Aussie mates go from paper mill shiftwork to college football

Tom Hutton kicks a punt at the 2019 Oklahoma State Cowboy football spring event. Bruce Waterfield/OSU Athletics

The first time Tom Hutton stepped onto the 50,000-seat stadium at Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma, it quickly dawned on him just how far he'd come, and how quickly.

Just 18 months earlier, the 29-year-old was working 12-hour shifts at a paper mill in Maryvale - a small town in Gippsland, 150km east of Melbourne, playing amateur Australian Rules Football on weekends.

Soon, his world had turned upside down.

Always a prodigious kick on the Aussie rules field, the former carpenter had taken notice of the growing wave of Australians signing as punters with U.S. universities.

Why not him, he thought?

A whirlwind process -- which began with him contacting Prokick Australia before undergoing a year's worth of intense training -- resulted in Hutton being signed by Big 12 university Oklahoma State and moving some 15,000km to live on the other side of the world.

The craziness of Hutton's journey became apparent after he took up his scholarship offer and was able to set foot on Oklahoma's Boone Pickens Stadium.

"The first time I stepped on it - it was mind blowing. When you stand in the middle, it's crazy to think about where I've come from and how I got there," Hutton tells ESPN.

What makes Hutton's story even more amazing is the fact he has a great mate following almost exactly the same path. Inspired by Hutton, a former workmate at the paper mill, Jordan Sandy, joined his friend at Prokick and was soon signed by Texas Christian University, a fellow Big 12 school. Incredibly, the two teams with their Australian punters will lock horns when they meet on November 2 in Stillwater.

Hutton and Sandy met in a massive tin shed while working with a Jagenberg Vari-Dur - a machine similar to the size of a caravan that is designed to cut three tonne reels of paper into multiple smaller reels to be made into envelopes.

"The equipment kept a lot of the heat inside in the summer, it would get up to 50 degrees (122 farenheit) in there sometimes ... then in the winter it was freezing, driving open forklifts in and out of the buildings at all hours of the night," Hutton says.

Introductions turned into in-depth sport discussions as the pair drove forklifts to move pallets of paper around. They did know of each other through local footy circles: Hutton playing as a midfielder for the Yallourn/Yallourn North Bombers, with Sandy a key defender-turned key forward playing for the Traralgon Maroons.

Always fascinated by American Football, Hutton knew some Australians were obtaining scholarships as punters in the U.S. So maybe he could do the same? He decided to try out for Prokick Australia, an academy run by ex-NFL punter Nathan Chapman and ex-CFL placekicker John Smith.

"I was never really tall as a kid - I played in the pocket and sometimes on the ball, but I knew I was a decent runner and could kick the ball really far," Hutton recalls.

"I never knew there was an avenue for Australians to get into it, but I knew of people that ended up over in America with scholarships, so I thought I might as well contact them, see what the process is and if it was worth a crack. After the first training session, Chappy (Chapman) contacted me and said it would be something definitely worth doing."

And naturally, after working so closely on a daily basis with Hutton, Sandy was also intrigued.

"I developed a great relationship with Tommy and after he started going to train at the Prokick Academy, he told me to go down with him," Sandy tells ESPN.

The two regularly carpooled on Victoria's M1 Freeway, which connected Gippsland to Prokick Australia in Melbourne - spending more than two hours in their cars each way on top of their hefty shift work schedule at the paper mill.

"We both worked shift work: 2 x 12 hour day shifts from 6am-6pm, then 2 x 12-hour night shifts 6pm-6am, then we'd have four-day breaks," Sandy says.

The Prokick program had the duo kicking, running and doing weight sessions on Sunday mornings, Wednesday afternoons and Fridays each week. Hutton and Sandy also added in an extra kicking session whenever they had a free moment.

From joining the program in December 2017, the determination and motivation to make it over to the United States never wavered, as the pair found motivation through those who had followed a similar path.

"When I first starting with Prokick, Michael Dickson finished his crazy year of college football winning the Ray Guy (Award, for the top College Punter in the U.S.) - I didn't know much about him but watching his career from afar was awesome," Hutton says. "We also had the chance to train with Cam Johnston (current Philadelphia Eagles punter) who came down to Prokick a couple of times (in Box Hill). Seeing those guys go to the next level is a big motivator for me."

Perhaps reflective of the growing interest in Australian punters from U.S. colleges, Hutton received some interest from the States after just one week of training at Prokick. Chapman in this time had sent punting videos to the Cowboys Football Department and they were impressed with what they saw.

The film sparked Oklahoma State's Special Teams Coordinator at the time, Steve Hauser, to immediately call Hutton for a character chat. The Cowboys had just finished a 10-3 season, a Camping World Bowl win against Virginia Tech and finished at No. 14 in the country, but they were keen to have an Australian punter commit to the program.

That commitment came quickly and unexpectedly, in early January 2018.

"He [Hauser] gave me a call about two hours after I knocked off night shift (about 7am) ... I didn't know who it was at the time. I picked up and heard the person on the other end of the phone say 'it's a good day for you' and I still had no idea who it was, so I said 'Is it? I hope so'!"

Hauser then introduced himself, going on to say: "We're offering you a scholarship to Oklahoma State."

"I then had a chat to him, pinched myself and went back to sleep," Hutton says. "After that I woke up and thought 'did that really happen?' Then I called my wife and told her and she was really excited."

But Hutton's joy soon turned to confusion. Two weeks after his conversation with Hauser in January, the Special Teams coach left to join the Iowa State Cyclones, leaving all previous commitment discussions in limbo.

"I hadn't heard anything for a couple of days, and I was seeing all these things on Twitter about Steve Hauser going to Iowa State, so there were a few nervous moments but (new Special Teams Coordinator for Oklahoma State) M.K Taylor gave me a call and assured me that they were still going to go for me, which put my mind at ease," Hutton says.

Sandy also had some uncertainty about the process of obtaining a scholarship in the U.S, unsure of how much he would need to improve within the Prokick program to be able to receive that initial interest.

"It took me a while to improve to a level where I thought this was achievable - I thought I was pretty bad to be honest, [but] about May or June I started to get a little better and then had some interest from colleges, and that was the moment for me: 'this is really happening'," Sandy says.

The interest in Sandy was initially from Texas Tech, also in the Big 12 Conference, that offered Sandy a scholarship in August. But similar to Hutton, all commitments for Texas Tech were thrown up in the air due to coaching changes within the Red Raiders program. This included the sacking of head coach (now Arizona Cardinals head coach) Kliff Kingsbury.

However, Sandy received some great news just 24 hours later.

"The day after that happened (the sacking), TCU called me and offered me a scholarship over the phone," he says. "After that I went on visit to TCU the week after and absolutely loved it. I decided that would be a good fit for me and I signed officially on the 17th of December and moved over three weeks later."

Making things easier for Sandy was the fact a family connection explained to him his decision to switch his commitment to the Horned Frogs was the right one.

"It's actually a funny story - my brother from back home in Melbourne, he actually got engaged to a girl from Fort Worth, so we were spending a bit of time with his fiancé's family in Fort Worth and that's where I signed my official letter - when I was at their house," Sandy says. "My brother and I sometimes joke that me and his fiancée have swapped spots on the globe!"

After touching down in Stillwater and Fort Worth in January, both Hutton and Sandy have used any spare time to settle in and acclimatise to their respective towns.

"Fort Worth is a lot different to what I expected," Sandy says. "I expected to come here and there to just be cowboys everywhere, but it's not like that at all. Fort Worth is a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be, it's a really nice place, the food is great, especially Mexican food."

Sandy's novelty was quickly apparent, being tasked with the job of explaining the new range of TCU football gear for the upcoming season.

"They gave us bags full of clothes and the media guy said 'how about we do a video of you opening the bag and explaining what's going on?' I think I said the word 'jumper' and everyone thought that was the funniest thing ever," he says.

Hutton has also received some friendly assistance from Collingwood AFL footballer Mason Cox - who had completed a similar journey in reverse, from college basketball with Oklahoma State University to playing professional Aussie rules.

"I had a couple of brief chats with him through Twitter before I came on my visit, and he spoke really highly of the town. He said the people of Stillwater make the town and the people here are super nice and welcoming which makes it easy," Hutton says.

Making things even easier for Hutton is the fact his wife Kelsey joined him in Stillwater and is working as a Communications Coordinator in the housing and residential department at Oklahoma State.

Both Sandy and Hutton have now turned their attention to Spring Camp and improving before Week 1 of College Football in late August. Sandy will be looking to improve the TCU punting game this year - in 2018 TCU struggled punting the ball, ranking last in the Big 12, averaging just 33.9 net yards per punt.

And as both athletes look forward to their first season, there is one game that carries a bit more weight - both Sandy and Hutton have circled the TCU vs. Oklahoma State game on their calendars when they meet on November 2 in Stillwater.

"I think it's been something we've looked forward to a long time, and it's going to be a massive game for us. I'm hoping to get some friends and family over, and I'm pretty confident, I think we're going to do really well this year," Sandy says.

But Hutton has other ideas: "Pretty much every time he posts a photo or video of him kicking, I just remind him that we're going to touch him up when we play them."