Meet Colorado Kicker James Stefanou, the Oldest Dude in College Football

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterOctober 4, 2018

FILE - In this Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, Colorado place kicker James Stefanou walks the sidelines in the first half of an NCAA college football against Northern Colorado in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
B/R

At the age of 29, James Stefanou decided he wanted to play college football. For the Australian, the time was finally right. 

His day job at a real estate development company was no longer challenging him. His professional soccer career had stalled. And as he and his soon-to-be wife, Laura, planned their wedding, he kept thinking he wanted to try something different.

At the same time, he finally listened to two coaches who felt he could blossom into a star—in a sport he knew almost nothing about.

Two years later, Stefanou is a 31-year-old sophomore at Colorado and the football team's starting field-goal kicker. Nearly 9,000 miles from his home of Melbourne, Australia, Stefanou is the oldest player in FBS, although to him, his age is merely a number.

"I might be 31," Stefanou says in a thick Australian accent, "but I'm pretty young at heart. It doesn't feel different at all for me. I've always been a little like that. You can call it immature if you'd like, but I just like being one of the boys."

To be clear, this is not some sort of early midlife crisis. Kicking isn't just some newfound hobby that Stefanou plans to abandon a few years from now when he's left Colorado with a degree in journalism, his current major.

Sure, it's a good story: the aging Aussie kicker who regularly boots 60-yarders in practice. He's more than a decade older and wiser than most of his teammates.

But Stefanou doesn't want to be just a good story. He hopes to one day kick in the NFL, regardless of how that sounds to those who assume such a lofty goal take years, if not decades, to achieve. Those who have worked with him, however, don't see his quest as far-fetched.

"He can absolutely kick professionally," says Nathan Chapman of Prokick Australia, the punting and kicking academy that groomed and helped place Stefanou at Colorado. "He's got the ability to do it, but he's got to put runs on the board. Sports are not always a fairy tale."

"He's got a big enough leg, and he's accurate," Chapman adds. "So why wouldn't he be given a chance?"

Courtesy of Colorado Athletics

American football has been a part of Stefanou's life for only a few years. Soccer, or football as it's recognized around the world, was his passion since he was a child. He grew up a fan of Manchester United and as a player earned a spot on the Australia U19 team when he was just 17. He eventually played professionally for South Melbourne FC and Heidelberg United FC as a defender.

Groin injuries hampered his play, although Stefanou kept at it through his late 20s. Throughout the stints of rehab and comebacks, however, a familiar voice was always there, hoping to steer him in another direction.

Johnny Smith, who works with Chapman at Prokick Australia, was convinced Stefanou had a future in American football. Over the years, Stefanou would stop by Prokick and dabble with the idea of switching sports.

"We have a phrase in Prokick for the older guys," Smith says. "Ticktock. Because time is the enemy ... I finally asked him: 'Are you gonna f--king do this or not? You need to take that God-given talent and put it in the arena, in the environment that it needs to be in.'"

In October of 2016, Stefanou began training with Prokick. What stuck out initially, according to his coaches, wasn't necessarily his natural power but how much elevation he got on his kicks—making his field goals and point-after attempts nearly impossible to block.

As Stefanou progressed, the conversation soon morphed from simply teaching him to placing him with a college football program in the U.S.—something Prokick has done with great regularity with Australian punters and kickers in recent years.

Since 2013, each Ray Guy Award winner (given to the nation's best punter) has been a Prokick alumnus. Dozens of field-goal kickers around the country across all levels have gotten their starts in the academy.

Stefanou received interest from Maryland, Houston, Hawaii and Colorado. While Hawaii was intriguing, Stefanou worried "it would've been too much of a holiday all the time." 

After researching Colorado through Google, Stefanou was sold on the school and the city of Boulder. In July of 2017, two weeks after Laura and he were married, the two uprooted their lives and traveled nearly 9,000 miles to their new home.

"She was happy when I made the decision," Stefanou says of Laura. "And she was gonna follow me wherever I went. That was comforting, and it also made this change much easier to do."

Courtesy of Colorado Athletics

When he arrived at Colorado, his teammates, some of whom might have been unsure how a 30-year-old would fit in, warmed to his presence. Stefanou never felt uncomfortable being the oldest player in the locker room, nor did he worry about how he would be received.

"I didn't give a s--t about my age," he says, "And I've certainly heard a lot about it. There's no age limit in college, so why shouldn't I be out there playing?"

Sure, the difference in age shows up every now and then. Like his marital status: He goes home to his wife after practice, his teammates do not. Or his taste in music: '80s and classic rock versus, he says, whatever his teammates listen to these days. But for the most part, Stefanou's transition has been seamless. Those who saw what he was capable of knew almost immediately he'd be an asset.

"When he first got here, you could tell he was a talented athlete," Colorado holder Josh Goldin says. "He just kicks the crap out of the ball. The noise it makes when it comes off his foot is something different. I've seen him hit from 65 yards in practice. He can really boot it."

Stefanou made his debut in September 2017 against Colorado State. Still growing comfortable with the rules and his kicking routine, he converted on one of his two field goals and an extra point. He followed that by making his next nine field goals before missing a 50-yard attempt against Arizona more than a month later.

In his first season, Stefanou converted on 17 of 22 field goals (77.3 percent), including a 53-yarder, and made all 35 of his extra points. This year, Stefanou has connected on five of his seven field goals; he's also hit all 20 of his extra points, making him a perfect 55-of-55 for his career.  

His father, George, made the trip to the United States for his first two games last season and his first three contests this year.

Courtesy of Colorado Athletics

"l was very confident he had the ability to succeed as a kicker," George says. "Kicking any kind of ball always came very naturally for James, from the time he could walk. His drive, passion and adaptability to a new country and culture has made me extremely proud of how he has handled the transition."

George plans to return for the end of Colorado's season and any postseason games in which the Buffaloes may be involved. After beating UCLA 38-16 Friday night—a game that featured a 41-yard Stefanou field goal and five extra points—Colorado is ranked in the Top 25, currently No. 21, for the first time this season, leads the Pac-12 South and is the only undefeated team in the conference.

Back in Melbourne, Stefanou's family and friends have fully embraced his new life. On the weekends, they get up as early at 5 a.m. on Sundays to watch him play on the appropriate channels or streams.

On the other side of the world, with the love of his life by his side, in a sport he has played for all of two years, Stefanou has finally settled in.

The hope is that his performance over the next two-and-a-half years will earn him a look from NFL teams. If and when the opportunity presents itself, he will be a 34-year-old rookie.

Until then, he will enjoy the playful ribbings of his teammates, endure the less playful ribbings from opposing fans and smile at the initial shock that comes from those who hear about the oldest player in the FBS.

"People continuously ask: 'How old are you? How old are you? Should you be playing college football? It doesn't bother me," Stefanou says. "Come beat me then. If you're better than me, come beat me.

"If you're good enough, you're good enough."

                      

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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