Blake Hayes: From the Land Down Under to the Land of Lincoln


Photo provided

Blake Hayes plays football in Melbourne, Australia at Brighton Grammar School. Hayes, an incoming freshman, is joining the Fighting Illini football team this fall as a punter.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

 The first thing you notice about Blake Hayes is his height.

At 6’6”, he isn’t exactly what most people imagine when they read the position “punter.” But Hayes, a freshman on Illinois’ football team, doesn’t share the kind of background most punters do. Hayes hails from Melbourne, Australia, where he grew up playing a different sport altogether: Australian rules football.

If you’ve never seen an Australian rules football match before, you might be pretty confused by what you see.

Eighteen men in sleeveless shirts and short shorts running amok on what is essentially a cricket field, hot in pursuit of a ball that looks similar to an American football or a rugby ball. But every few seconds the person with the ball either dribbles it like a basketball, pitches it to a teammate or punts it, often aiming at a pair of goal posts at one end of the field. It is a fast-paced spectacle with athletic jumps to catch the ball, enormous displays of leg strength and some devastating hits to remind you that despite the lack of helmets or pads, it is a full contact sport.

Photo provided
Blake Hayes plays
football in Melbourne, Australia at Brighton Grammar School.

Australian rules football is Australia’s most popular sport, and it has been the proving ground for some of Australia’s top athletes since the Australian Football League’s debut season in 1897. And it is on those fields that Hayes grew and trained as an athlete.

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“It involves a lot more running,” Hayes said. “They run like 10 miles a game, and basically we punt (the ball) around, punting anywhere from 15 meters to 60 meters – I’m not sure what that is in yards…”

While it may take Hayes a while to adjust to the differences between life in Australia and life in America, like the customary system, he has a huge head start on adjusting to the differences between Australian and American football already, thanks to ProKick Australia. ProKick is a program run by former NFL punters that trains Australian rules footballers to play the American way, and has sent many to the NCAA and even a few to the NFL.

ProKick is a driving force in a wave of Australian players coming to America to play American football. While there aren’t many at the NFL level yet, more and more are playing in college, with chances to go pro down the road. And if the trend continues, Australian players may change the way people imagine punters completely.

Usually thought of as slight and scrawny compared to the massive man-mountains that are American football players, punters are seen as the little guy on a football team. As the second tallest player on the team and clocking in at 230 pounds, Hayes breaks the mold of the stereotypical punter to the point that his teammates were surprised when he told them that he was a punter.

“A lot of the players that come to (ProKick) are ex-AFL players or they have played the sport,” Hayes said. “For me, I was a taller guy on the team, but a lot of the guys we trained with are around my height and my build.”

As a true freshman, Hayes will compete with fellow freshman Bryce Baringer and junior Ryan Tucker for the starting spot, and as none of them have seen any game time on a college field, it’s anyone’s spot to win. Hayes may have a longer path to that spot than his teammates, however, because he still has to learn the intricacies of the American game.

“I’ve been watching the game since freshman year of high school, so I’ve kind of known the basics,” Hayes said. “But in terms of schemes and stuff, I’m slowly learning it. And I have a real passion for that stuff, I love learning about it with (special teams coach Bob Ligashesky).”

Like the fans, Hayes’ teammates will have to wait and see what Hayes can do on the field. But in the meantime, they will have plenty of time to all take their shot at imitating Hayes’ Australian accent.

“Chase (McLaughlin) tries to imitate me a lot,” Hayes says. “He tries to say ‘mate’ and stuff like that and a lot of the guys get a good laugh out of it. A lot of people like to take the mickey out of me.”

Jacob is a junior in Media

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