Josh Bartel was playing football with Wodonga a decade ago when he decided to chase a career in the National Football League as a punter.
The NFL is the world's biggest sport for attendance (it averaged almost 70,000 in 2016-17), but he missed out there, only to make a strong impact in the Canadian Football League.
Now back home in Wodonga for the year, Bartel caught up with The Border Mail's ANDREW MOIR earlier this week.
ANDREW MOIR: How did your career as a punter come about?
JOSH BARTEL: It was a Mad Monday and we were full of ...
AM: Jungle Juice?
JB: Yeah, jungle juice and I'd been kicking alright and (coach Jarrod Twitt) 'Twitty' said I should think about it and Sam Maher encouraged me to have a crack at it as well. I didn't know if he (Maher) was stirring me up or not, it was a Mad Monday idea and I followed through with it.
AM: Hey, that's the first time in history that a good idea has come out of a Mad Monday.
JB: (Laughs) There you go, we're breaking records.
AM: So where did it go from there?
JB: I got in contact with (former Brisbane Lions' player) Nathan Chapman at ProKick Australia and went for an assessment at Princes Park (in Melbourne) and I had a pretty good session. He said, 'do you want to take this further', so I played half a season at Wodonga and I told 'Twitty' I'd give up the footy and concentrate on the punting and he was actually really supportive, which was good. I think I was going down there nearly every second weekend, but for the first six months I was a little rusty, just a completely different ball and technique, but once you get the fundamentals down, I didn't take long to pick it up.
AM: So did you first have a crack at breaking into the NFL?
JB: Yeah, Scott Crowe, a Ballarat kid, and myself bought a one-way ticket over to America, hoping to get a couple of workouts, but it was bad timing because the NFL had a lockout.
AM: Did you try again once the competition got back up and running?
JB: I lived in Green Bay for a month with another Aussie family, (former Carlton and Collingwood player) Chris and (his wife) Lauren Bryan, and Chris ended up playing with the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers and they had two young kids, so I was pretty much their Nanny, they used to call me 'The Nanny'.
AM: What were you like?
JB: I was fine, I was awesome, the kids and I were the same maturity, so it was easy to get along with them.
AM: So it was like, 'here you go kids, here's some chocolate'.
JB: (Laughs) Yeah, chocolate and lollies.
AM: Did you have another try to make it?
JB: I went to a free agent camp in San Diego, but nothing eventuated. Five of us from ProKick went and had a crack and one got signed, Jordan Berry to Pittsburgh Steelers.
AM: So you found your way to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League in 2012 and it started really well.
JB: Yeah, I made the East Division All-Star Team in my first two years and was named Rookie of the Year in my first, so that was pretty cool. In my second year (2013) we played Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Grey Cup, which is the grand final, and they beat us. I got traded after that and got a call at three o'clock in the morning here in Australia and the only team I didn't want to get traded to was Saskatchewan because they beat us. I ended up at Saskatchewan and absolutely loved my time (four years) there.
AM: How big is the sport in Canada?
JB: Obviously ice hockey is the number one sport in Canada, but I feel like the CFL is the second biggest. In that Grey Cup (grand final), I think the crowd was close to 60,000 people or at least around that mark.
AM: How passionate are the fans?
JB: The Saskatchewan fans are probably the most passionate. I tell people they're equivalent to Collingwood supporters.
AM: That's unfortunate.
JB: Yeah, very passionate. I think it was the Grey Cup, I was warming up, kicking some balls and the 'Sas' fans were screaming, 'Bartel, get back to Australia, you're no good' (the expletives have been deleted as this is a family newspaper), that was a bit of an eye-opener because I like to interact with the fans, I find it fun, those guys shot me down pretty quick and then I ended up playing there the next season.
The Saskatchewan fans are probably the most passionate. I tell people they're equivalent to Collingwood supporters. AM: That's unfortunate. JB: Yeah, very passionate. I think it was the Grey Cup, I was warming up, kicking some balls and the 'Sas' fans were screaming, 'Bartel, get back to Australia, you're no good' (the expletives have been deleted), that was a bit of an eye-opener because I like to interact with the fans, I find it fun, those guys shot me down pretty quick.Josh Bartel
AM: How did they take you?
JB: They were really good. I was scared when I first went there, but once you play for them they love you and when you play against them, they hate you.
AM: As you said earlier, they're like Collingwood fans.
JB: Yeah, pretty much, I love the fans at 'Sas', that's my favourite team.
AM: You finished with the one year at BC Lions (in Vancouver) last year, so had seven seasons all up, it's a long way for a kid from Kiewa?
JB: Yeah, you certainly learn a lot, in another country and playing a brand new sport that I didn't really understand too well. You're meeting all kinds of team-mates from different walks of life, you've got lawyers, gangsters, rappers all playing on the same team.
AM:What's been some of the more unique experiences you've had over there?
JB: I guess because we're always travelling, you're always meeting different people at the airports, I met (Bill) Goldberg, the WWE wrestler, I got some time with him. I remember one time in Calgary, it was sunny the day before the game and 26 degrees, the next day we were playing in the snow.
AM: What's the coldest temperature you've played in?
JB: It was minus 25 degrees and absolutely freezing. The ground is frozen, so you're playing on ice and being a punter, you're standing around, but I was right, I sat next to the heater. That's when you start thinking about being home and being in the Australian sun and here I am freezing my backside off. I get 11 months of sun (four months in Canada and seven in Australia), but there's one month in Canada which is an absolute nightmare.
AM: Standing around as a punter, it must take some getting used to?
JB: It's a bit frustrating when you're playing team sports, like footy and cricket, you're always involved in the game. With punting, you might only punt three times in a game, you might be on the field for only a minute. It's hard to change the game when all you've got to do is kick a barrel. That's one thing I've found, trying to get involved, but you can't because you're so limited with game time on the field.
AM: As a punter, you can be vulnerable, have you ever been smashed in a tackle?
JB: There was one game where I was playing for 'Sas' in Toronto, I was kicking and there was a bloke who came in from the edge and he cleaned me up nicely. I tried to get up, I didn't know what had really happened, but I survived, no broken bones. I did my 'hammie' once and missed five games, but I've had no serious injuries.
AM: Please don't answer if you don't want, but can you make a living out of it?
JB: Yeah, from when I first started there, the salary wasn't that great, but it's jumped up. The union's a really good negotiator with the league on issues, including pay conditions.
AM: What's been the highlight?
JB: Definitely making the Grey Cup in my second year at Hamilton, I was the first Australian to make the Grey Cup, it's just a pity we didn't win the game.
AM: You've decided to take the year off and spend it with your family (wife Elle and son Hugo, who was born in January), is that your CFL career over?
ALSO IN SPORT:
JB: No, I'll definitely look at going over again, the best thing with the punting is I can probably do it for another three or four years (Bartel is 34), it's not real taxing on the body. I mainly do leg weights and stretching, the cardio's not really there, especially when you're taking three steps and kick the ball.
AM: So will you play footy (Australian Rules) this year?
JB: Yeah, I'll probably go back to my local club at Kiewa (Kiewa Sandy Creek). My little brother (Jason), he's a bit of a legend so to play a season with him (if the competition starts due to coronavirus) will be pretty cool. We've just won the cricket flag with each other, I might try and pinch a footy flag.