Former Australian Football Star Sav Rocca’s Kicks Hanging With The Best
ASHBURN — As one of the all-time greats in Australian rules football, Sav Rocca was used to living the life of a celebrity.
He’d be recognized on the street as the full-forward for the Collingwood Magpies, where he played his first nine seasons, or the North Melbourne Kangaroos, from which he retired after six more in 2006. Fans would want an autograph, or a photo, or at least the chance to say “g’day” to the man who scored 748 goals, a mark that puts him 13th all-time.
When he moved with his wife and three children to the United States to pursue a career as a punter in the National Football League shortly thereafter, the stardom was gone.
“I knew it would be like that, and I knew that the punter doesn’t get the attention as most of the other guys, but I had a lot of attention back home and I’m willing to sit it out, in that sort of respect,” Rocca said.
Rocca likely still won’t be a star in the NFL — at least, not a face as recognizable as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady or Drew Brees. But his contributions to the Washington Redskins this season have already been almost as valuable.
The 37-year-old punter enters his first game Sunday against his former team, Philadelphia, among the league leaders in several punting categories. His 12 punts inside the 20-yard line tie Seattle’s Jon Ryan for the most in the league, though the Seahawks have played one more game. He has not yet had a touchback — he had just two last year, and is averaging one every four games in his five years in the league. And his remarkable hang time on punts is contributing to a net punting average that, at 41 yards per punt, is sixth in the league.
“I’ve been doing this for a while at the collegiate level and the pro level, and I’ve never seen a person punt like him,” said Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan. “I’m talking about putting it inside the 20, leg strength, just the way he handles himself. He’s been a pleasure to be around. He’s definitely a weapon. It doesn’t happen very often where a guy can consistently kick the ball inside the 20 and consistently have the hang time that he has.”
LEARNING A NEW GAME
The path to the NFL wasn’t simple. The idea of retiring from the Australian Football League and working a regular desk job didn’t appeal to Rocca, who had seen countrymen Ben Graham and Darren Bennett thrive as punters in the NFL.
Within a week of playing his final game with the Kangaroos in 2006, Rocca was on a plane to the United States, where he had a tryout with Buffalo. Despite his staying in the country to work with coaches and try to make contacts in the NFL, the Bills passed, and a series of emails to scouts for all 32 teams resulted in several more rejections.
It was only after extending his stay in the country for an additional period of time that Rocca was able to meet up with Graham, who talked to his agent about finding Rocca another tryout.
“I thought, I didn’t want to die wondering if I could have made it in another sport,” Rocca said. “I love sports and I love competing and I love getting the best out of myself, so that’s why [I made the move].”
When he signed with the Eagles in 2007 at 33, Rocca became the oldest rookie in league history, coincidentally supplanting Graham. As complicated as the move to the United State was, the adjustment process was even more difficult. He had to learn the rules and his responsibilities, and found out there was a bit more to football than kicking the ball.
“A lot of it was like learning a new language,” Rocca said. “I was trying to learn Japanese and understand it in two months, that sort of thing. It was the terminology and all the positions and the rules — I understood that I could catch the ball and kick it, but other things that go with the position, I had a lot to learn.”
He adapted well in 2007, ranking in the middle of the pack in nearly all punting categories. By 2008, Rocca had grown more comfortable and quickly became one of the league’s most consistent punters.
“He works really hard at what he does, especially playing Australian rules football for 15 years,” said Redskins kicker Graham Gano, who considers Rocca a friend. “He’s just really good. If you watch him punt the ball, you hear the crowd ooh and aah, even on the road. That speaks for itself.”
OFF TO WASHINGTON
Special teams coach Danny Smith always had a keen eye for Rocca’s ability when the Redskins played the Eagles over the past four years. When Philadelphia decided not to re-sign Rocca for this season, he was atop Smith’s wish list to take over as the team’s punter after having the Redskins had three last year.
The two teams agreed to a deal, but Rocca, then back in Australia because of the owners’ lockout, needed to wait the better part of a week to get his work visa. Smith quickly found he was worth the wait.
“I don’t know Australian rules football, but if you think about it, they catch, throw, run, kick on the run. It’s physical, those kinds of things,” Smith said. “I really trust him. I know he trusts in me and what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to do it. He does get it from a team concept. He’s not a selfish person. He’s not a selfish teammate. I like that.”
Rocca’s growing much more comfortable in Washington. He originally preferred signing with the Redskins because of the location; he moved with his family to southern New Jersey when he signed with the Eagles, but they’ve since sold their home to move here. Gano, recently a father, has from time to time asked for parenting advice, which Rocca is happy to give, and Smith laughed when he found out Rocca owns two pizza shops in Australia.
The transition hasn’t been entirely complete. There’s still an Australian rules football occupying a shelf in his locker at Redskins Park, and Rocca reluctantly admits, with a degree of shame, that he still doesn’t know all the rules of the American game.
It’s another thing that he hopes won’t draw any attention to him.
“It’s nice to not have that here,” Rocca said.