Self-taught New Zealand kicker gets Div. 1 scholarship at UC Davis

Wellington, New Zealand native Finn Rudd just accepted a full scholarship to the University of California Davis to play football, as a kicker and punter.

On the face of it, a more unlikely candidate for a top Division 1 school would be hard to find. He knew very little about American football until he had finished high school in New Zealand.

That made no difference to UC Davis head coach Dan Hawkins:

“Finn is extremely talented and he has only scratched the surface of his abilities. He is a little older, more mature for a college student. He’s has a real ‘blue collar come to work everyday’ attitude. “

With so many Australian punters now playing NCAA football, another kicker from Down Under might not seem so unusual.

Except, in this case, it is.

Not only had he never played a down of football in his life before 2018. He taught himself how to kick and punt by watching Youtube videos. At home in New Zealand.

This is a tale of dogged determination and an unlikely talent.

Playing American football was the furthest thing from Rudd’s mind in late 2016 when he happened to see a New York Giants game on TV featuring Australian Brad Wing who was the punter for the Giants.

“I couldn’t believe that he was getting paid to punt the ball like that. I had no idea.”

Within days, he found a place that sold cheaper American footballs in Wellington and bought one, and then found a park and started kicking.

Just like that.

He went online and did tons of research, downloaded Youtube videos and kicked and punted for hours, every day, seven days a week. until there was no daylight left. There were no lights in the parks.

“I would work a 10 hour shift at the grocery story and then go out and kick and punt every evening until I couldn’t see anymore. I was my obsession. For three years, I was  just kicking, kicking, kicking, whenever I could.”

Although his family and friends thought he was a little weird, and there were more than a few stares while he kicked, he persevered. He had discovered something.

He was pretty good.

He was kicking 50-yard field goals with ease. And he had taught himself the art of backspin punting so he could punt the ball down to the two yard line.

Keep in mind, there was no football support system in New Zealand. He couldn’t turn to anyone for advice or instruction. There is American football but special teams is not high on the list of priorities.

So he kept up his daily regime and began filming his kicking.

In his research, he read about another Kiwi,  Jonny Linehan who has just finished his career at Brigham Young University. He realized that he would have to find a school in the States, but that Division 1, was not in the cards.

Yet.

So he began sending his videos out to junior colleges all across America. Within a week, five JUCOs were interested along with two Canadian colleges.

Still, nothing transpired. He was starting to give up hope. A move to Christchurch and an even more physical factory job did not stop his kicking but his spirits were sliding. It was a Facebook message from someone who admired his determination that “kicked” him back into high gear.

“I can’t even remember his name. But that message inspired me when I was thinking this was all a waste of time.”

He renewed his efforts, sending videos to every scholarship JUCO. That’s when Highland Community College in Kansas responded. Their defensive line coach at the time, Austin Roberts contacted Rudd. Roberts, a former Oklahoma Sooner had liked what he saw.

So, for the first time in his life, Rudd was leaving New Zealand for North America, traveling all the way to Highland, Kansas with a population of 1,000 (not including students) located about 75 miles northeast of Kansas City.

“The scholarship covered tuition and books but I had saved enough for living expenses.”

Rudd spent the 2019 season with the Scotties handling the kickoff duties and some of the punting.

“I was planning another season at Highland, but I kept sending out film, via Twitter and contacting schools. Suddenly, I had an offer from coach Hawkins at UC Davis. It was a no brainer.”

Suddenly all those years, and long days and nights, kicking and punting a football in a park all alone in a country 8,000 miles away from college football, may pay off.

“I know people think this is strange. I sacrificed the ‘fun’ years. Those times when you’re young out enjoying life. I was standing all alone on a grass field, kicking. But now it looks like it was worth it.”

So, coronavirus conditions permitting, Rudd will be heading to California this fall. What’s next after this? Who knows? If he performs the way Hawkins thinks he can, could the NFL be far off?

Dan Hawkins likes Rudd’s chances:

“The universe has conspired to get him here to us. This is a real ‘feel good’ story. This school has produced NFL punters before. Why not now?”

Roger Kelly
Roger Kelly is an editor and a writer for AFI. A former PR Director the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League for 7 years, he now lives in Sweden writing about and scouting American Football throughout the world.
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