Josh Bartel’s long wait is finally over.
Two years ago, he walked away from Australian Rules Football to pursue a North American football career. He’s still chasing that dream but took a huge step closer to achieving it Wednesday night when he made his CFL debut with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The 27-year-old punted seven times for a solid 45.7-yard average in Hamilton’s 29-24 exhibition loss to the Toronto Argonauts.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Bartel said. “It’s definitely a relief to get the first game out of the way and come through unscathed, which is even more of a bonus.
“The first two or three I was pretty nervous. After that I sett led down and got into a rhythm.”
The six-foot-three, 200-pound Bartel is one of three kickers in camp along with CFL veteran Luca Congi and fellow rookie Josh Maveety. But unlike Congi and Maveety, Bartel only punts so if the Ticats opt to keep him they’ll have to use two roster spots for kicking specialists.
Congi, who spent his first six CFL seasons in Saskatchewan, made one of the two field goals against Toronto and handled kickoff duties. Congi also punted with the Riders but his career-best was a 39.1-yard average in ‘09.
Edmonton’s Burke Dales was the CFL’s leading punter last season, posting a 47.2-yard average with the Calgary Stampeders. A 45.7-yard mark in 2012 would’ve left Bartel third in the overall standings.
Now, Bartel quickly points out one exhibition game doesn’t make a season. But he was glad to hear his performance was very good.
“I wasn’t even thinking about punts or averages,” he said. “That’s a good start then, I suppose.
“I was surprised just how hard they go at it and the quickness of everything. You have to concentrate all the time because things change very quickly.”
Especially for an inexperienced and unsuspecting punter running too far downfield to support the punt-cover team.
“Actually I got further down field than the coach would’ve liked,” Bartel said. “After I got back he told me to keep my head on a swivel because there were a couple of blokes coming from the left I didn’t really pick up.
“Luckily they didn’t get me.”
Conventional wisdom in the CFL is having one person handle the punting, kicking and kickoff duties to provide maximum flexibility on the 42-man roster. Bartel believes he can kick field goals but for now is only being asked to punt.
Wednesday’s game was typical pre-season opener, featuring over 800 yards of total offence, eight turnovers and 27 combined penalties. But Bartel didn’t go unnoticed.
”It looked like Josh Bartel kicked the ball pretty good,” Ticats head coach George Cortez said. ”We kicked it near the end zone a couple of times because we need to practise that with him.”
A factor working in Bartel’s favour is by CFL standards he’s a non-import. That’s huge because teams usually go with Canadian kickers so they can play Americans elsewhere in their lineup.
Then again, Bartel isn’t your average Canadian. He played for the Wodonga Bulldogs, a semi-pro team, before getting the itch to give North American football a try in June 2010.
“Yeah, I’m classified as a non-import but don’t ask me too much about Canada,” Bartel said with a chuckle. “I know the capital, which is Ottawa, but as far as who the prime minister is, no.”
There’s plenty of kicking in Australian Rules Football but it’s mostly done on the run as players can usually sprint upfield and get a nice, long running start before being required to boot the ball. In North American football, punters must be able to handle a snap cleanly, take two or three steps forward, perform a precise drop and kick the ball downfield often while under a severe rush from the opposition.
But there’s more to it than that.
Getting sufficient hangtime — the amount of time the ball remains in the air — is also important because the longer the ball is airborne, the more time the cover team has to position itself to make the tackle.
And in Canadian football, which is played on a longer, wider field than the American version, where punters kick the ball is crucial. For example, a returner forced to catch the ball near the sidelines has much less room to operate than if he gained possession in the centre of the field. Effective directional kicking can put the cover team in a much more advantageous position to make the quick tackle and gain an edge in the battle of field position.
“The directional thing is huge in the CFL,” Bartel said. “We’re doing a lot of reps in training and I’m still working on it but it’s coming along.
“The two games are completely different. Here you get maybe seven or eight chances per game whereas in Aussie Rules you’re always in play and have chances to get yourself into the game if you’re having a bad one. The ball is a lot different too but Aussie Rules Football helps you learn how to kick under pressure and you can also get hit from anywhere on the ground.”
But Bartel isn’t trying to land a CFL roster spot cold turkey. When he left the Bulldogs, he enrolled into ProKick Australia, a school that teaches punting and kicking to Australians.
Bartel isn’t the first Australian Rules Football player to make such an attempt. Compatriots Ben Graham (Detroit Lions) and Sav Rocca (Washington Redskins) are both under contract in the NFL while Mat McBriar, a former Dallas Cowboy, is currently a free agent.
Probably the most famous Australian-born NFL punter is Darren Bennett, who spent 11 seasons with San Diego and Minnesota before retiring after the 2005 season. Twice he played in the Pro Bowl and was also named to the NFL’s 1990s all-decade team and the Chargers’ 50th anniversary squad.
Bartel joined ProKick alum Scott Crough in the CFL after Crough signed with the Calgary Stampeders. However Crough, who also spent time in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers. New York Giants and Cleveland Browns, was released earlier this month.
“It has taken me a year and a half to study the game and get all the rules down,” Bartel said. ”I don’t know all the rules just yet but give it time.”
But first, Bartel had to get used to wearing a football helmet, shoulder pads and other items after only being required to have a mouthguard in Aussie Rules.
“I really wasn’t comfortable with the equipment early on.” Bartel said. “It took some getting used to.”
Fortunately for Bartel, Hamilton has a seasoned pro to help him in camp. Paul Osbaldiston, the Ticats’ franchise leader in scoring (2,856 points), field goals (655) and career punts (2,127), is back with the club as an assistant special-teams coach.
At first glance, it would seem Bartel’s lack of football experience would make him a longshot to make the Ticats’ roster. But Osbaldiston says that’s not the case.
”Technique-wise he has kicked a ball all his life and has done it for accuracy, distance and height,” Osbaldiston said. ”The only things he has had to adjust to are the real obvious: shortening the steps as opposed to the AFL and running up and kicking the ball, the shape of the ball.
”The biggest thing for him is having guys running at him, which is something he’s not necessarily seen before. But technically, he’s sound.”
So, too, is Bartel’s mental approach.
”He has a great demeanour,” Osbaldiston said. ”He doesn’t let things around him affect him on the field in his head or physically.
”That’s one thing we don’t have to deal with, we don’t have to talk about the mental game very much with him because he’s very focused.”
Hamilton concludes its exhibition campaign in Winnipeg on Wednesday before coaches make the final cuts and decide on the roster that will face Saskatchewan in the regular-season opener June 29. But Bartel isn’t letting himself look that far.
“I just take each day as it comes and try to do my best,” he said. “The main goal is to keep kicking well and hopefully win a job.
“There’s a lot of good competition in camp.”