Born in Sydney and still an Australian citizen, San Diego
Chargers punter Darren Bennett is permitted to play in the U.S.
on a P-1 visa, which designates him as an athlete "with an
internationally recognized level of performance." Recently the
Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) informed Bennett
that he could be deported unless he can prove that his
employment does not deny a U.S. citizen a job (i.e., that he is
uniquely qualified for the work he does). The INS suggested that
a letter from a sportswriter might bolster his case.
Greetings. Or as Darren Bennett would say, G'day. Believe me, I
understand the sensitivity of the alien issue in San Diego. The
Mexican border. Heaven's Gate.
That said, do you really want to deport Bennett, his wife,
Rosemary, and their sons, Will and Tom? Do you really want to
punt an affable Aussie back across the Pacific less than two
years before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney? Do you really want the
Chargers' lone change-of-possession option to be a Ryan Leaf pass?
Bennett never played college football, so he wasn't an
All-America. Yet in 1995 he was All-World, which for him was a
better fit. Now 33, Bennett has been a professional football
player since he was 16--Australian Rules for 13 years and, for
the last five, the American version, which Aussies call
"gridiron" and "a game for fat guys and wusses." He has played
on three continents in two hemispheres.
In '95, as a punter for the Amsterdam Admirals of the World
League of American Football, he was selected All-World after
recording the season's longest punt (70 yards) and top net
punting average (35.1 yards).
That autumn, at age 30, Bennett made the Chargers. He averaged
44.7 yards a punt, second best in the NFL, and capped off the
season by being elected to play in the Pro Bowl, in which he
equaled the game record with a 64-yarder. This season he is
averaging 45.5 yards a kick and tied a team record with 11 punts
in an ugly 7-6 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 11.
If you want an Australian with better hang time than Bennett,
try Qantas. Don't just take my word. "Ray Guy is the best punter
ever," says Cincinnati Bengals punter Lee Johnson, a 14-year NFL
veteran, "but Bennett has the stronger leg, the best punter's
leg I've ever seen."
Before games at Qualcomm Stadium, Bennett punts from midfield
and regularly deposits balls in the bleachers 70 yards away.
"After pregame warmups I usually chat with the other team's
specialists," says kicker John Carney, Bennett's best friend on
the team. "As Bennett's legend grew I began to feel like Jimmy
Olsen answering questions about Superman."
What is the yardstick for measuring a legend? How about a
yardstick? In his first season Bennett led the NFL in punts of
50 yards or more, with 27. Seven times in his NFL career he has
launched a punt exactly 66 yards. The FAA reroutes single-engine
aircraft when Bennett punts.
A yardstick? No, that won't do it. Legend is measured in
hyperbole. Listen to Bennett's tale. He went from being a
washed-up Aussie Rules football player in Melbourne to washing
up on the shore of California. It's enough to make the Statue of
Liberty drop her torch and signal for a fair catch.
Once upon a time.... Bennett was watching the sun set on his
career as a member of the Melbourne Demons. "I knew that I was
near the end of my football career," says Bennett, who in his
final season pocketed $40,000 American. (Note to the Internal
Revenue Service: He earns 10 times that amount these days.) "It
was time to find a new job."
Aussie Rules, played on a large oval, is more akin to rugby than
it is to gridiron. Unlike rugby or gridiron, however, in Aussie
Rules the ball is advanced primarily with punts, which are
kicked on the run. Goals are scored by punting the ball between
two sets of posts.
Bennett first punted an American football, which is smaller and
more aerodynamic in design, during halftime of an Aussie Rules
exhibition match at Toronto's Skydome in 1989. He says the ball
sailed 85 yards. Three years later he entered a kicking contest
in Melbourne. First prize was two round-trip tickets to the U.S.
Bennett booted the Aussie Rules ball 74 yards to collect the
tickets to his future.
In October '93 he and Rosemary, newly wed, arrived in Los
Angeles. They had a contact, Bill Anzelc, who sold computer
software to NFL teams and was asking clubs to give Bennett a
tryout. Nobody was biting. "There was nothing to do but wait,"
Bennett says, "so we decided to turn the trip into a honeymoon."
They headed straight from LAX to a sporting goods store in Santa
Monica. They bought a football and, finding a huge swath of
green on a city map, headed there to practice. But what they
thought was a park was actually Forest Lawn. "Not a good start
there, mate," he says.
Armed with a pair of 15-day Amtrak passes, they opted for an
excursion up the West Coast. "At each stop we'd pull out the
footy," recalls Rosemary, who shagged her husband's punts, "and
Bennett would have a go at his kicks."
In San Francisco, Bennett's punts awoke hippies lounging in
Golden Gate Park. In Portland, citizens were reporting
football-sized hail. In Seattle.... "In Seattle we got a phone
call from the Chargers," says Bennett. "'Can you be here
"No worries," he replied.
After a 36-hour train trek, Bennett stood on the turf of Jack
Murphy Stadium. He had never taken a snap. A fit, middle-aged
man in shorts and a T-shirt (Bennett assumed he was a custodian)
watched from a distance as Marty Hurney, San Diego's coordinator
of football operations, conducted the tryout. "Ready?" asked
"Ready, mate," Bennett replied.
Hurney signaled to the snapper, whose snap flew through
Bennett's hands and smashed into his nose. The fit, middle-aged
man--actually Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard--grimaced.
Bennett knew that this might be his only opportunity in the land
of opportunity. "No worries," he told Hurney. "I've broken my
nose four times before."
In the next half hour Bennett convinced Beathard that he was an
NFL-caliber talent. "I'd never seen anything like it," says
Beathard. "The punts Bennett hit traveled 75 yards and sailed as
high. Now our only problem was teaching Bennett the game."
Beathard told Bennett that the Chargers would sign him, which
they did the following April. After spending the 1994 season on
the San Diego practice squad, then the following summer playing
in Amsterdam, Bennett was San Diego's punter for the '95 season
opener. Fifty-five games later he has had only one punt
blocked--on a play in which San Diego had only 10 men on the
Prodigious punts are just half of Bennett's legend. The other
half is his unique--at least for kicking specialists--approach
to Aussie Rules' American cousin. "Darren's not a wuss," says
Chargers long-snapper David Binn. "He loves to hit, and he's big
enough to do some damage."
In his fifth game with the Chargers, at Pittsburgh, Bennett
averaged a team-record 59.5 yards on four punts. Also that
afternoon the 6'5", 235-pounder saved a touchdown by leveling
Steelers punt returner Andre Hastings with a forearm collar that
left Hastings groggy. "I'm an Aussie, mate," Bennett said at the
time. "The only thing I like to send in the air and have return
is a boomerang."
In a 13-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Bennett
was at it again, forcing a fumble by punt returner Allen Rossum
inside the Chargers' 30. "We need to have him in our meetings,"
says Chargers defensive tackle Norman Hand, "because the
defensive line hasn't stripped the ball yet."
Listen, I know the INS drill. You have quotas to keep, people to
deport. You're still a little touchy about Green Card. But,
please, don't boot Bennett out of the country. If you must kick
out a sporting Aussie, there are options. Such as Graeme Lloyd
(the Yankees' bullpen is plenty deep without him) or Luc Longley
(if Michael's gone, who cares what happens to the Bulls?).
Next August the Chargers and the Denver Broncos will kick off in
Stadium Australia at Homebush Bay, the track and field venue for
the 2000 Olympics. Guess who had a huge role in making this game
happen? Guess who everyone in Sydney will come to cheer? "It's
going to be brilliant, mate," Bennett told me. "I hope I'm still
with the Chargers."
"No worries," I replied.
Exile any other Aussie you want, anyone but Darren Bennett.
And Elle Macpherson.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Darren Bennett punting beside Australian flag; Darren Bennett punting in game]
Bennett went from being a washed-up Aussie Rules player in
Melbourne to washing up on the shore of California.