One Australian's Quest for NFL Longevity
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s the face of American football Down Unda.
By Matt Foley
Jordan Berry still remembers the faces of drivers as they crept down the road, puzzled by what was going on in their neighborhood park. You see, American football is an uncommon sight in Melbourne, Australia. But thanks to Berry — and other trailblazers — Down Under is coming up with promising punters.
“I’d suit up in full pads and let it fly,” says Berry, recalling the start of his punting obsession. “After each kick I’d have to chase down the ball, punt it back the other way. It was a good way to stay fit.”
It was a routine Berry began at age 17, shortly after seeing a flyer offering to teach Australian rules football players the American game. He never had delusions of grandeur that he might play in the Australian Football League, but after studying Sav Rocca and Ben Graham — two former AFL players who extended their careers by transitioning to NFL punting — the NFL seemed attainable. Much like in soccer, conditioning and stamina are key in Australian football. “I knew that I wasn’t fit enough to make the AFL,” says Berry. “Some players run up to 15 kilometers each game. But I always had a big leg.”
It’s a crazy business. You get a little more comfortable as the years go on, but you can never lose focus.
And that leg has yet to disappoint. The 6-foot-5, 26-year-old Melbourne native is halfway through his third season with the Pittsburgh Steelers — all three as the full-time starter. Still, the NFL doesn’t issue guarantees, meaning Berry could disappear overnight; so for now, he’ll blast balls and enjoy being a regular guy with an irregular leg.
Jason Berry is the man behind his son’s love of sport. A Ph.D. in sports science, Jason pushed all four of his sons — Jordan’s the eldest — toward their own goals. “My dad was incredibly knowledgeable,” says Jordan. “When I decided to make a run at American football, he already knew enough to guide me down the right path.” In fatherly fashion, Jason declines much of the credit for Jordan’s success. “I tried to put him in good positions and do my due diligence, but he did the work,” Jason says. “He dedicated himself to the craft right from the start.”
In late 2007, Berry, Alex Dunnachie and Thomas Duyndam were the only athletes to answer flyers from coach Nathan Chapman, a former Australian Football League player who briefly punted for the Green Bay Packers. At the time, Chapman lived a two-hour plane ride away in Brisbane, so the boys spent most days training on their own. “[Chapman] still made it out an awful lot, considering how little we were paying him,” jokes Berry. In American football, Berry saw a route to an education that Australian rules football couldn’t offer. “I could either do that hard slog through the minor levels while working and going to school on the side,” he tells OZY, “or punt my way to a scholarship.”
After a 2009 trip to the U.S. to kick for college coaches, all three boys returned with college scholarships. Since then, Chapman’s company — ProKick Australia — has grown tenfold. “When we started, Tom, Alex and I would just meet up at random parks,” says Berry. “Now they have 30 kids at training sessions and dozens more playing in America.”
Berry’s offer from Eastern Kentucky University introduced him to the town of Richmond. With a population of 34,000 and “not much to do,” he says the transition from metropolitan Melbourne was daunting. But it’s also where he met his now-fiancé, Emily, and earned All-Conference honors in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Still, he failed to secure a single NFL tryout. With his student visa expired and no job offers, Berry headed back to Australia.
“It was like, ‘What am I doing with myself?’” Berry recalls thinking at the time. At night, he worked at a McDonald’s and a call center, saving money and staying focused on his goal. “There was never a doubt that I was coming back,” he says. Skyping with Emily kept his spirits up. Another thing that helped? Watching inferior punters shank kicks across the gridiron. Monday-morning NFL games became a ritual, raising his hope that opportunity was near.
Then, nine months after leaving the States, and after hiring a contact of Chapman — former NFL executive Steve Ortmayer — to help land tryouts, the Steelers came through. “It was just me, the special teams coach and one trainer,” says Berry. “I didn’t know what to think. No one gave me any feedback. Then Coach [Mike Tomlin] called me to his office and told them to sign me up.” After a strong 2015 preseason, the new kid had won the coach’s favor. Before Week 1, Tomlin promptly traded the incumbent starter, Brad Wing, to New York. “It’s a crazy business,” Berry reflects. “You get a little more comfortable as the years go on, but you can never lose focus.”
At 6–2, Pittsburgh is currently first in the AFC North and poised for another playoff push. Punting is a tough position to assess purely through statistics, but Berry has been solid, gaining kudos for his Week 6 performance against the league-leading Kansas City Chiefs. His precise punts helped limit the NFL’s most feared kick returner, Tyreek Hill, to a scoreless night, with Pittsburgh pulling out a 19–13 victory. Through eight games, he has placed 12 balls inside the 20-yard line and surrendered just two touchbacks. Still, Berry’s net yardage (37.5) — the punt distance minus return yardage — ranks third-to-last in the NFL. Last season, Pittsburgh special teams coordinator told Steelers.com that “if you’re hanging around 40 yards, you’re pretty good.” Anything less, and a punter could soon be looking for work.
Berry will have to improve his figures to keep the pressure at bay, but he seems pleased with how he’s performing. “Sometimes, the punts that feel the best, the ones I place the best, don’t show on the stat sheet,” he says. “It’s tricky that way. But I’ve been happy so far.”
And he’d be happy to stay put. Berry feels acclimated to Pittsburgh, ripping up the bike trails along the Monongahela River and enjoying nights out on the city’s South Side. Sure, he can remember when his NFL future looked bleak, but today, the longest-tenured Steelers punter since 2003 seems to have cemented his standing with the team.