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LSU punter adjusts to life of fame in US
BATON ROUGE, La.
When Brad Wing's touchdown run off a fake punt earlier this season was the first to be erased by a new NCAA rule cracking down on unsportsmanlike celebrations, college football fans were outraged.
During the Australian-born LSU punter's infamous 52-yard run down the left sideline of his team's blowout victory against Florida in October, he looked back to locate the closest defender and briefly spread his arms before crossing the goal line.
Wing's gesture was hardly the kind of egregious celebration the new rule is intended to curb, but the touchdown was disallowed and he received a 15-yard penalty. The call was widely criticized on Twitter, blogs and Internet message boards.
Perhaps no one was as appalled about it as one of Wing's countrymen, Kim Beazley, Australia's ambassador to the US. He jokingly said he even thought about making an "ambassador's complaint" to President Barack Obama.
"I was totally outraged," Beazley said with a laugh. "But I thought that might be taking it a bit far."
Beazley's support for Wing, however, shows just how far the once crestfallen teenager has come since arriving in this riverfront city of almost 230,000 less than three years ago after being cut by the Sandringham Dragons, a team in the top amateur Australian rules football league. With his amazing ability to kick not only for jaw-dropping distance but also with laser accuracy, he has become a rare punting star in his first season as a starter.
Entering his top-ranked team's rematch against No. 2 Alabama (11-1) in the BCS title game Monday night in New Orleans, the hard-charging 6-foot-3, 184-pound redshirt freshman is averaging 44.14 yards per punt this season. He has punted the ball 50 times but allowed only 6 return yards all season.
Wing's 73-yard punt that went over the head of Alabama's Marquis Maze during the teams' first meeting in November was crucial to LSU's 9-6 overtime victory.
"He's a great weapon," LSU coach Les Miles said of Wing. "He's a field-position advantage. He defies the position and expands the impact on the game."
Wing's popularity is evident among LSU fans. They wear T-shirts dedicated to Wing, have posters of his run against Florida and do the "Brad Wing Dance" that it has inspired.
His success has also begun to translate into fanfare in his native Australia, where American football, called "gridiron," is not popular. LSU's games started being televised live in the country earlier this season, Australian newspapers now cover Wing's accomplishments and young Australians email him for advice on how they, too, can become a punter.
"This," said Beazley, Australia's ambassador to the US since Feb. 2010, "is terrific for Australia."
A foreign game
But growing up in Melbourne, Wing was focused on the country's most popular sport, Australian rules football. It revolves around kicking and players often run an average of 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) per game.
Wing, though, was familiar with American football because his father, David, a former Australian rules football player, also briefly punted for the NFL's Detroit Lions in 1996 and the defunct NFL Europe's Scottish Claymores.
"Dad had a lot of American footballs, but we would just look at them," said Wing, 20. "No one had one. No one used one. They were really unique there. My friends would come over and see ours and just think it was crazy."
Although Wing never liked the grueling running aspect of Australian rules football, he was known for his kicking distance as well as accuracy and once had 11 goals in a game. He played in a club system all the way to the TAC Cup, which is a feeder for the Australian Football League, the country's professional league, but on the last day of cuts in 2008, Wing was released by the Sandringham Dragons.
"It crushed my world," Wing said.
Until being cut, Wing had planned to play in the Australian Football League. But with that dream dashed and a year of high school remaining, he was unsure about his future for the first time in his life.
Because many Australians don't go to college, he even contemplated entering the workforce immediately after he graduated high school. That was until his father suggested he try punting.
But before Wing did, he and his family in December 2008 visited several US cities. The trip gave Wing a chance to watch American football on television, which intrigued him.
One of the cities the Wings visited was Baton Rouge to see Dave Tiede, one of the elder Wing's friends. While there, Brad Wing attended a home game of the New Orleans Saints, which then had punter Glenn Pakulak.
As Wing watched Pakulak, he thought he could punt just as far as him. So when Wing returned to Australia, he and his father started to practice punting.
At first they did so by kicking the larger Australian football in a spiral instead of the traditional end-over-end kick and then switched to an American football.
By then, Wing had decided to move in with the Tiedes in Baton Rouge and attend the private school the couple's sons attended, Parkview Baptist School, for his senior year.
When Parkview coach Kenny Guillot heard Wing would be enrolling, the coach, who described himself as "a very skeptical guy," not surprisingly had his doubts about the Australian's arrival, even after Tiede raved about Wing's punting potential.
"Every dad that comes through here talks about their boy and tells me how great he is," Guillot said. "It's nothing new for a guy to tell me what a great kicker someone is."
Guillot also made it clear to Tiede that he would not help try to get Wing eligible through the state's high school athletic association. Not that it looked like it would ever matter.
"Brad was a skinny, little tight-jeaned, tall socks, goofy-looking Australian kid," Matt Shelton, a Parkview assistant coach said. "Everybody was like, 'This guy is supposed to be a football player?' "
Yet, for all of Guillot's bluster, he couldn't help but notice Wing's leg extension every time he walked past Parkview's stadium and saw him practicing punting.
"He looked like a ballerina when he kicked," Guillot said.
After Wing's arrival in Baton Rouge that summer, he had been so overwhelmed by the heat and humidity that he had trouble breathing. He had just two weeks to prepare for an LSU kicking camp but still wasn't comfortable punting an American football.
Back then, only one of his every 20 punts would go 50 yards.
"I thought that was so good," Wing said. "But looking back, it wasn't very good."
At the LSU camp, Wing stood out not for his punting but for the small Australian football shorts he wore. There, he met campers who had been punting for most of their lives.
They were all more consistent than Wing, but he was confident he could be better than each of them with practice.
During the camp, a man walked up to Wing and thanked him for coming from Australia to attend the camp. Afterward Wing, asked another camper about the man's identity.
"Les Miles," the camper replied.
"Who?" Wing replied.
"He's the coach of LSU," the camper replied.
By the time Parkview's preseason two-a-day practices started, Wing had finally been declared eligible. Wing's first practice was a crash course getting adjusted to drills and meeting his new teammates.
But he quickly picked up on everything and hit it off so well with his teammates that he convinced them to stay after practice with him for extra work. What happened next was unlike anything they had ever seen.
Wing had his teammates run 20-yard slant patterns, but instead of passing them the ball, he kicked it to them in stride. He then had them run 20-yard fade patterns and again kicked the ball to them perfectly.
"It was unbelievable," Shelton said. "Never seen anything like that in my life. It was like he was throwing the ball."
Show 'em what you got
During that first month at Parkview, Wing worked on punting as much as he could, even before and after the two-a-day practices. At first, he punted without defensive pressure.
But after two weeks, an assistant coach wanted to see how Wing would do with pressure. Practices were held on the school's baseball field so the coach had Wing stand at home plate.
When the ball was snapped to Wing, the assistant coach ran toward him as fast he could. Unfazed, Wing handled the snap and bombed the ball over the right-field fence, a distance of about 70 yards.
"I'll never forget that," Wing said.
After Parkview's first month of practice, Wing's punting had become a lot more consistent. He was regularly booming 50-yard punts.
In Wing's first game, Parkview won so convincingly he didn't punt once. In the team's next game, he finally got to attempt his first punt, though under less-than-ideal circumstances: from the back of his team's end zone.
The situation made Guillot extremely nervous, though it would quickly tell him what he had in Wing. As soon as Wing took the snap, there was more trouble: A defender had burst through Parkview's protection and was headed right at him.
On the sideline, Guillot cringed at the thought of Wing's first punt being blocked, but somehow he was able to get it off. By the time the ball finally stopped rolling, it was on the other team's 27-yard line.
When Wing got to the sideline after his 73-yard punt, Guillot met him. The cynical coach wasn't so skeptical anymore.
"Welcome to Parkview," Guillot recalled telling Wing.
Before long, Wing's teammates had nicknamed him "Wangtime" as a play off his last name and the hang time of his sky-high punts. In Parkview's first few games, he didn't punt much, but after he had done so four times, Guillot had a highlight tape made of them and gave it to a friend on LSU's coaching staff.
"We didn't give scholarships at LSU to kickers," Guillot recalled being told by his friend.
"Well, you give them the tape, or I will," Guillot replied.
Shortly thereafter, then-LSU special teams coach Joe Robinson attended a Parkview game to watch Wing. But it hadn't been the highlight tape that sparked the Tigers' interest.
A woman's touch
It had been a scouting report that Miles' wife, Kathy, gave her husband about Wing. She had taken the couple's two sons to a Parkview football game to watch their friends play and while there noticed Wing's excessive hang time on his kicks.
"That ball is up there a long time," Kathy Miles thought.
When she got home, Kathy Miles told her husband about what she had seen.
"There's a punter over there at Parkview who's pretty good," Miles recalled being told by his wife.
Even though Wing didn't punt much during his lone season at Parkview, he became an almost mythical figure. Everyone wanted to see him kick, so at halftime he would put on punting shows for his screaming fans, who delayed their trips to the concession stands and restrooms to watch.
Wing's punting extravaganza was such a big draw Parkview's principal canceled the school band's halftime performance for the team's last home game so he could put on an encore performance.
"It became pretty popular I guess," Wing said.
And while Wing thrived on the field, he was still adjusting off it. The biggest change has been the food, but he came to love crawfish, which generally isn't served in Australia.
He struggled with driving on the right side of the road in the US because in Australia it is done on the left side. The steering wheel of a vehicle in Australia is also on the right side instead of the left, as it is in the US.
"It was tough because I would come over here and drive on the wrong side of the road," Wing said. "Then when I would go visit back home, I would drive on the wrong side of the road."
While at Parkview, some of Wing's friends invited him to attend an LSU game. He didn't even know it was a college football contest until they explained to him.
"Oh, there would be a few people there, right?" Wing recalled he told his friends.
A few as in the 200,000 on LSU's campus that day for the Tigers' game against Vanderbilt. The atmosphere, especially the tailgating, overwhelmed Wing.
"That was crazy," he said. "I was just in shock."
During the game, there was rain, but LSU fans chanted their infamous creed, "It never rains in Tiger Stadium," which confused the Australian.
"What are they talking about?" Wing recalled thinking. "It's raining right now and they're saying it never rains in here."
Wing still obviously had some learning to do, but the game taught him something he would never forget.
"That's when I knew Tiger Stadium and LSU football was special," Wing said.
Reaching a crossroad
Entering Parkview's state semifinals game in December 2008, Wing's future was as up in the air as one of his punts. He had planned to live in the US for only a year but now wanted to attend LSU.
Robinson was at the game to see Wing, just like previous ones, but the Tigers coaching staff had been noncommittal about a scholarship for him. Northwestern State and McNeese State, however, were interested.
Snow fell during the game and Wing punted only once, but it was a good kick. Robinson called Wing later that night and offered him a scholarship, which he accepted on the spot.
Afterward, Wing called his parents in Australia, and his mom, Kathi, answered.
"I might not be home for another couple of years," Wing told her.
"How long?" she replied.
"Five years," Wing replied.
Parkview ended up losing in the state championship game in the Superdome, but not before Wing wowed the crowd with his halftime punting show. When it came time for the state's football coaches association to pick their all-state team, Guillot didn't even have to nominate Wing.
Those in charge of the association simply laughed when Guillot mentioned him.
"Coach," Guillot recalled being told, "we saw him in the dome at halftime."
But when Wing arrived at LSU last season, there was no buzz about him. Because of his Australian transcripts, there was a delay in him being certified by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
By the time it happened, the season was about a month away, so Wing redshirted. LSU offensive tackle Alex Hurst did not even recall Wing punting once in practice last season.
"He flew so low under the radar," Hurst said.
But by LSU's spring game in March, Miles knew Wing would be his punter this season. He was so confident in Wing that he had him kick in the game with his right foot instead of his stronger left foot to confuse season-opening opponent Oregon.
Wing learned to kick with both feet playing Australian rules football. Even with his right foot, he can punt a ball 50 yards.
That's just part of Wing's amazing repertoire. On pooch punts from the 50-yard line and closer, Wing unleashes an end-over-end ball that spins like a kickoff instead of a spiral.
Usually when the ball hits the ground, it checks back like a 9-iron or bounces forward slowly. On other punts, he can make the ball fade one way and then make it bounce the other way.
"He can manipulate the ball in so many ways," Guillot said. "It's incredible."
On Thursdays during the season, Wing and the other LSU punters practiced kicking from the 1-yard line. On one of Wing's punts the week of LSU's game against Western Kentucky in November, he had a little wind at his back when he unleashed a rocket.
The ball flew like a bird in the sky before bouncing several times and rolling through the other end zone. The 99-yard punt was the longest of his career.
Yet when a reporter last month asked Miles, who is well known for calling trick plays, to pinpoint the most amazing thing he had seen Wing do, he cryptically declined to answer.
"I'm not telling," Miles said with a grin. "I don't want anybody to read the article. You want everybody to read the article. I just don't want anybody to read the article."
Just before that, Miles suddenly popped in while Wing was being interviewed and asked if he had seen a photograph of himself punting that had been posted on a wall in LSU's football facility. Wing had not, which made Miles laugh.
"Oh, it's a goofy-ass picture," Miles said.
The photograph shows Wing punting, but in it, he is also making a gun gesture with his right hand and has a distorted look on his face. He said both are common when he punts, but he doesn't know why.
When he asked Miles if he had put up the photograph, the coach cackled with laughter.
"No," Miles said. "You think I take pictures like that?"
"No," Wing replied.
"Well, there's a lot of them," Miles said. "But let's put it this way: If your ball is hitting well, I'm all for it."
NFL talk begins
During LSU special teams coach Thomas McGaughey's eight years overseeing that unit in the NFL, he worked with punter Jeff Feagles and kicker Morten Andersen, who have since retired. Feagles owns the NFL's career records for punts and punting yards and Andersen is the NFL's career leader in field goals and scoring.
Yet, as legendary as Feagles and Andersen are, neither has the versatility of Wing, McGaughey said.
"I've never seen anybody that can do the different styles of kicks he can," McGaughey said. "It's special."
Unlike other positions, punters have a more difficult time significantly improving their NFL stock. That, combined with Wing's talent, could cause him after next season to leave early for the NFL draft, McGaughey said.
Gil Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com and a former longtime executive for the Dallas Cowboys, could not recall a punter ever declaring for the NFL draft. The last pure punter selected in the first round was Ray Guy in 1973.
"That hasn't really entered my thought process yet," Wing said of possibly entering the draft early. "I don't know about when I'll leave."
But, in the meantime, Wing still needs to work on being more consistent and mature, McGaughey said.
"That's going to be his issue moving forward," he said.
Guillot described Wing as a “rock star,” and Hurst said Wing is known for being popular with the opposite sex because of his Australian charm. He said he has also heard stories about Wing "getting wild."
"Everything from him stealing somebody else's girlfriend to God knows what," Hurst said.
Wing's stardom has taken off faster than a punt coming off his foot. When he arrived at LSU, he had 200 friends on Facebook.
Earlier this season, though, he had to create a Facebook fan page because he reached the 5,000-friend limit for a normal Facebook page.
"It's crazy," Wing said. "I just punt the ball so it's hard for me to sort of get my head around so much support."
The last time Wing made the 19-hour flight to Australia was this past summer before his fame. His parents moved to Baton Rouge in October.
But Wing's country makes sure to keep in touch with him through email. He said one 15-year-old boy wrote to him earlier this season, "How did you get into punting? I want to do what you're doing."
"I guess that I'm an inspiration to them," Wing said. "That's something crazy, too, that I never thought would happen."
Wing had better get used to it because Beazley said Wing's appearance in the BCS title game Monday will only increase his star power in Australia.
"It will definitely catch the imagination Down Under," Beazley said.
But this time, hopefully Wing's actions won't nearly set off an international incident.
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