Pitt's Aussie punter part of trend
Kirk Christodoulou grew up playing Australian Rules Football in his native Melbourne. He was one of the lucky ones.
In a sport where opponents tug at your arms and legs and often drive a knee in your back, Christodoulou said he never suffered a serious injury.
Upon visiting the United States this month, his good fortune continued when Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi offered him a scholarship to be the team's next punter. He quickly accepted.
“If they ask me to jump,” Christodoulou said, “I'll say, ‘How high?' ”
Christodoulou, who graduated from Balwyn High School in Melbourne last year with a 3.62 GPA, hopes to enroll at Pitt in January when he will become the school's first Australian-born football player in anyone's memory. He is part of a huge wave of Australian athletes who grew up playing Australian Rules Football and now find themselves on U.S. college campuses or NFL teams, becoming part of a game they usually only watch back home on pay TV.
Australians have won the past three Ray Guy Awards, given annually to the best punter in college football. Utah's Tom Hackett won it in 2014 and '15 and is with the New York Jets. Memphis' Tom Hornsey was the 2013 winner.
Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers have used Australian punters. The Steelers employ Christodoulou's workout partner, Jordan Berry, who won his NFL job last year over another Australian, Brad Wing (now with the New York Giants).
Berry's agent, Gerald Briffa, said Australian Rules players “start with a distinct advantage over American youngsters.”
“Most young men (in the U.S.) don't say they want to be punters. They want to be quarterbacks, glamorous stuff.”
Christodoulou, Berry and several other punters train at ProKick Australia, a school in Melbourne specifically designed to introduce American football to Aussies. ProKick owner and punting coach Nate Chapman estimates he has placed 60 punters in the U.S.
Chapman said Christodoulou's strength sets him apart from some others.
“Kirk is powerful and will use that to his advantage,” Chapman said. “Kirk was a good (Rules) football player and played in a key position, meaning he had to be rough and tough.”
Christodoulou, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, said he hooked up with Chapman two years ago when someone saw him kick the ball about 70 yards. “With the wind,” he admitted.
That set off a chain reaction leading to his Pitt offer.
Pitt special teams coach Andre Powell, who has communicated with Chapman for many years, recently sent him a message. Chapman replied by saying he had a prospect.
“It was great to be able to finally get a quality punter to coach (Powell) for him to use,” Chapman said.
Christodoulou joined 20 ProKick students on a 16-day tour of the U.S. this month during which they visited several colleges, including Pitt, to get a first-hand look at the game.
When he spoke to the Tribune-Review recently through Facetime because he didn't have an American phone, he was standing in Ohio Stadium on Ohio State's campus.
Despite taking those unofficial visits, Christodoulou said he is “100 percent committed to Pitt.”
“(Narduzzi) gave me that assurance (of a scholarship),” he said. “I will give him the same assurance. There's no way I'm changing my mind.”
On his Facebook page, Christodoulou, 19, wrote: “After visiting Pittsburgh, there's no better place to study and kick some footies for the next 5 years.”
He added his family is “over the moon” with pride.
Christodoulou, who hopes to attend a game at Heinz Field this season, isn't expected to become Pitt's regular punter until 2018 after junior Ryan Winslow graduates. Then, Pitt and the Steelers each may have their own Australian punter, working at different ends of the South Side practice facility.
“It will be a bit weird to be moving right next door to another Australian guy,” he said.