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From footy to football: Hayes adjusts to new sport

Photo Courtesy of Mark Jones/Illinois Athletics

Photo Courtesy of Mark Jones/Illinois Athletics

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

It’s 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 11, and Illinois is set to kick off against Indiana in Champaign. It is about 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and there is a slight breeze running through Memorial Stadium.

On the other side of the world it’s 4 a.m. in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday, Nov. 12. It is 13 degrees Celsius (about 55 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s a little foggy and most of the city is asleep.

But one family is wide awake, gathered around its living room television and making plenty of noise. Why?

Because 9,611 miles away, the family’s youngest son is on TV playing football.

***

Blake Hayes left Australia in July, beginning a journey that would put him in a new country, at a new school, playing a new sport.

The Melbourne native is a true freshman at Illinois this year, but unlike most international students at the University, his first semester has been filled with a lot more than just classes.

Recruited to play football, Hayes has been the Illini’s starting punter since opening day. He is just one of an FBS-high 16 true freshmen to start for the Illini this season. But unlike most of the other players in the class, when Hayes took the field for the first time, it wasn’t just his first college game: It was his first time playing on an organized American football team.

Growing up, Hayes played Australian rules football, a hectic sport somewhere in between rugby and soccer where players score by punting the ball through a set of four goalposts at the end of the field. Hayes began playing “footy” – as it’s called in Australia – at age 9.

Hayes was the captain of his school team, and he also played at the club level. But while Hayes had a potentially very promising future ahead of him in footy, something wasn’t quite right for him.

“He would’ve had the chance (to play professionally),” said Ronan Hayes, Blake’s father. “But it wasn’t his passion. The football here (in Australia) can be quite selfish, and Blake is very team-first.”

With Australian rules football not beckoning his name in the same way it once had, Blake decided to pursue a different dream of his: coming to America for college.

Ronan thinks that Blake’s interest in coming to America might have started when he met Brad Wing, the son of some family friends. Wing, another Australian-born punter, went to Louisiana State University and has gone on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants.

“He had a real passion for American football; he loved it,” Ronan said of his son. “Philadelphia Eagles fan, he would get up in the morning to watch the games before school.”

That growing passion led Blake into a new chapter of his life. He began working with Prokick Australia.

***

In Champaign, the game has been underway for a while now. In fact, it’s well into the second quarter. But the score is still 0-0.

It has been a pretty somber viewing for most fans of both teams, but all the way in Australia, there has been so much to cheer for.

Ten of the first 11 drives of the game have ended in punts, and at this point, the biggest story of the game has been the duel between the punters. Each has five punts to his name, and in Melbourne, both names are very familiar.

Blake Hayes has been the only Illini to move the ball consistently so far, and he is locked in showdown with Indiana’s Haydon Whitehead, a fellow Australian who trained with Blake for the past year at Prokick Australia.

“We trained together almost every day back home,” Blake said. “Obviously you don’t want him to do well, because it puts your team in a bad field position, but he’s a friend so I wanted him to do well. It was really cool to go against a fellow mate.”

***

“He probably just wanted to be around football,” Ronan said. “To go to games, be a supporter, maybe get involved with the team as an assistant or something like that. He probably never thought about playing the game. But as time evolved, and he spent two years with Prokick, he started to realize, ‘Maybe I have a chance to go over as a punter and be part of football.’”

Blake may have dreamt of coming to America for college, but with the massive cost of being an international student at an American university, that dream seemed out of reach.

Searching for a way around that, Blake turned to Prokick Australia, a program designed to turn Australian rules players into American college punters.

Prokick is run by Nathan Chapman, a former professional footy player who became a punter for the Green Bay Packers.

Under Chapman’s leadership, Prokick has become a factory for college punters.

“Prokick (is) very up front with you,” Ronan said. “They’ll tell you straight away whether you have a chance or not. Fairly straight away, they thought Blake possibly had what it takes to be a college punter, and Blake got a real passion for it.”

But even with that passion and plenty of experience playing Australian rules football, Blake’s father initially had some doubts about his son’s prospects.

“To be honest – and maybe this is just me being naive about American football – but at first I didn’t see it,” Ronan said. “From an Australian point of view, he’s not a really big kicker of the football. He’s maybe a little above average, and my naivety said, ‘I don’t know if he’s quite got the leg for it.’”

But while Blake may not have had the booming leg of some of the Australian punters before him, Chapman saw he had the skills and the experience to be an effective American punter, nevertheless.

Blake trained with Chapman and Prokick for two years, and as time went on, his dream of attending college in America became more of a reality. Before long, the family was traveling to Champaign in the summer of 2017 to visit the school at Chapman’s behest.

“It did become daunting, certainly for Georgina, my wife. I tried to keep the brave face I suppose,” Ronan said. “He’s our youngest, and it’s a long way from Australia. It got really daunting as it became closer and closer and really exciting of course, and we’d never stand in the way of our children’s dreams.”

But seeing the University, and how their son might fit into it, helped put Blake’s parents’ minds at ease. Coming from a country where most people attend their local university and live at home, the Hayeses found the American college experience quite different, but quite exciting.

***

In Champaign, time is running out for the Illini. The score stands 17-7, by no means out of reach, but with 8:37 remaining in the final quarter, the Illini bring Blake out to punt once again.

As he trots onto the field, his quarterback, Jeff George Jr., is on his way off it.

Blake likes to pump himself up for punts, but this leaves him in the unattractive position of being excited when his team has objectively failed.

“It’s a bit weird because I run on, and whoever is in at quarterback, they’re not happy running off,” Blake said. “It’s an awkward exchange. And I’ve noticed that the volume of the crowd tends to decrease. But I don’t mind; it gives me more time to focus.”

Blake’s father has a similar problem in the stands. When the entirety of Memorial Stadium goes silent, it should be Ronan’s turn to celebrate, but he has to hold back

“I made sure that I didn’t cheer for him,” Ronan said. “I cheered after he punted, if it was a good punt, but we certainly cheer for him in the quietness of our own home whenever he comes on.”

***

Blake was offered a scholarship and a spot on head coach Lovie Smith’s roster, giving him the opening he had been working the past few years for.

He made it to Champaign in July and immediately dove into training. Blake hasn’t had many chances to lift his head up above water and take a breath since.

“It’s been a roller coaster transitioning,” Blake said. “Coming in the summer at the start, it was so hectic because there were so many new things going on each week. And especially a few weeks into the season, traveling to different places, still kind of finding my feet on the field. But now I’m settling in really well, and I feel really comfortable here.”

Blake has worked with Smith and special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky throughout his short time in America to acclimate him to Illinois’ style of play.

When he landed stateside, Blake had never taken a pro-style punt before. But after his first season with the Illini, no one needs any more proof that he has the skills for the job.

“Blake Hayes has had an outstanding year,” Smith said. “We had high hopes for him – whenever you go that far to get someone, you have high hopes for him – but he’s answered all of our questions that every freshman has to answer.”

Indeed Blake has done more than just answer a few questions. His 3,231 total punt yards are the fourth-most in Illinois football history for the amount of yards in one season. Blake pinned his opponents inside their own 20-yard line on 22 of his 77 punts. He was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, and he won Illinois’ Dike Eddleman Most Outstanding Special Teams Player award.

But the on-the-field duties haven’t ever been an issue for Blake. The bigger struggle was adjusting to life half a world away from home.

And to his credit, he seems to have taken that transition in stride.

“(He’s had) zero issues off the field; he does everything he’s supposed to do when he’s supposed to do it,” Smith said. “And think about that adjustment: It’s one thing to go away to school as a freshman – I went four hours away, and that was an adjustment, calling mom every night and every day – but for him to come over like that, it’s pretty special.”

Blake admitted that he misses some of the comforts of home from time to time, but as the season went on, he had more and more reminders of home.

His father came to the Homecoming game against Wisconsin, and in doing so became the first person in Blake’s family to see him play live.

Instead of flying straight home from a business trip in China, Ronan took a detour and ended up in Champaign, marveling at the spectacle that is college football.

“The whole experience was amazing,” Ronan said. “It was great to see Blake obviously, but it was even better to see a game live and just see the atmosphere around it. Even 40-50,000 fans is a huge crowd for our professional games.

Before coming over, Blake would’ve played in front of 1,000, 2,000 people at the most.”

It was the first time Blake had seen any of his family since arriving on campus in the summer. He was excited to see a familiar face, but he was also excited to get a chance to show someone from back home what he could do on the field. Blake said he was trying to make his father proud every time he stepped on the field.

In the hour before the game started, it began to snow in Champaign. It was the first snow of the season, and for Blake, it served as a fitting reminder of how far he had come on a day when he finally got a taste of home.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen snow in my life,” Blake said. “It was awesome pre-game; all the boys were really hyped when we saw the snow. It was a new experience for me, and I’m pretty sure it was a new experience for my dad as well.”

***

In Champaign, the Illinois football team falls to Indiana 24-14, which is the team’s eighth-straight loss.

But while the losing streak keeps Blake and his teammates’ moods pretty low, the Hayes family is riding high.

“It’s extremely exciting from our point of view. We’re up every weekend at 3 a.m. Australia time to watch his games,” Ronan said. “My older son Max is 23 and he’s sometimes getting home from a nightclub around that time and he brings some friends with him. I’m sure our neighbors don’t know what’s quite going on at our place on a Sunday morning.”

While his team may have lost, Blake had a career-high 11 punts on the day, for a total of 455 yards.

“He’s done a great job with the sky punt; he has a strong leg,” Smith said of Blake. “Ideally you want your punter punting for four years – our punting duties are in good hands.”

***

With the season now over, Blake might finally have a chance to slow down and take a moment to look back at his journey.

A few years ago, it looked like he might be headed toward a career in footy back home in Australia. Now he’s 17 hours behind Australia’s time trying to teach American football players how to do set shots – a running punt through the goalposts that, according to Blake, his teammates are struggling to perform – in central Illinois.

But as difficult as the change in lifestyle might have been for Blake, it’s been just as trying of a time for his parents.

“It’s certainly left a little bit of an empty nest for Georgina and I,” Ronan said. “It’s difficult from a parent’s point of view, but I always tell Georgina, ‘He’s living his dream. How could we not be happy for him?’”

Blake is well aware of the sacrifices his parents have made to get him to where he is today, which is why it was so meaningful to him that his whole family made it to the Illini’s final two games.

“I was thinking back to (my) training back home,” Blake said. “Before I had a car, they used to take me to all the practices at 6 a.m. and watch me kick and not really know what I was getting into, and then now, to get out there and do that in front of my dad, it was pretty special.”

@Jacob_Diaz3

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