Sac State punter from Down Under

Sam Clark tells his punting journey from Australia to the US


Sara Nevis

Sam Clark, environmental science major, poses on the bench after practice at Hornets Stadium at Sacramento State Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Clark started playing football March 2018 in Australia and came to Sacramento June 2019 to play for Sac State.

Originally from Sydney, Australia, Sacramento State junior Sam Clark currently plays as punter for the Sac State football team — but up until 13 months ago, Clark had never even played the American sport before. 

Down Under, one of the national sports is Australian rules football, which involves more kicking rather than solely throwing and receiving. Before coming to Sac State, Clark was hoping to pursue a career in Australian rules football.

That changed when he kept on hearing the same names over and over from his peers: Nathan Chapman and John Smith. The two coaches run Prokick Australia, an athletic program that specifically trains Australian athletes to perform at a college and NFL level in the United States. 

“It just seemed like something worth pursuing,” Clark said. 

Coach Chapman said he knew from their introductory assessment that Clark was going to have the talent to play college football, and that he and Smith immediately had to show off Clark to his friend, Sac State special teams coach Jeremy LaPan. 

“He has those big long legs and a great work ethic,” Chapman said in an email. “We knew he would get a shot at it.”

Clark said in the span of a month, he began to dive into the sport and learned how to officially punt with other Australian athletes. During that time, Clark and the other athletes began to receive Twitter messages from football coaches seeking to recruit them.

“It’s quite a strange thing, almost cruel, we live with each other and see each other every day for six months to a year at practice,” Clark said. “I get an offer from Sacramento, someone gets an offer from Florida so you don’t really see those people ever again.” 

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LaPan said he was really intrigued by Clark’s work ethic and 6’4” height. He was shown individual film of Clark’s athleticism that eventually led to his stamp of approval. From there, LaPan didn’t have to do any more recruitment and instead worked on helping Clark become enrolled at Sac State.

Clark received an offer from Sac State after 11 months at Prokick Australia, and arrived as Sac State’s new punting specialist in August 2019. 

LaPan said he could tell from their first phone call that Clark was poised, and hungry to be a great punter. 

“He’s a team-first kind of a guy, he seems to love to contribute four or five punts and impact the game, but he understands that when he’s not punting, the offense is doing really well,” LaPan said. “There’s no better person on the team that is suited for this job, he’s a big time punter and he proved it last year.”

LaPan said Clark’s knowledge of the game has improved tremendously since his arrival last year. LaPan said Clark has done a great job with ball placement and understanding situations during practices this semester.

“Sometimes on the specialists’ days off, they’re still lifting and working out but I tell them ‘don’t kick, just stretch’ and he’s always sneaking outside to kick some balls,” LaPan said. “It’s like, ‘Sam! Stop punting!’ because I don’t want him to get injured.”

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Sam Clark, environmental science major, punts the ball during practice at Hornets Stadium at Sacramento State Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Clark started playing football two and a half years ago in Australia. (Sara Nevis)

Clark said that the punter’s job is not only a highly scrutinized position, but also very competitive.

“I probably couldn’t sit here and count the amount of free agent wide receivers or defensive backs that get opportunities in the NFL, whereas the amount of punters that do is very limited,” Clark said. “There’s only 32 NFL teams, so there are only 32 jobs that are professional to play.”

Clark said that while he thoroughly prepared at Prokick, he still found the sound of Sac State football helmets colliding to be intimidating at first. 

In Australian rules football, the sport is full contact and the threat of the punter getting hit is always on the table, but Clark learned in one training incident the opposite applies in American football.

“There was one time at practice where I was punting, and someone kind of crashed into me.” Clark said. “The amount to which this guy apologized to me … I guess it’s a thing that you don’t touch the punter. That was the strangest thing to me, the amount of how much they wanted to protect me.”

Safety Kainalu Martin said it was surprising to hear that Clark had only played football for a couple of years compared to the rest of the football team, who had been playing since they were kids, because of his ability to fit right in. 

Martin has played alongside Clark for a year, as they transferred to Sac State the same semester. Martin said that it took a bit to get used to the Australian accent, but he has since gained a friend. 

“He was one of the first guys I met, we just get each other and it was a pretty quick click,” Martin said. Since then, Martin said that their bond has gotten stronger to the point that Clark has been invited over to his home for holidays when he can’t make the trip overseas home.

Martin said what makes Clark stand out is his constant strive for perfectionism, his positive work ethic and his ability to reflect back on his mistakes to improve as a detailed kicker. 

“He always takes a running start then kicks which gives us the advantage, it gives us more skills for our punt protection,” Martin said.

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Sam Clark holds the ball while Brandon Petruescu kicks the ball during practice at Hornets Stadium at Sacramento State Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. Clark started playing football two and a half years ago in Australia. (Sara Nevis)

When they watch NFL or college football games, Martin says it’s fascinating to watch Clark be focused on the kickers and punters rather than wanting to skip through to the offense and defense. 

“He’s always working on his craft,” Martin said. “He’s always providing commentary, you can tell from the tone of his voice that it’s his favorite part.” 

Clark said that while he understands there’s only so much that can be done with his specific skill set, he finds the position to demand more from him mentally. 

“There are so many things we can work on, even the smallest degree of change in how our footsteps or how our fingers move can massively change the result of the ball flying,” Clark said. “It’s mentally stressful to only be able to work on a handful of things and do the same thing over and over and over again.”

Along with this, he said he also has to consider things like the direction in which the ball will land on his foot upon releasing. Clark said that punting is a highly scrutinized position compared to other positions in football. 

“If the snap is a little bit to the right, or if it’s a little bit too high, you got a really heavy rush coming — do you change your fate?” Clark said. 

These snap decisions were difficult for him to get used to at first, despite fully learning and mastering the rules of football, Clark said. 

“It was more so understanding how to read a rush, so I really did not expect a bunch of massive dudes to be all over me on week one, but that’s how it goes,” Clark said. 

Despite the pandemic postponing his second season of football, Clark said he is trying to remain positive throughout this time. 

“I might not be able to play football, but people are dying from coronavirus and losing loved ones,” Clark said. “It’s quite strange, I think I’m just trying to be grateful everyday because it kind of puts things in perspective.”

Additional reporting by Sara Nevis.