Home » Inside Mitch Wishnowsky’s rise: Chasing Super Bowl history and at the centre of NFL’s punting revolution

Inside Mitch Wishnowsky’s rise: Chasing Super Bowl history and at the centre of NFL’s punting revolution

All it took to change Mitch Wishnowsky’s life was one phone call.

Well, two if you count the one he received from the San Francisco 49ers on draft night back in 2019, becoming the NFL’s highest-drafted punter since 2012 at the time.

But before he was even in America, back when Wishnowsky was working as a glass installer after injuries dashed his dream of a potential AFL or soccer career, he received another phone call.

And as unexpected as the one from San Francisco was, given it is rare for punters to be taken that high in the draft, this call came out of nowhere.

The man on the other end of the line promised to change the Australian’s life.

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Mitch Wishnowsky during a preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019. Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

“It was the first time I’d ever spoken to him,” Wishnowsky told AFP back in 2020, speaking of that conversation with John Smith, who along with Nathan Chapman runs Prokick Australia.

“And he was yelling at me ‘Are you ready to do something worthwhile with your life?’. And I said ‘Yeah’. So he said ‘Quit your job, move to Melbourne, we’ll teach you how to punt and we’ll change your life.’ And I was like ‘Alright, sounds good’.”

Curtin Saints gridiron coach Craig Wilson had spotted Wishnowsky playing amateur flag football with friends in Perth. He liked what he saw. So did Smith and Chapman.

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“[He] sold his house, moved to Melbourne and put his trust in us to get him to the States,” Chapman told foxsports.com.au.

Now Wishnowsky, who was sitting at the end of a pier in Kwinana with a fishing rod in hand when that call from Smith came through, is now preparing to play in his second Super Bowl as the 49ers look to avenge a 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.

All because he answered the phone. But, of course, that was only the start. Impressing at Prokick in Melbourne was one thing. Doing it in the NFL — if he even got there — was another thing entirely.

Punting in the NFL is a different challenge. Jamie Squire/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

As Wishnowsky later told American reporters in a conference call after being drafted to the NFL, the news of his sudden career switch came as a shock to family.

“I went home, told my folks (they were) going to send me to America,” Wishnowsky recalled at the time.

“And they thought I was smoking something.”

The first stop on Wishnowsky’s journey into the unknown was Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), where he punted for a year and spent the other making sure he was academically qualified to later accept a scholarship at the University of Utah.

What Craig Moropoulos, Wishnowksy’s head coach at SBCC, saw when the Australian first turned up for training in 2014 still hasn’t left him to this day.

“I’ll never forget it,” he told foxsports.com.au.

‘BEST I’VE EVER HAD’: HOW WISHNOWSKY LEFT A LASTING IMPRESSION

The year before Wishnowsky enrolled in and punted for SBCC, another Australian Tim Glesson, who now works as a coach for Prokick Australia, had transferred from Wyoming.

“He had a really good season,” Moropoulos said.

“The next thing I know that next spring I got a call from Mitch saying that he had heard really good things and he wanted to look into coming out here and he did.”

All 225 pounds (102kg) of him, and standing at 193 centimetres it would have been easy to mistake Wishnowsky for a fullback or tight end instead.

“He showed up in the summer and I’ll never forget it because he came and I looked at him… and my God, I mean the size and speed,” Moropoulos said.

“But the funny thing was the first time he punted I did not see him punt. I heard him punt. I mean it was just like boom… boom. I turned around and then I just watched him punt and I remember telling the team at the end of the practice I said, ‘Hey guys, this is somebody you’re going to be watching on Sundays’.

“And so that’s my claim to fame and I knew he was going to end up there just by his work ethic and how he was athleticism wise and the strength of his leg. He was phenomenal.”

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That first glimpse Moropoulos got at Wishnowsky was just the start of an incredible freshman year at SBCC for the Australian, who averaged 39.8 yards per punt and placed 30 of his 63 total punts (47.6 per cent) inside the 20-yard line on his way to being named an All-State player.

Wishnowsky wasn’t just getting his punts inside the 20-yard line though. He kicked the ball with such precision that punts downed inside the 10-yard line were far from a rare occurrence.

“Not too many people measure those,” Moropoulos said.

“And that was my push at the All-State meetings that year.”

Wishnowsky opened up the playbook, even giving Moropoulos the freedom to call more fake punts because the Australian had the speed to regularly convert on fourth downs.

“If I had to do it over again, I would have done much more with him,” Moropoulos said.

“… He just did some special things that only a guy with his athletic ability God-given and then his work ethic could do — unbelievable work ethic.”

And that’s the thing about Wishnowsky. As talented as he was, the 31-year-old hasn’t got to the position he is in now, preparing for his second Super Bowl, without putting in the extras.

Like the 100-metre walks he used to do during his time at Santa Barbara City College.

“Just drop the ball, drop the ball,” Moropoulos recalled.

“From a punter standpoint, just drop it working on his drops. For 100 yards that could get monotonous but not for him.”

Or the time he spent with Owen Hoolihan, kicking the punt as if an AFL player and hitting his fellow Australian punter as if he was running a post route, where a receiver in the NFL runs 10 to 15 yards down the field before breaking in at an angle towards the goal posts.

“It was like a quarterback threw it,” Moropoulos said.

“I just was amazed watching that, just some of the practice habits and some of the practice things that he was doing were just not very normal for someone at this level.”

It, along with Wishnowsky’s work ethic, is why Moropoulos can so confidently call Wishnowsky the “best” punter he has ever coached.

“The best I’ve ever had,” Moropoulos said for a second time, as if to stress just how good Wishnowsky was.

“And he was the best when he got here. He just continued on and people just had to watch once and talk to him once and look at him on film once and they were sold.”

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That was the case for the 49ers, who selected Wishnowsky with the 110th overall pick in the 2019 draft, making him the highest-drafted punter since the Jacksonville Jaguars took Bryan Anger in the third round in 2012.

There was little doubting heading into that draft that Wishnowsky was the top punter prospect available after a standout three seasons at Utah, where the Australian won the Ray Guy Award, which is given to the nation’s best collegiate punter, in his first year.

“He’s got the strongest leg that I’ve ever been around or had the opportunity to coach,” Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham Whittingham told the 49ers official website in 2019.

“It’s special. He’s also got great accuracy. He pinned teams inside the 10-yard line better than anybody I’ve been around, too.”

In fact, had the 49ers not taken Wishnowsky at that point of the draft he likely would have ended up as another weapon at the disposal of the most successful coach in NFL history instead.

‘UNBELIEVABLE’ DRAFT GAMBLES PAYS OFF BIG TIME

The fact the 49ers used one of their picks in the 2019 draft on a punter wasn’t surprising.

After all, they had just lost Bradley Pinion in free agency the month before, leaving a vacancy at the position.

But few people saw San Francisco using a fourth-round pick on Wishnowsky, including the man himself.

“I got a call and I was like, ‘What? You are kidding me!’” Wishnowsky told American reporters in a conference call after the draft.

“So unbelievable.”

The reality though was that the 49ers had to take Wishnowsky then, otherwise risking another team snapping him up before they next were on the board with the 148th pick in Round 5.

And by all reports it sounded like the New England Patriots would have been that team.

San Francisco insider Matt Maiocco even reported after the draft that then-coach Bill Belichick had texted someone within the 49ers organisation after they selected Wishnowsky.

“Nice pick,” Belichick wrote, according to Maiocco.

The Patriots went on to select Stanford punter Jake Bailey in the fifth round, seemingly confirming San Francisco’s suspicions that New England would have taken Wishnowsky if he was still available.

“Everyone knows he’s the best punter in the draft, and when is he going to go, and you always want to take that as late as possible,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said at the time. “You’d love to do it in the seventh, but I promise you we wouldn’t have gotten him if we tried to do it in the fifth. That’s why the Patriots traded up to take the next guy in the fifth.”

It proved to be a gamble worth taking for the 49ers as Wishnowsky quickly proved himself one of the best punters in the league, with a consistent ability to flip the field and pin the opposition deep in their own territory.

Mitch Wishnowsky hits and tackles running back Devontae Jackson on a punt return. Dustin Bradford/Getty Images/AFPSource: AFP

In fact, through his first five seasons Wishnowsky has recorded 127 punts placed inside the 20-yard line which ranks him second in franchise history behind Andy Lee (300).

He also is second in yards per punt average (45.7), with his combination of power and precision earning the Australian a four-year contract extension back in 2022 worth up to $13 million.

“They can change the field,” Moropoulos said, recalling a 56-yard punt from Wishnowsky earlier this season which backed the Jacksonville Jaguars to their one-yard line.

It was just one of 12 punts from the Australian that were placed inside the 10-yard line this season. Wishnowsky ranked first in the league in the percentage of punts placed in that area.

“That changes the field, that flips the field for the defence,” added Moropoulos.

“If you want to ask the importance of a punter, you should ask a defensive coordinator or a defensive player what a really good punter can do and they wouldn’t have invested what they did in him when they drafted him if they didn’t see a super importance in that position.”

And they did. In fact, Shanahan said when he first called Wishnowsky to tell him the 49ers would be drafting him that the Australian was a “target from the beginning”.

“We were worried we were going to lose you,” added the San Francisco coach.

But here Wishnowsky is, five years later, still at San Francisco and now presented with another chance to make NFL history.

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Australian defensive tackle Jesse Williams was a member of the Seattle Seahawks’ 2014 Super Bowl-winning team but a knee injury sidelined him for the entire season.

It means that on Monday, Wishnowsky could become the first Australian to actually play in and win a Super Bowl.

It would be the fairytale ending to a journey that in many ways reads like a Hollywood script given where it started.

But in reality Wishnowsky is just one of many to taste success and, in the process, strengthen Australia’s reputation as a punting pipeline.

And Wishnowsky hasn’t forgotten it either. It is why there will be one special guest at Allegiant Stadium on Monday cheering him on.

HOW WISHNOWSKY IS JUST START OF AUSSIE PUNTING REVOLUTION

Chapman had his own dreams of making it in the NFL before founding Prokick Australia.

He turned his attention overseas after playing eight years of professional Aussie rules football, signing as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers in 2004.

After just two preseason games and three punts he was released. A workout with the Cincinnati Bengals and minicamp with the Chicago Bears followed but didn’t lead anywhere.

Chapman moved back to Australia and started a young family, thinking he may never get another chance.

But that ended up being just the start of his association with American football. Chapman wanted to be the mentor that he never had.

“Those first impressions if they’re not good, they just let you go,” Chapman said.

“So, it’s sort of understanding more of the work that goes on behind it to be better prepared. That was sort of what made me go, ‘Let’s get lots of guys over there’, but let’s make sure they do it the right way so that they get a better chance of succeeding.”

Nathan Chapman during a training session at the Prokick training facilities. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Now armed with both his experience over in America and a growing contact list, Chapman teamed up with Smith to set up Prokick Australia.

In 2009, three Prokick-trained Australians (Alex Dunnachie – Hawaii, Jordan Berry – Eastern Kentucky and Thomas Duyndam – Portland State) signed scholarships with U.S. colleges.

“The next year we may have had another three, the year after it was five, the year after was five again, the year after that was eight,” Chapman said.

“It took a long time. All we needed to know was we could get our players in front of the right coaches to be seen and then it was up to the player to make sure they did a good enough job.

“Over those years, as our players started to play against other teams and other coaches and those coaches moved teams, they started to be aware, ‘Oh, these guys are pretty good, Prokick Australia trains them really well. How do we potentially get down and involved in that pipeline?’.”

Now, Chapman said Prokick has been able to send more than 260 Australians over to America on full scholarships to college.

Iowa’s Tory Taylor, who last year broke the NCAA record for punt yards in a season which had stood since 1938, also became the latest Prokick graduate to win the Ray Guy Award.

PROKICK GRADUATE RAY GUY AWARD WINNERS

2013: Tom Hornsey (Memphis)

2014: Tom Hackett (Utah)

2015: Tom Hackett (Utah)

2016: Mitch Wishnowsky (Utah)

2017: Michael Dickson (Texas)

2019: Max Duffy (Kentucky)

2022: Adam Korsak (Rutgers)

2023: Tory Taylor (Iowa)

Utah punter Mitch Wishnowsky standing next to the Ray Guy Award after being named the top punter in college football. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)Source: Supplied

Meanwhile, there were five former Prokick athletes on active rosters in the NFL at the start of this season: Wishnowsky (San Francisco 49ers), Dickson (Seattle Seahawks), Arryn Siposs (Philadelphia Eagles) and Cameron Johnston (Houston Texans) and Lou Hedley (New Orleans Saints).

“There’s only 32 jobs in the NFL,” Chapman said.

“They don’t change over that often. So for the one or two guys a year who get that opportunity to get a job, it’s pretty special.”

A lot of the success Australians have had at both the college and NFL level comes back to the simple fact that many of them grew up playing Aussie rules football whereas American children would typically be throwing a football.

Add in the fact Aussie rules football often requires players to kick while on the move and it gave Australian prospects a more well-rounded skillset compared to other prospects.

“From a drop punt point of view we have a skillset that comes into the game and that coaches want,” Chapman said.

“The NFL itself wanted spirals and I could ask a dozen professional AFL players to give me a consistent spiral under pressure at a shot for goal and they’re going to be inconsistent.

“So, we had some innate skill to be able to kick a football and have a great instinct to be able to kick a football but learning the torpedo and learning to do it consistently and within the right time and within the right pressures, so much work goes into that.

“Once we put the time and effort in, that allowed our guys to have a really rounded skillset that helped college teams get an advantage.”

Even Moropoulos benefited from the punting pipeline, coaching three other Australians (Tim Gleeson, Trent Schneider and Joel Whitford) along with Wishnowsky at Santa Barbara City College.

“That’s a run of four excellent punters,” he said.

And there is “another wave” of Australian talent coming through according to Chapman, who headed over to the United States on Friday to train with current college seniors as they prepare to enter the draft this year.

Taylor is at the forefront of that next wave, expected to be the first punter taken off the board while Florida’s Jeremy Crawshaw is another to watch ahead of the 2025 draft.

Nathan Chapman looks on as Jeremy Crawshaw takes part in a training session. (Photo by Kelly Defina/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Crawshaw took a very different path to most Australian punters, having grown up with dreams of playing winger for the Penrith Panthers.

“I was close to being on their development squad when I was younger,” Crawshaw told foxsports.com.au.

But after falling out of love with the sport he turned his attention elsewhere, finding his way to Prokick and eventually to the Florida Gators, where he now owns the all-time program record of average yards per punt (46.7).

“It’s funny to sit back and look back on such a journey, coming from a small town of Emu Plains on the outskirts of the Sydney basin to finding myself playing in front of 100,000 people in the States,” Crawshaw said.

“I’d say it’s impressive. I’m proud of myself for how far I’ve come and I’m proud of myself for how I’ve grown over this journey from that small, baby-faced 17-year-old with acne that joined Prokick to now a 22-year-old that is starting his last year with serious aspirations of getting drafted this time next year.”

And it is the success of those who came before him, including Wishnowsky, that gives Crawshaw the confidence that unlike his rugby league dream this one could become a reality.

“Those guys are so important,” Crawshaw added.

“Without those guys ahead of us that kind of proved that this is possible, more of that self-doubt would be more present.”

Instead, there is just belief — belief in the pathway Prockick Australia has created.

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“So, we’re going to keep trying to send waves and waves of guys… the year following we’ve gpt a bunch of five or six guys who are in that draft eligible, who all have serious talent,” Chapman said.

“… So, you just never know. Give us a call. Come down and have a kick. You just never know where you could end up.”

Just ask Wishnowsky. Just ask if he would have ever imagined being in Las Vegas for his second Super Bowl, and all because of one phone call promising to change his life.

Now that has happened. But even under the bright lights of Vegas, Wishnowsky has never forgotten where he came from or who his journey started with.

So, he called Chapman to tell his former mentor he got tickets for him for Monday’s game.

“I was over the moon, it sort of took a little while to sink in,” Chapman said.

“To know that the players, in Mitch’s case, cares and really gives back or is thankful for the opportunity that he got by coming through Prokick but also, being a good friend along that whole journey.

“You just want to see him happy. He’s in a great spot. Got a great wife, kids, the dog, things have built up over a number of years for him to be in this position.

“Again, it’s all by accepting a phone call from one of my coaches, Johnny Smith, rang him up and said you’ve got to get to Melbourne and he took that advice.

“And here he is now, living out a dream.”