ENCINITAS, Calif. -- It's a common misconception that Darren Bennett was the first Australian-born player in the NFL. He wasn't. Nor was he the first Australian punter for that matter.
Both honors go to the late Colin Ridgway, who lasted all of three games with the Dallas Cowboys in 1965.
"I've seen the punt that got him cut," said Bennett, sipping an Americano coffee and snacking on a blueberry muffin at a coffee shop in this beach town north of San Diego. "He was punting into the wind out of the end zone and the ball bounced behind him. It blew back over his head. The wind caught it, bounced behind him. Got cut."
It would be a while before another Aussie broke through. More than two decades later, Colin Scotts appeared in seven games for the St. Louis Cardinals -- becoming the first Aussie-born player to be drafted. He recorded two career sacks, which were followed by "the kangaroo hop" sack dance. Other than an eye-roll and a chuckle, Bennett offered no comment.
Bennett was No. 3. And rest assured, there are no misconceptions about his success. He was one of the league's most dominant punters for 11 seasons, even being named to the NFL's all-decade team for the 90s despite only playing half the decade. During his career he kicked more than 20 miles worth of punts, averaged 43.4 yards per kick and dropped 262 inside the opposing team's 20 yard line.
With college coaches now regularly importing punters from down under in search of the next Tom Hackett, Brad Wing or Lachlan Edwards, they can point to an aging Aussie Rules player with bad knees who made the first sustained transition in the mid-90s.
"If you go back and trace the roots of these Aussie kids, they've all been trained directly or indirectly by Darren," said Chuck Priefer, Bennett's first special teams coach with the San Diego Chargers.
Though from the way things started, it hardly appeared that Bennett would go on to revolutionize NFL special teams play by incorporating Aussie Rules kicks into the league. While on holiday in America (he won his trip in an Australian Rules long kick contest and used the tickets as a honeymoon with his wife, Rosemary) a colleague booked a few tryouts with NFL teams. At 28, Bennett was an accomplished Aussie Rules player whose career was on the decline.
The night Joe Carter hit his walk-off homer in the '93 World Series is when it all changed for Bennett. He got a call from his friend who had set up tryouts with San Diego, the New York Jets and Tampa Bay.
"I didn't know where Tampa was and New York scared me," Bennett said. "So I just didn't go. I was in Seattle and took a train to San Diego the next day."
There he tried out for Chargers General Manager Bobby Beathard, among other San Diego brass. Bennett stepped behind long snapper Sam Anno and that's when it hit him -- the idea that he'd never caught a long snap -- and the ball, right in his face.
"I'd never taken a long snap in my life," Bennett said. "It hit me in the face and I shanked it 5 yards over the coaches. 'This is the end of that,' I thought. 'I'm done.' The next one I punted 75 yards over the fence. That got their attention."
The Chargers saw enough potential in Bennett that they signed him to the practice squad the next season (when they went to Super Bowl XXIX) and then shipped him off to NFL Europe. There was much about the American game he still didn't know (beyond learning to catch a long snap).
"He had to learn to hold on field goals and PATs," recalled Priefer. "He had no idea how to hold the ball. How to mold it. How to drop it. He was totally starting from scratch."
What Priefer, Beathard and the rest of the Chargers decision-makers couldn't have known is that 18 months after his ill-fated, first-snap nose job, Bennett would be an All-Pro in his first NFL season.
"I don't think people realize the enormity of that fact," Priefer said. "That is almost impossible. From never taking a snap to 18 months later being an All-Pro. That's an amazing thing he did."
Now 51, Bennett looks back on his career with humility. Many say he invented the "spiral kick," a high, long and accurate kick that is now a must-have in an NFL punter's arsenal. Bennett says he just took the Aussie version and tweaked it. Still, for the flood of Aussies who are invading the college game, Bennett is their patron saint.
"He was the first guy to really transition over from Australian Rules football to American football so he's sort of like an icon to most Aussie blokes because he played something like 10 years in league and he was the first guy to do it," said Oregon State's Nick Porebski, a 24-year-old from Melbourne. "He led the way for Aussies to come in and punt in the states."
Bennett's son, Tom, just finished a redshirt season at Baylor. The older Bennett continues to coach high school players and he and Rosemary often host Aussies transitioning to college. Yet for the uniqueness of his Australian roots, Bennett wanted to be known simply as a punter.
"Whenever I talked to reporters, I wanted to eliminate the word Australian from me, from my résumé," he said. "I just wanted to be a good punter and oh, by the way, you're Australian. When you get over the novelty of it, I'm trying to be the in the top five of the NFL. I'm not here to be No. 31 or 32. That's not fun for me. … Being in the NFL was not a settle for me. It was a life adventure."