Longhorns take a punt on Dickson
By Tom Naghten
This Saturday, September 5, Sydney Swans will take on Gold Coast Suns at the SCG in front of roughly 20,000 people.
At the same time, nearly 15,000 kilometres away, former QBE Sydney Swans Academy member Michael Dickson will prepare to play a game of American football in front of a crowd four times that size.
Before this year, he had no interest in the sport.
“I still haven’t watched a full game,” Dickson laughed.
“At training I just work with the other punters and kickers so I still don’t have a great understanding of the sport.”
Dickson will be running out alongside his University of Texas teammates in front of a sea of raucous University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans in their National College Athletic Association season opener.
The Sydney local is following in the footsteps of a host of former Aussie rules players whose skills have shone in the NCAA.
Tom Hornsey and Tom Hackett are the last two winners of the college football punting award, both were talented Australian footballers who turned their attention to punting after failing to make the top grade in Australia.
“I’ve trained with both [Hornsey and Hackett] and they’ve given me some great tips on how to handle the pressure,” Dickson said.
That pressure has so far come in the form of the team’s daily, four-hour long training sessions, which Dickson said are always at “100% intensity.”
“My first kick in front of a live rush was terrible, I shanked it out of the practice facility and onto the road which was pretty embarrassing. I just didn’t know how to handle it, I was looking at the opposition when I should’ve been focussed on the ball. I’ve come a long way since then.”
The ultra-competitive environment was an eye-opener for the 19-year-old from Kirrawee in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire.
“The coaches don’t mind if you hit your teammate hard. Fights between the offensive and defensive lines are pretty common. If the defence get an interception all the boys run around high-fiving and dancing.”
Texas head coach Charlie Strong recently heaped praise on his new punter.
“He has a really good leg,” said Strong.
“He tells you, ‘Coach, I can put it anywhere you want me to put it’, I say, ‘We directional kick a lot.’ He says, ‘I’ll put it where you ask me to’.”
Dickson joins Hornsey and Hackett as alumni of ‘Prokick Australia’, an academy that facilitates the transition of Australians into college and professional American Football.
Prokick Australia was set up by Nathan Chapman, a former AFL player at Brisbane and Hawthorn who spent time as a punter in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers following his delisting.
“Michael has a powerful leg,” Chapman said.
“He can move left and right and kick it out of the back of end zones. He’s a solid athletic unit who can run all day and pass any endurance test. And of course, he has a cracking right foot.”
A Sydney Swans Academy and NSW/ACT Rams product, Dickson, who stands 191cm tall, showed promise as a key defender with a long kick.
“His kicking had the kind of distance and penetration that you don’t normally see in guys his age,” said Jason Saddington, Dickson’s NSW/ACT under 18s coach.
“From an Aussie rules perspective we were always trying to get him to work on his short-kicking as he had a tendency to just kick long when he got the ball. We already knew he was good at that so wanted to improve his kicking over 15-20 metres.”
However, when attending a Prokick Australia open trial in January, Dickson said his penchant for kicking long was welcomed with open arms.
In American football punts are recorded in hang-time and distance, Dickson excelled in both measures.
“A high standard is 4.5 seconds hang-time and 45 yards, on my third kick I hit 4.7 seconds and 50 yards.”
After a four month stint in Melbourne to work with Prokick Australia coaches, Dickson was invited on a visit to Texas based on video footage and a Prokick recommendation.
“It was just ridiculous,” said Dickson.
“It’s all so massive, the facilities are crazy. It was pretty overwhelming.”
Texas Longhorns play their home games in the Darrell K Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium, which seats in excess of 100,000 people.
“It’s just huge, you look up and the seats just keep going and going,” said Dickson, who played his club Australian football with UNSW/ES Bulldogs for the past two seasons.
Jack McAnespie coached Dickson during his time with the UNSW/ES under 19s.
“Dicko honestly had the longest kick of anyone I’ve ever coached or played with,” McAnespie said.
“One night at training we got him to kick the ball out from the goal square and then, from where that one bounced, he kicked a goal at the other end. He covered the whole ground in two kicks. It was extraordinary to watch.”
Dickson, who is on a full, four-year scholarship and plans to study business, has wasted no time showcasing his skills, beating out other punters in the squad to be first choice for their opening game against traditional NCAA powerhouse, Indiana’s Notre Dame.
“I’ve been told that I’m first string for the Notre Dame game so that’s a big confidence boost.”
Following his code-switch, Dickson, who Saddington described as ‘coachable’ and ‘driven’, hopes to play football professionally.
“I want to play in the NFL,” said Dickson.
“I’ve got four years to hone my skills. I’ll be training and playing at a highly competitive level. I think I can get to that standard.”
Australians playing on gridiron’s biggest stage is nothing new.
In 2009, Ben Graham became the first Aussie to play in a Super Bowl while Darren Bennett and Sav Rocca both racked up more than 100 NFL games following the conclusion of their AFL careers.
Dickson’s NFL ambitions come as the hype around Jarryd Hayne’s high-profile code-switch builds on the back of strong preseason performances for the San Francisco 49ers.
“I think he’s a legend,” said Dickson.
“The fact that he’s been able to make the transition so easily, and in the position he’s playing, it’s incredible.”
Hayne appears on track to make the 49ers 53-man squad for the upcoming season, surviving the most recent round of roster cuts on Tuesday.
While Dickson’s switch appears similarly seamless, adapting to the culture has proven difficult at times.
“They [teammates] just don’t know what so many things are,” said Dickson.
“The other day I said to one, ‘Chuck us a footy’. He just looked at me, he had no idea what I was talking about.”
It appears Dickson isn’t alone in needing some football education.
University of Notre Dame vs. University of Texas, Sunday 6th September, 4:30am Australian EST
Follow Dickson’s progress at University of Texas – Football