Former Docker Max Duffy on the doorstep of NFL dream

Former Fremantle Docker Max Duffy isn't the first ProKick Australia punter to knock on the door to the NFL, but a day out from the opening night of the NFL Draft, he might be the first with a Masters in Sports Psychology on the books.

"One of the big things about coming over [to Kentucky] is that you get to continue your education," the former Kentucky standout told ESPN.

"I came out here having played three AFL games but really nothing else behind me. I've been able to get a psychology degree and I'm about to finish my Masters in Sports Psychology. That's been awesome to come over here and not only play sport but finish off my degree too."

Special teams players are generally methodical, occasionally superstitious and intensely focused on their specific roles. For Duffy, adding psychological analysis to his academic repertoire has undeniably helped his craft on the field.

"If you're critically analysing everyone else, there's no doubt you look at yourself as well. I've learned some little tricks and techniques along the way that've helped a fair bit," he said.

"Most special teams players would be told to get themselves a sports psychologist, so hopefully I can do it myself, maybe just sit in front of the mirror for an hour each day, talk to myself and work it all out."

Mental strength is something the 28-year-old may have fine-tuned during his four-year stay in Lexington, but the toughness to adapt and thrive is something he drew upon well before his arrival in SEC country.

Delisted from the Dockers at the end of 2015 AFL season, an understandably disappointed Duffy was faced with having to forge a new path, with the growing likelihood that his dream of a long Aussie rules career had come to a close.

"I was looking for a new job in the AFL system, hoping someone would give me a contract. I went over to America and we were watching UCLA-Cal, and my friend was telling us about his mate that had played at Ole Miss. I only knew about that school because it was in 'The Blindside'."

"I thought that was pretty cool, asked him a few questions, looked it all up and gave head coach Nathan Chapman a call at ProKick Australia, and it's all worked out from there. I wasn't sure what to expect when I came over to the U.S. I was pretty nervous about it."

Duffy was still committed to helping out the West Perth Football Club in the state-based West Australian Football League (WAFL) as much as he could, as he harboured some hope of an AFL lifeline, but he ultimately confronted the fact that it was time for a change in direction.

"I had to be a realist for a little bit, realise that the AFL dream was probably done at that stage. What could I do, where's the next challenge?"

The ProKick Australia program is far from a soft landing for former Aussie rules players, often requiring a move across the country, working to the high expectations of what it takes to excel in the college game.

"Self-reliance. You've got to grow up pretty fast, there's no more being looked after. Those guys work really hard trying to prepare us not only for how to kick a ball, but just for life in general once we come over here.

"They make us grow up not only as athletes but as men, that's definitely one thing that they do really well. I'll always thank them for their time, talking to me about my personal life as well as just football."

The talented footy-player-turned-punter is becoming an increasingly well-worn trail to the NFL, with Mitch Wishnowsky, Michael Dickson, Cam Johnston, Jordan Berry and Arryn Siposs currently holding down or vying for starting duties across the league, as dozens more Australians make waves, and fans, at the collegiate level.

Trying to escape the frosty Kentucky winter, Duffy tapped into the ProKick Australia alumni network, traveling south to train with Miami's Ray Guy Award finalist Louis Hedley, as well as spending time with Philadelphia Eagles punter Siposs and the Steelers' Berry.

In fact, Duffy's path had already crossed with Wishnowsky and Hedley back in the WAFL. As for who the better footballer was, Duffy graciously took himself out of equation.

"I'll keep myself out of that debate because I think it's pretty clear that I might've just gone a little better than those two. As good as Peel Reserves is Lou was struggling a little bit sometimes. But definitely Mitch, he was a really good footballer, he just had some injuries going on. Everyone thought very highly of him in Perth Colts," he told ESPN.

It's a consistent tone you hear from the 2019 Ray Guy Award winner, playing down his own achievements, always leaving room for improvement and praising others. But lying underneath that humility is a quiet confidence in his skills and the work he's laid down since making the switch from his native sport back home.

Invited to the Senior Bowl as one of two punters, alongside compatriot James Smith out of the University of Cincinnati, Duffy was voted his team's specialist of the week in practice, taking advantage of the valuable reps and exposure with teams during the COVID-impacted pre-draft process.

"I never really thought I'd be part of something like that when I first came over. Such a special experience and such a unique opportunity," he said.

"To be around guys like National Championship-winning quarterback Mac Jones was pretty cool. You always feel a little bit out of place over here, but I felt even more out of place amongst all those good players"

However, getting the chance to work with and learn from the Carolina Panthers coaching staff led by Matt Rhule, the dual-threat punter opted to bench his infamous fake punt handywork for the week in Mobile.

"I think they might've sent me home if I tried [a fake punt], they'd all seen it and said something about it which was pretty funny. They told me to keep the fake and the bounce back in the bag for now.

"It took me a long time to convince [the Kentucky] coaches that it's something we do every day in the AFL. Just to judge when to kick and when I can hold onto it a little longer. I think that's something I was able to bring over to the college game, just a little bit more composure.

"The couple plays that I did try they'd half-given me the green light for, but I'm not sure if they ever thought I was actually going to do it. When you actually get to contribute [a play like that] it feels pretty good."

Convincing his college coaches of the athletic talents he possessed was a constant quest for Duffy, even as the popularity and interest in Australian sport rose around campus throughout 2020.

"For us Australian guys it's misunderstood that we're athletes, no doubt. We've played a real sport. They all kind of laugh and think we're the nerdy, unathletic guys over here, but we think we can kind of take it to them a bit."

With major U.S. competitions halted due to the pandemic, Kentucky's special team ace loved seeing the number of people eyeing the AFL and Australian rugby codes grow, even if they drew the wrong conclusions about his old position.

"They see rugby and think I'm one of the massive guys playing up front", he laughs. "I just go with it, I'll take that."

Having previously made a living scooping up loose Sherrins in fiercely contested ruck contests, Duffy eventually brought the staff around on the idea of the Australian getting on the field for onside kicks, in practice at least.

"I finally convinced them to put me on hands team when we field onside kicks. I told them the whole time I was there, you realise in AFL we have to pick the ball up off the ground all the time? We're pretty clean with our hands.

"They'd always laugh, and then I finally showed them some games and they gave me a shot. I got out there over a couple of practice sessions, but never in a game unfortunately."

The determination to contribute in more and more ways speaks to how far Duffy has come since first arriving in Lexington, having never seen an SEC football game, blown away by the 100,000 strong crowds and the tailgating fans who offered 'advice' on his walk to the stadiums.

"I came over with very little expectations for myself, I really just wanted to play. I wasn't even sure if I was going to win the starting job when I came over here," he said.

"I've worked really hard, but it's really great to pay back the people that have put a lot of work and time into me, my ProKick Australia coaches obviously, but also things like the Fremantle strength staffer who helped me out before I left. You want to come over and do well for those people.

"Even for my family, being away from them for so long, I probably see them one week a year. So you want to do your best and make sure they know you came over here with a purpose and have been able to contribute well."

As for the Duffy family, Max says while they don't typically give away too much when it comes to emotions, he can tell the pride they take in this latest sporting chapter.

"I get to see their appreciation when they come over and watch my games. Dad got a big kick out of seeing me play at Texas A&M, and Mum got a lot out of seeing what college football's all about. Plus, they get to buy some Kentucky gear and go home with that.

"Even though no one knows what it is back home."