MORGANTOWN – For someone whose journey has been long and, shall we say, adventurous, Josh Growden has lived the American dream, which is quite a feat for an Australian.
Or should we say “feet” rather than feat, for Growden is an Australian import with far more kick than Foster’s beer.
His journey began when he was 4 years old and began kicking a “footy,” the name for the ball used in Australian Rules Football. A year later he played first game, and that was for – if we may – leg of the journey that has led him to become West Virginia’s punter and a good one, at that.
The punt game in American football is important because it establishes field position and Growden, who uses his left foot most of the time, takes the snap on a diagonal and rolls out to kick the ball has become an expert at seeing opponents not return his kicks.
To date, WVU has not given up a punt return yard in the last four games and he isn’t booming balls into the end zone, which gives them the ball at the 25. He simply kicks away from the returners or makes them fair catch.
But let us go back to journey from Australia to Morgantown through Baton Rouge, La.
As a kid, while playing the Australian rules game, Growden watched American college football on television, admitting “it isn’t popular there.”
He became good enough to play Australian Rules Football professionally, which says something about his athletic skills as it does about his kicking ability, and that game is a whole lot more physical than the American game is for a punter.
“I broke my leg and had two hip operations playing Australian Rules Football,” he said.
The hip operations, he said, were the result of wear and tear on the cartilage. Then I got tackled and snapped my leg in half,” he said.
He isn’t kidding. He broke both the tibia and the fibula in his plant leg, had to have a rod inserted, spent a month on crutches and another eight weeks in a moon boot. He sat out a year because of the injury that he suffered when he was 18.
Once healed, he went back to playing but eventually was let go.
“That’s when a friend told me about Pro Kick and it could give me a chance to get a degree in America,” he said.
So off he went to a tryout camp, was selected and began learning the American method of punting with an Australian twist.
“It was about 9 months before we had a film good enough to send out,” he said.
LSU needed a punter and off he went on the 30-hour journey to Baton Rouge, which is one of the very few places that can match Morgantown in excitement for college football.
“I knew it was going to be good,” he said of the experience of playing college football. “Nothing can compare to running out before 100,000 people all supporting one team. It was like crazy.
“Then there is all the pregame stuff, walking out with the fans, the band, the cheerleaders.”
He was hooked. He punted there as the punter trying to deaden the ball near the goal line for three years, got his degree and the got an itch to go back and play Australian Rules again.
“I’d gotten my degree, my friends had graduated from LSU, I wasn’t the starter – not that that was a massive issue – and I wanted to go back and play Australian football again. There’s a spot on the list for guys who have been out of the game or three or more years. I felt I had a good chance to make that and play at a high level again,” he said.
His parents flew in for Senior Night at LSU and thought he’d be heading home to stay, but once he got there he couldn’t find a team but was contacted by Pro Kick. They told him WVU had just lost an Australian kicker that they thought was going there and asked him if he’d be interested, considering he had a year of eligibility left.
“My punting coaches called and said ‘How about going to West Virginia? It would really help us out because you’re the only one who is ready to go there’,” he said.
And so here he came and it has been a match made in Almost Heaven.
“Both LSU and West Virginia have different things that are awesome about them, like singing “Country Roads,” going and high-fiving the fans after the game is so cool, the Man Trip,” he said, when asked about the two schools’ atmosphere. “It’s like being in a new environment and experiencing a new level of football. It’s really cool.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel