‘I guess I’ve kind of made it': American-style football newbie Tory Taylor leads Big Ten in punting after only two games
IOWA CITY, Ia. — In America, football-loving children grow up dreaming of being the next Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes, quarterbacks who win Super Bowls because of the strength and accuracy of their right arms.
Tory Taylor grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where football success is obtained primarily by leg strength, and the ability to make the egg-shaped leather object bounce in ways that seem to defy physics. They simply call the sport “footy” there for that reason.
Eighteen months ago, Taylor decided to give the American version of football a try. He’d seen it on TV, but never in person. He was nearly 22 years old. He never imagined where it would lead him.
Taylor arrived in Iowa this summer, went into a mandatory COVID-19 quarantine, and emerged to meet his new Hawkeye teammates, two of whom he was about to beat out to become the team’s new punter. They tried to understand his Australian accent and why he insists on putting ketchup on all the steaks he’s been eating. He tried to get the hang of booting a smaller, harder football than he was used to.
On Oct. 24, Taylor took in his first American football game. He was wearing a white jersey with No. 9 on the back, surprised to see how large Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium is, marveling that he was in West Lafayette, Indiana, with his friends and family back home watching his Hawkeye debut.
One of the unfortunate parts of Iowa’s 0-2 start to the season is that the team has given Taylor plenty of chances to show off his talented right leg. His first punt that day traveled 50 yards with so much hang time that it had to be fielded without a return.
That has become the norm for Taylor, who has punted 10 times with a 46.1-yard average, good enough to lead the Big Ten Conference. Five punts have been downed by Iowa inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Four have resulted in fair catches. One has been returned — for minus-8 yards.
“At Purdue … I just kind of took a moment and said, ‘I guess I’ve kind of made it,’” Taylor said Wednesday, addressing Iowa reporters for the first time. “I found out I can do it, and I’m trying to make my family and friends really proud of me.”
Taylor arrived at Iowa so suddenly that there isn’t even a mug shot of him in the team media guide, where he’s listed among the true freshmen even though he’s 23 years old. Instead, there is a Hawkeye logo and the briefest bio that reveals only that he had no prior statistics in the sport he’s earned a scholarship to play, and that he might want to become an elementary school teacher some day.
The seven lines of text beneath Taylor’s name also include the fact that he is 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, which would normally be the makings of a linebacker at Iowa. And that his parents are named Tanya and Stuart. Tanya was especially reluctant to see her son travel so far from home, Taylor said.
But she certainly must have recognized Tory’s gifts at kicking a football.
“I’ve been kicking an Australian Rules football for 20 years, since I came out of the womb pretty much,” Taylor said.
In 2019, some friends suggested to Taylor that he should sign on with Prokick Australia, a company that has been training Australians to excel at America’s version of football for more than a decade. Recent alumni who have made it big over here include Mitch Wishnowsky, who won the Ray Guy Award while at Utah and now kicks for the San Francisco 49ers, and Michael Dickson, who won the Ray Guy at Texas and is currently employed by the Seattle Seahawks.
In January, Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods made the 27-hour flight to Australia to see if he could find a punter to replace Michael Sleep-Dalton. Sleep-Dalton is an Aussie who transferred from Arizona State to play his final season with the Hawkeyes, wanting to test himself in the Big Ten, where the weather conditions range from unpredictable to unbearable. He averaged 41.8 yards on his 48 punts.
Woods arranged a meeting in Australia with Taylor and his parents. Taylor said he normally considers himself to be laid-back, but admitted to being nervous.
“I was kind of new to the sport,” Taylor said. “The moment I met (Woods), he made me feel really comfortable. … My family loved him as well. I think that made it easier” for them to accept his eventual relocation to another continent.
Woods was impressed enough to offer Taylor a scholarship to punt at Iowa. But the COVID-19 pandemic made getting here difficult. Taylor said he finally got a surprise call at home on a Thursday evening telling him he’d been cleared to travel, but he had to quarantine in Australia before the flight and again in Iowa upon arrival.
Iowa began a delayed training camp in September, with Taylor battling junior Ryan Gersonde and North Dakota State transfer Nick Phelps. Woods said it was evident early that Taylor had the strongest leg of the three.
“He’s a phenomenal talent and just starting to figure it out,” Woods said of Taylor before the season.
“I think we got the right (Australian punter) for us as far as his character and how he fits in with the rest of the group.”
Taylor said he’s still getting used to the smaller football. He’s not satisfied with the distance or hang time on his kicks. He knows he hasn’t run into any adverse weather yet, but looks forward to that challenge.
But he also said the first two games have shown that he made the right decision, both to take up this new version of football and to move all the way to America to see if he could hang with the best punters in the country.
“I know that I can do it,” Taylor said. “So now I’m trying to get better every day and improve so I can help the team.”
The team, of course, wishes it didn’t need quite so much help from Taylor. But that’s not his fault. That’s just footy.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.