him named as a co-captain of the Eels. He showed his versatility not only a scorer of tries, but also was quite impressive on defence to the degree that he was tapped to play for NSW in the 2013 Origin Series.
The 2014 season was a continuance of 2013. After the first 10 rounds of the season, he was in the lead of the Dally M medal rankings. He produced a Man of the Match performance playing fullback in the State of Origin Series. The players’ poll voted him the best player in the game. He scored his 100th career try from 50m in a game against the Raiders, becoming just the third Eels player to achieve that milestone. He was the leading scorer of the league with 20 tries for the season. Many awards followed, including his second Dally M.
When he decided it was time to switch sports after the 2014 season, it was not the first time the idea had cropped up. Greater Western Sydney had offered him $1.5 million in 2009 to quit rugby and play in the AFL. He took slightly more money over the course of four years to remain with the eels.
In 2011, he made his intentions known to go to the U.S. and play in the NFL, taking the same route of playing at the collegiate level that Jordan Berry followed. Because he had dropped out of high school in Australia, however, he was not eligible to play college football, a fact that was undoubtedly bad news to many of the NCSS Division One football coaches.
In October of 2014, he announced his intention to leave the NRL to pursue a career in the NFL, even though the NRL and the Eels were ready to make him the richest NRL player in history.
He eventually signed for slightly more money, exchange rates aside, with the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL. The deal reportedly will pay him almost $5 million USD if he makes the team, which at this point in time, he has. In early games, he has shown that his phenomenal athleticism is equal to the rigours of the NFL, but his chosen position of running back is notorious for supplying premature conclusions to athletes’ careers.
Will Jarryd Hayne successfully make the transition from rugby league to U.S. football? Others, including Jordan Berry mentioned earlier in this article, and most notably Sav Rocca who was a successful punter for NFL teams, have carved out a niche, but Hayne’s switch to one of the more dangerous and skilled positions in the game represents a far greater challenge.
It would appear that he has much better prospects than did Michael Jordan when he made his ill-conceived attempt at switching from basketball as the NBA’s all-time premier player to the game of baseball, but it will require some time for the eventual outcome to reveal itself.