Aussie punter Whitehead seizes opportunity at IU

The end of a brutal leg-day workout neared, but it hadn’t arrived. First, the Hoosiers had to lunge the length of the weight room, holding 45-pound plates over their heads.

“You can imagine, that’s not too much fun,” IU punter Haydon Whitehead said. “Let alone after you’ve done an hour of tough leg work.”

Surrounded by a throng of exhausted teammates in the summer of 2019, a third-year punter was about to make a leap that made all the sense in the world to him, even if it’s not stereotypical of players at his position.

He decided to be a leader.

The native of Melbourne, Australia, saddled up next to the Hoosiers who were dragging the most. One quadricep-searing lunge at a time, men more muscular than Whitehead, players more violent in their deeds on a football field, made it from one end to the other.

A punter’s words pushed them there. To no one’s shame.

“The response to that was pretty good,” said Whitehead, now a redshirt senior in his final season. “I was just happy to keep doing those little sorts of things, just trying to be more of a positive influence.”

As the 25-year-old Australian reaches the end of his road in the Outback Bowl — appropriately named — scenes like these are just one more twist in an improbable football journey. He didn’t start playing the American version, known as “gridiron” in his country, until his hopes of making the Australian Football League expired at 19. He saved up money for punting lessons, birthing a new dream of becoming a college football player in the U.S.

His role at IU isn’t glamorous. He takes the field when the Hoosier offense has failed its job. But Whitehead has more respect in IU’s locker room than your average punter. Outside of the five Hoosiers selected for a captainship in 2020, Whitehead was one of the leading vote-getters.

In fact, he was just two votes short of earning a “C.”

IU coach Tom Allen knows where that respect comes from. One punt is mishit at practice, and Whitehead will be out on the field for hours, kicking. Allen calls over special teams coordinator Kasey Teegardin.

“I would say to Kasey, go get him off the field. His leg is going to fall off,” Allen said. “He just wants it so bad. He wants to do everything right.”

On a resurgent football team, a punter who arrived from nearly 9,700 miles away has gone the proverbial extra mile, even if it’s just pushing teammates for a few extra lunges. That’s no surprise to those who know him. Whitehead’s father, Barry, will recall his son as the vice-captain of his club Aussie rules team at 19, ordering teammates around on the pitch.

Why he was even making the trip to Bloomington, though, was the mystery.

“I just knew he was going to some school in the U.S.,” Barry said. “It wasn’t until a gentleman that I worked with turned to me and said ‘That’s serious football,’ I started to realize ‘Oh, there’s a little bit more to this.’ That’s when I started to take notice.”

***

Barry apologized as he said this next part, knowing how it could sound to an American listener.

“No disrespect,” he said, “but it’s a very minor sport in Melbourne.”

Melbourne is considered the capital of Australian rules football, though. It’s just a very athletics-minded city. All four of Barry’s children are “sporty,” he will say, and it was his youngest son, Nick, who picked up gridiron first.

But it was a passing fancy. At 15, Nick rose to the rank of starting quarterback for Victoria’s state team. He was a gifted runner. His squad matched up against a school with American expats out of Singapore. Nick did quite well in that game.

Nick hoped to maybe head to the U.S. for high school, hoping to get recruited to play gridiron in college. The Whiteheads found a private school in Utah that was interested. But it was pricey. Nick’s gridiron career ended there. Nick stopped playing at 15.

“I felt for him a bit there,” Haydon said, “because I think he would have been able to achieve big things if he had been able to do that. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.”

Haydon, four years older than Nick, had been through his own disappointments. As a teen, he played in the Aussie rules equivalent of D-I football. The best athletes from all over the state compete for their local clubs, hoping to impress an AFL organization and get drafted. Haydon was always out in his parents’ shed, working out in their mini-gym. He took his sport seriously.

Haydon, a talented left-footed kicker, ended up receiving interest from pro teams during his 18-year-old season. Left-footers are coveted in Australia, perceived to be more accurate than their right-dominant counterparts. Following his 18-year-old season, an AFL club did draft a left-footer off of Haydon’s team. It just wasn’t him.

“It was a bit of a 50-50,” Barry said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t get there.”

Club teams can invite back four 19-year-olds, usually athletes who still have a fringe shot at getting drafted. Haydon was one of those. Again, he was the vice-captain of that team. But there was no interest from AFL clubs that season. That final year gave Haydon a chance to digest the reality. He enrolled at the Swinburne University of Technology, and Barry figured that was that.

But those tosses of the pigskin with his younger brother — they smashed a window once — seemed to put an idea in Haydon’s head. He googled “college football,” which led to “Australians playing college football,” which brought up the names of punters who’d won the coveted Ray Guy Award.

“They all seemed to have one thing in common,” Haydon said, “which was ProKick Australia.”

Barry, of course, had never heard of Nathan Chapman and his organization, which takes Aussies and shapes them into gridiron punters. It wasn’t until Haydon was looking for money to train, and really ready to push for a college scholarship in the U.S., that Barry learned how serious Haydon was about ProKick’s program.

Otherwise, Barry was incredibly skeptical.

“Haydon was doing bar jobs and working in hospitality. He went ahead and paid for all of it,” Barry said. “He was very headstrong. He knew what he wanted to do.”

From there, things rapidly unfolded.

Barry knew of IU, purely because of its distinctive logo. But they had to look up Indiana on a map.

Just as most Americans are unfamiliar with the Aussie rules club system, Barry was totally ignorant about U.S. college football. The Hoosiers could have been some Division III team, for all he knew.

It wasn’t until Barry, who worked in the financial sector, started having a chat with an American coworker, hearing what it meant to play D-I — to play in the Big Ten — that a picture began to form. It wasn’t until the Whiteheads’ first trip to Bloomington, days ahead of IU’s 2017 opener with Ohio State, that it really crystalized.

“You’re sitting in restaurants and whatnot, and you see the promo for the game on television,” Barry said. “I was like ‘Oh, this is on national television.’ You see the promo. It started to dawn on us how big this was.”

The reality also dawned on his son. Just before the OSU game, they met him for a trip to a lake.

“I’m not saying petrified,” Barry said, “but you could tell he was like ‘Oh my god.’ It was no surprise he got a bit lost in it, because he was so overawed by that whole occasion. I think I read somewhere he just blacked out.”

Indeed, on IU’s first fourth down of the game, Haydon was caught aware. Tom Allen screamed him onto the field.

The ensuing kick didn’t go all that poorly, 45 yards, out of bounds at the OSU 27. The next one traveled 45, again, fair-caught at the OSU 18.

The next one, 35 yards, was fair-caught at the OSU 8.

***

These details — the yard lines and yardage traveled — are generally how the Whiteheads take in a game. Most of IU’s contests aren’t televised in Australia, of course, so radio man Don Fischer’s call is their view.

They have a stat-tracker open, just to see the results flow on the page.

A noon kick in Australia is about 4 a.m. Sunday their time. Barry admits Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead aren’t much fun on Saturday nights, given how early they rise on game day. But it’s always a rollercoaster, like this Fischer-illustrated sequence from the Wisconsin win.

IU was ahead, 14-6, with 5:01 left.

“Haydon Whitehead is on, trying to get a dandy off here,” Fischer proclaimed.

“Well, here we go,” added Buck Suhr, the color commentator.

“Here’s the snap, it was not a great one … ,” Fischer said.

His tone changed, though, in an instant — “… but he gets a great punt away, and this one’s going to bounce down inside the 15, it goes forward … ”

“Oh, don’t touch it,” Suhr begged.

“Indiana did not,” Fischer said, reassuring the Whiteheads on the other side of the globe. “They got it inside the 10. It rolls down to the 8-yard line … and now the Indiana defense is under the gun.”

“It’s a good gun,” Suhr quipped.

That punt forced the Badgers to drive 92 yards for a game-tying score. Their series died at the IU 21.

There is excitement now for the Whiteheads, knowing the magnitude of these plays, and what they mean to so many people. They have seen the postgame locker room scenes, Tom Allen crowd-surfing on his players after beating then-No. 8 Penn State.

“I read a lot of the media articles and that. I appreciate how big it is to beat someone like Penn State and get these big wins,” Barry said. “If you had asked me that four years ago, I would have been like ‘Whatever.’ But even from afar, I can see the importance of what Tom is doing and how big this year has been.”

Barry recalls the first time Haydon came back from playing at Penn State, with 107,000 fans at Beaver Stadium.

“I’m playing in front of a crowd bigger than the AFL Grand Final,” Haydon said, referencing what’s essentially the AFL’s Super Bowl. About 200 people would attend each of Haydon’s club games.

Haydon has, likewise, treated his work with seriousness. Barry and Vicki are able to reach Haydon frequently via phone or Zoom, but every now and again, a string of texts may end with “Are you alive?” because they haven’t heard from their son in a while.

He’s probably out on the field, kicking.

“Still five, six years after picking up a football the first time, I’m still learning little things to let me be more consistent,” Haydon said. “It’s how small the margin for error is. Let’s say if there’s 10 key points to focus on, if one of those points is off, you can end up with a pretty horrible kick.”

Allen says his punter is a perfectionist, while Haydon will describe it differently. It’s just working hard. It’s something Haydon learned from his father, once a Goldman Sachs employee, who got up at 4:30 a.m. and went in to communicate with the New York office.

Barry grew up on a dairy farm because his father, an excellent Aussie rule footballer, decided he’d rather farm than play in the AFL. He just wanted to know he was good enough to be drafted. When he was, he quit.

The Whiteheads are just hard workers, but Barry is OK using Allen’s word.

“A bit like myself, he wants to be a perfectionist,” Barry said. “If you are going to do something, you do it properly, and you do it right.”

It’s just that consistency in his work ethic that has impressed Haydon’s teammates, including offensive lineman Harry Crider. Ever since summer workouts in 2019, when Whitehead really started to raise his voice, he’s been more than just a leader of the specialists.

“If the locker room isn’t as locked in as it needs to be, he’s there to lock us back in,” Crider said. “I remember throughout summer workout, if guys are needing an extra push, he’s there for that. He’s a grown man. He’s as mature as they come around here in college.”

Haydon is his own man, with a life in America, and a long-term girlfriend. But it isn’t easy having Haydon so far from home, especially for Vicki. He has been back to Australia a total of about three weeks in the last four years, the last time for a few days after the Gator Bowl. He couldn’t go home this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But there has been support from a distance. Dan and Dawn Justus, the parents of former IU kicker Logan Justus, have taken video of Haydon’s punts and sent them to the Whiteheads, as a complement to stat-tracker and Fischer’s radio calls. They continued that this season, even after Logan’s graduation. The parents of former IU long-snapper Dan Godsil have also become friends.

Barry also loves Tom Allen, who invited Haydon to his home for Easter that very first year.

“It’s a long way from home, he didn’t know anybody, and they’ve got him,” Barry said. “That was very generous.”

Barry nearly starts to cry when he thinks of the love IU’s fans have given Haydon.

“I’m sure a lot of Indiana supporters were thinking ‘Oh my god, this kid from Australia’s never played football before. What the hell have Indiana done?'” Barry said. “But they’ve embraced him and supported him.”

That’s what made losing the Purdue game so difficult for Whitehead. Even without fans there, Haydon still would have wanted that final game in Memorial Stadium, just to soak it all in. Instead, a bowl game will be his send-off.

Barry sent his son a text after hearing the name of the bowl. The Outback Bowl. Of course.

“We had a bit of a laugh about that,” Barry said, smiling.

“It would be really good if he could just go out with a win,” he added. “Being so far away, I think we’ve understood this year, how well Indiana has done and what it means. To do those things and finish with a win, it would be a blessing for him.”

2 comments

  1. It didn’t take Haydon and his family long to discover “Hoosier Hospitality” and the impact it can have on people. Thank you for having the courage to come 9,700 miles to IU, Haydon. And thank you for being a leader and doing such a great job punting. I hope your last game as a Hoosier is a great success.

  2. With players like Whitehead on the roster it is no wonder IU has improved so much. Getting players to buy in isn’t easy but when they do they become a hard team to defeat.

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