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Aussie punting pipeline leads Wishnowsky to Super Bowl

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Miami (AFP)

Eight years ago, Mitch Wishnowsky was fishing at the end of a pier in Perth when he received the phone call that would change his life.

Wishnowsky was working as a glazier after dropping out of high school, and had all but given up on his dream of a career in Australian Rules Football.

So when his mobile phone rang, little did he know it would set in motion the chain of events that would make him the San Francisco 49ers punter and carry him to this weekend's Super Bowl.

By 2012, injuries had forced Wishnowsky to give up Aussie rules. But he kept active by playing flag American football with friends in a local league.

"I played as a wide receiver. But in between games we'd mess around and punt a ball back and forth. I've always had a strong leg," Wishnowsky, 27, told AFP.

His thunderous right foot was spotted by a player on another team who passed on the name to Nathan Chapman and John Smith who run ProKick Australia. The Melbourne-based company grooms Australian kickers for potential college scholarships and National Football League careers in the US, fuelling what has become known as the Aussie "punting pipeline."

When Wishnowsky's phone rang, Smith was on the other end.

"It was the first time I'd ever spoken to him," Wishnowsky said. "And he was yelling at me 'Are you ready to do something worthwhile with your life?'. And I said 'Yeah'. So he said 'Quit your job, move to Melbourne, we'll teach you how to punt and we'll change your life.' And I was like 'Alright, sounds good'."

- 'Thought I was nuts' -

Not everyone close to Wishnowsky was convinced.

"My mum and dad thought I was nuts," he said. "I had a mortgage. A decent job. And suddenly I'm about to move to Melbourne. They were like 'Mate, what are you even talking about?'"

Wishnowsky was undeterred. He moved to Melbourne and spent a year learning under the tutelage of Chapman, a former AFL player who had a brief stint with the Green Bay Packers in 2004.

"In Aussie rules you catch the ball and run and you're almost sprinting when you punt the ball," Wishnowsky said.

"But in American football you've got 1.3 seconds to get rid of the ball. And you have to do it off two steps. That's the main challenge. And then there's a lot of other technical issues -- manoeuvring the laces, making sure the ball drops where it needs to go. It takes a while."

Soon he was bound for the United States, starting off in junior college football in Santa Barbara, California before winning a scholarship to the University of Utah in 2016.

In his first year at Utah he won the Ray Guy Award, given to the outstanding punter in US college football. He was soon on the radar of NFL scouts.

In 2019, Wishnowsky entered the NFL draft, not knowing what to expect. He shuttered himself away with his girlfriend.

- 'Everyone's mates' -

"I'd seen it before with other people that were expecting or hoping to be drafted, and end up disappointed. And everyone is like 'It's alright, you can still get picked up as a free agent' trying to make them feel better. And you can just see they're devastated and want to be alone.

"When I went through it, I just knew I wanted to be alone. So it was just me and her and when I got the call."

The news came from 49ers GM John Lynch. Wishnowsky had been selected in the fourth round, unusually high for a punter.

"I broke down when I got the call," Wishnowsky said.

Wishnowsky has made a seamless transition to the NFL and could become the first Australian to play in and win a Super Bowl in Sunday's game against the Chiefs.

"He's a really good kid," The 49ers' special teams coach, Richard Hightower, told AFP. "The fact that he hasn't had anything given to him and had to work hard, that he never wants a pat on the back - that's why I think he's been successful. He's a pro's pro."

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