Getting to the Grey Cup isn’t easy. Just ask Nick and Antonietta Zema.
The parents of Montreal Alouettes’ Australian punter Joseph Zema are due to fly in Thursday from Melbourne, with stops in Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto along the way.
“It’s a long trip. But I’m excited to see them,” said Zema, whose wife and young son are also slated to arrive Saturday from Texas.
Zema’s road to the CFL was even more circuitous than his parents’ route. A former Australian Rules Football player who made it to the semi-pro level, he looked to North America for a change in sport and turned to ProKick Australia, which helps aspiring kickers find a collegiate home.
“I was just looking for something different,” Zema said. “I had passed the [Australian Football League] draft age then so I went to ProKick Australia and they sent me in the right direction.”
He was at a crossroads, having earned a degree in exercise and sport science from Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
“It was either go do ProKick Australia and learn how to kick a football or just call it a day and get a desk job,” he said. “So I’m really happy with the decision I made.”
That led him to the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Tex. The school, which plays in the Southland Conference, was founded in 1881 by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, who came to Texas originally to care for victims of a cholera outbreak.
Using his one year of eligibility, Zema kicked for Incarnate Word in 2017.
“That was whirlwind, to be honest.” he said. “I knew I was going there in July and I think Aug. 4 or 5, if I’m not mistaken, I landed in San Antonio and I played at Fresno State in front of 40,000 people two weeks later.”
Zema turned heads in his college debut, booming a punt 75 yards. He ended up averaging 46.7 yards a punt with 31 of his 77 kicks 50 yards or longer.
Named to the All-Southland Conference first team, he also pinned the opposing team within its 20-yard line on 20 occasions.
“It was great experience and it’s changed my life, to be honest. And for the better,” he said of his brief college career.
After college, he attended Tampa Bay and New York Jets mini-camps in 2018 and then a tryout with Jacksonville. In 2019, he played for the San Antonio Commanders in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.
Zema eventually went seventh overall in the 2021 CFL Global Draft, one of four Australian kickers taken in the first round.
Calgary (Cody Grace), Saskatchewan (Adam Korsak), Toronto (John Haggerty) and Winnipeg (Jamieson Sheahan) also have Australian punters.
“I think they have a few more arrows in their quiver than some,” Winnipeg special teams coach Paul Boudreau said of the Australians and their ability to deliver different punts.
Zema, 29, has found a home in Montreal, taking the Metro daily.
“It honestly reminds me a little bit of Melbourne with the restaurants and cafés It’s really good to spend six months of the year to work [there],” he said. “It doesn’t feel like work, to be honest. I’ve really fallen in love with Montreal.”
He lives in Texas during the off-season. It’s where he started dating wife Ariana six years ago. A teacher, she spends June and July with Zema in Montreal.
The rest of the season, their relationship is conducted long-distance.
Now in his third season with the Alouettes, Zema and placekicker David Cote give Montreal an effective kicking tandem with Zema pinning the Argos in their own end with his kicks in the East final.