A 9,000-Mile Kick: The Journey of Houston's 27-Year-Old Freshman Punter

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterDecember 14, 2016

Image courtesy of the University of Houston

From atop the Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of the largest sporting venues in the world, Melinda and Norman Roy could barely see their son.

Dane Roy was down there somewhere, all 6'7" of him, outfitted in white shorts, high black socks with yellow stripes, and a sleeveless red jersey that exposed the tattooed anchor on his left forearm, a tribute to his late grandfather.

His life was about to change, even if he didn't know it. Tossed in front of more than 100,000 people watching the 2015 Australian Football League Grand Final, Australia's version of the Super Bowl, the 26-year-old would boot an American football 73 meters—roughly 79 yards—to win a nationwide contest and send him to the other side of the world.

The kick led him to where he is now: the University of Houston, 9,000 miles from home, where he's the starting punter.

"We could hear the thump, and it just kept sailing," Melinda says. "After that, we ran off to the pub to celebrate."

Before that kick, Roy sold ice cream. He was good at it, too. He spent his days behind a desk, almost always on the phone. It wasn't just a job; it was a good job. But he wanted more.

A friend alerted him to the punting contest just in time for him to enter. Growing up in Bunyip, a small town about 50 miles from Melbourne, he'd always played a lot of Australian rules football.

"I've been kicking a football ever since I have been able to stand up," Roy says. "I didn't expect to win it. You can't predict something amazing like that is actually going to happen."

Dane Roy after winning the punting contest.
Dane Roy after winning the punting contest.Image via Melinda Roy

Nathan Chapman, one of the foremost experts on punting in the world, had stood behind Roy and had a great view of his monstrous, victorious boot. Once it landed, Chapman embraced Roy and handed off the trophy. In a frenzy, the two were then hurried off as the main event continued.

As part of the grand prize for winning the contest, Roy earned a spot in Chapman's Prokick Australia—a school for punters and kickers that has become a pipeline. The last four winners of the Ray Guy Award, given to the best punter in college football, are Prokick Australians: Tom Hornsey of Memphis in 2013, Tom Hackett of Utah in 2014 and '15, and Mitch Wishnowsky of Utah, who this year beat out two other Prokick finalists.

Winning the competition allowed Roy to spend his days working with Chapman. It provided the physical training and technique he needed to improve. It was structure.

Roy had been well aware of the program. He'd badly wanted to join long before but couldn't afford it.

Distance and power clearly weren't the issue for Roy once he kicked his way into the program. Chapman knew that from seeing him on the field. But the art of punting is more than applying force. That was what he had to learn.

"We had to change a few things," Chapman says. "We had to pull everything back to 50 yards and make it as high as we could. His leg strength comes with ease. A five-second, 50-yard kick is just him swinging his leg forward. It's about him not trying to do too much and keep control."

As Roy worked on acquiring more hang time and tightening up his spiral, he took his first trip to America—another perk of winning the contest. Traveling with his longtime girlfriend, Chiara Gilligan, Roy took in his first NFL game, the New Orleans Saints against the Carolina Panthers in the Superdome.

Although he had no idea how the game was scored or why players were positioned the way they were, he was blown away by the spectacle of it all. It seemed so grand in scale.

During the trip, he visited college campuses around the country. At USC, he couldn't believe everything he was seeing—the facilities, the stadium and the royal treatment—were for one college football team.

At his first stop, at Southern Miss, Roy enjoyed a punting session with Guy, award namesake and NFL Hall of Fame punter—another contest prize perk. He soaked up Guy's guidance like a sponge, aware of the opportunity even if he didn't understand the game just yet.

After the lesson, Guy and Roy went to a Hooters in Hattiesburg. It was here that Roy began to learn the rules of football: how the game was scored, the downs, the nuances of punting and more.

When he returned to Australia, he did so with a new perspective and purpose. He changed what he ate, altered the way he trained. Kicking became more than a hobby.

"I saw a change in him overnight the day he got back from his trip," Chapman says. "Never missed a training session. Was always prepared. Always on time. It felt like I got a professional athlete. As soon as he decided that this was what he wanted to do, he was all in."

Over the course of a few months, he filled out his long frame with 25 good pounds—pushing his weight up to 230.

Dane Roy playing Aussie rules.
Dane Roy playing Aussie rules.Image via Melinda Roy

Seeing his dedication and rapid improvement, Chapman began the next part of the Prokick process: He began communicating with colleges that might be in need of a punter.

Then-Houston head coach Tom Herman, who had spent time with standout Ohio State punter Cameron Johnston, a Prokick alum, connected with Chapman to see if he had someone in mind. Herman wanted someone athletic—someone who could come in and commandeer the job immediately. Roy fit the description.

Before Roy agreed to join the Cougars, he had to Google where the city of Houston is on a map.

"Well, it's pretty close to the ocean," he told himself, "and has a nice warm climate." He also liked the colors of the team. He heard good things about the business program.

He knew very little about the structure of college in America, but that was of no immediate concern. That part he would figure out.

In the summer of 2016, Roy left his former life behind and enrolled in the University of Houston. The players gave him light grief for his age not long after he arrived. The strength coaches made cracks about his lack of flexibility. He fit right in.

"He's great. He's fun. The kids love his accent," Herman, interviewed just before he was named the head coach at Texas, said. "The guy has a lot of experience and maturity. He's a 27-year-old man that just happens to be a true freshman."

On September 3, as Houston took the field against Oklahoma for its first game of the season, Roy emerged from the tunnel. He got down on one knee, looked up at the sky and kissed the tattoo on his left forearm.

This was not only Roy's college football debut—it was also his late grandfather's birthday.

His parents, in the stands, much closer to the field this time around, knew little about a sport they would eventually fall in love with. But they knew it felt right.

And then they waited. And waited. And waited. Houston mounted long drives to start, which meant Roy's services weren't necessary.

"As much as we wanted the Cougars to do well," Melinda Roy says, "we also wanted to see Dane."

Early in the third quarter, finally faced with a punting situation, Roy trotted onto the field.

"I can't remember much," Roy says. "But apparently, it was really loud. It was such a surreal experience. I had never been through anything like that before. I had no idea what it would be like."

His first punt traveled a suitable 42 yards. He jogged off and shared the moment with his teammates. The smile was etched on his face long after the ball left his foot.

Growing up, Roy had played just about every sport: tennis, basketball, golf. He was gifted at baseball and grew particularly fond of it. And of course, there was Aussie rules.

Coaches were intrigued by his size. His height made him a weapon in the air. They knew he could kick, but some weren't nearly as enamored by that as they were by his length. That was where they wanted to use him most.

As he grew older, Roy balanced athletics with his professional life. He emceed trivia nights on occasion and dabbled in the world of radio with a show on Saturday mornings. Unsure of exactly what he wanted to do, he liked the idea of having his voice heard by an even larger audience.

"He's always liked to entertain," Melinda Roy says of her son. "And he really likes a microphone."

Dane Roy during a trivia night.
Dane Roy during a trivia night.Image via Melinda Roy

But in need of a stable income, Roy picked up a sales job with Peters Ice Cream in Australia last June. Each and every day, after he spent his early morning at the gym, he cold-called.

One after the next, he phoned businesses to see if they needed more ice cream. It was monotonous, but he liked the competition of selling more than his peers. He also didn't mind the bonuses.

When the company needed a face for its ice cream, it asked Roy if he would have any interest in modeling. Soon large cardboard cutouts of Roy began popping up in 7-Elevens around Melbourne.

"He's everywhere," Melinda says.

It is late afternoon on Thursday, September 29. In a few hours, Houston will dismantle Connecticut in front of a prime-time audience. Around the world in Berwick, however, Melinda and Norman Roy are enjoying a morning cup of coffee.

"Today is a computer day," Melinda says, meaning that Houston's game will not be televised. They'll huddle around the desktop and watch Dane until mid-afternoon, still a bit uneasy with the rules but learning rapidly.

It was not how they expected to be spending a Friday morning, but they've grown to love the ritual. They are still absorbing the structure of the sport, which will take at least another season. But they are growing to appreciate the many intricacies.

This season, as a 27-year-old freshman, Roy averaged 41 yards per punt. During his final three games, once he was able to settle in, he averaged nearly 44 yards.

He’s still trying to balance his power and hang time. If he does, he will be deadly.

During his first season, however, he didn't just punt. Roy also executed two critical fakes down the stretch in key situations: a pass that helped the Cougars upset No. 5 Louisville, 36-10, and an 11-yard run on 4th-and-3 in the season-ending loss to Memphis.

His parents were shocked by that one. They spent the following few days laughing and celebrating the moment with friends.

"We just love to see him do things that aren't the norm for his position," Melinda says. "I am addicted to college football now. It's disappointing that it's nearly finished." Houston will end its season against San Diego State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday.

Although the coach who recruited him is no longer there, it doesn't change why Dane came to Houston in the first place.

His plan is to leave the university with a degree—something he can take with him back to Australia or to a job in the United States. And yes, he wants to see how far he can push it as a collegiate punter as he masters an art form he has only just started to learn.

"If everything falls into line and he goes to the NFL, that would be fantastic," Norman Roy says. "If it doesn't work and he comes home with a degree, we'll be just as happy."

No matter what happens next—no matter the distance Roy punts a football over the years to come—he is doing something he loves in a land he is still exploring.

The days of cold-calling customers have ended, at least for the next few years.

"He keeps kicking himself with how lucky he is," Melinda says.

All quotes obtained firsthand except as noted.


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