How Steelers' Berry became rock-star 'bloke' for Aussie punters
PITTSBURGH — Jordan Berry savors the simple joys of punting, testing the intense November winds pregame, watching the ball spiral perfectly off his right foot as rushers graze his shoulder and the adrenaline of 11 Steelers creating a coverage wall.
Berry wanted all of this so badly that he worked the night shift at McDonald’s back in his native Australia, and that was just one of several odd jobs to land enough cash for another 10,000-mile flight to the United States for camps or tryouts. As a high schooler, Berry and friends got weird looks from locals wondering what the heck they were doing with pads, helmets and a bag of American footballs.
“We’d kick on a random high school field until we were told to piss off,” Berry said. “Then go to the next one.”
That Berry enters his third season as a starting NFL punter is validation not just for him but also for his kicking teachers and about 70 pupils in Melbourne who consider the 26-year-old their star.
Sure, Aussie-born Giants punter Brad Wing got name-checked in a Nicki Minaj song. But Wing worked his way through the American high school system. Berry is here because he responded to a flier from a Melbourne-based coach looking to help Australian rules football players transition to the U.S. collegiate and NFL games.
Berry was one of three players to come out for an assessment. Since then, Prokick Australia has grown twentyfold. Berry is the group’s black-and-gold standard.
“He’s sort of set the benchmark for us,” said Nathan Chapman, a Prokick coach who has been with Berry since 2008. “He’s a guy a lot of our students can relate to. He’s really good at giving back to the young blokes who want to learn.”
Berry has a bit of rock-star cachet, too, thanks to an NFL game growing overseas. Prokick coach John Smith, who helped develop the program with Chapman, estimates that “about 90 percent of people in Australia probably know who Jordan is now.”
Although Berry admits that his vocabulary is Americanized now, he still considers himself the young “bloke” eager for his next shot.
A teenaged Berry loved to kick but realized he didn’t have the endurance and athleticism to match the best footy players. Online research led him to American football. He saw the chance to “show how big my kick is” and make a good living doing so.
His dad, Jason, worked for Essendon Football Club and came across the flier from Chapman, who kicked professionally for years and had a short stint with the Green Bay Packers.
Berry, Alex Dunnachie and Thomas Duyndam started meeting every day, setting up cones, absorbing Chapman’s teaching and eventually producing highlight tapes for colleges. Berry had to buy footballs online because Australian stores didn’t sell them.
“We’re wearing helmets and shoulder pads, and people are driving past and wondering what we’re doing,” Berry said. “For me, I was just trying to get a scholarship.”
After the Berry family helped front two trips to Las Vegas for kicking showcases, the punter had his wish. All three kickers got a scholarship: Berry to Eastern Kentucky, Dunnachie to Hawaii and Duyndam to Portland State.
But EKU’s special teams relied heavily on rollouts and fakes instead of pro-style kicks, Berry said. His limited tape left him without as much as an NFL tryout.
Berry found himself back home in Melbourne, helping out on the merchandise floor at his dad’s club. Over the next eight months, Berry worked the 3 a.m. shift at a local fruit market, selling mostly Asian vegetables, then a few nights a week at McDonald’s. Afternoons were for kicking.
“He was focused,” Smith said. “Doing this is hard. The savagery of free agency is something guys are getting used to. But there was never any doubt he would have a seat at the professional ranks because of the way he approached things holistically.”
Berry hired former NFL executive Steve Ortmayer to aid in setting up tryouts, whose costs Berry had to help cover. Pittsburgh took a chance, then signed Berry to compete with Wing, a situation Berry now calls “awkward” because of their roots.
He felt better when both players outperformed the opposing teams’ punters in 2015 preseason games. He remembered the thousands of reps kicking the Aussie-rules ball around the yard during school lunch breaks. He understood angles, drops, kicking through the elements. “Even if I don’t win this job, I’ll have an opportunity elsewhere,” Berry reminded himself.
The Steelers validated Berry’s belief by trading Wing to New York. Two years later, Berry has 5,077 net yards on 127 attempts with a ridiculous career long of 79 yards in 2015. Punt returners logged 269 yards against him last season, good for 11th in the league.
“The stakes were pretty high,” Berry said of his commitment to the American game over the years. “I’d like to think I became a good example for the younger players.”
This summer, Berry hosted 30 Prokick pupils for a kicking tour of East Coast colleges, including Pitt, Penn State and Rutgers.
The popularity of NFL football has “grown absolutely massive” in Australia, Berry said. Although he hasn’t spotted a Berry No. 4 jersey back home, he has seen jerseys for Tom Brady or Jarryd Hayne, the former Australian football player who was with the 49ers as a running back last season.
Although he’s looking into marketing opportunities in Australia, Berry is modest about his impact there, citing those who came before him, such as Wing or Ben Graham. Those who understand his winding journey know better.
“There are only 32 jobs,” Chapman said of NFL punting. “There are a lot of guys chasing those jobs. They see Jordan as a really good example for how to apply yourself and how hard you have to work. We knew there was a void to fill [with Australian kickers], and we wanted to change the game. Jordan is the personification of that.”