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September 19, 2012When discussing college football players, the words sacrifice and dedication tend to pop up. The time investment made by players, obviously, is significant especially when coupled with a student-athlete's academic workload, as well as social and familial obligations.
It certainly isn't easy, and those two key words are certainly appropriate. Ask any Ute hailing from Texas, or Charles Henderson, who hails from Louisiana, what the cultural adjustment is like, and factor that into everything else a non-native Utahn must go through just to play football for Utah.
So then, for Australian-born kicker Tom Hackett, perhaps those words take on an entirely new meaning.
Hackett played Australian rules football almost from the time he could walk, which is entirely a different beast than American football.
Put in perspective, Hackett left his native Australia for America to play a game he has never played and doesn't really know or understand. To top it all off, Hackett is a walk-on, paying for his own education and living expenses.
Realizing the end of his Australian rules football career, Hackett sought out ways to carry on his athletic career, in apparently any way he could.
"My senior year of high school, I was playing a game called Australian Rules Football, whereby you move the ball by kicking, or with your feet," Hackett explained. "I'm only 6-foot, 190 pounds. To play professionally, you really have to be 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 in height, so I wasn't getting looked at by professional teams."
Refusing to give up his athletic career, Hackett adjusted his game, his expectations and his dreams-albeit just a little bit.
"There's a growing trend down there in Australia of kickers and punters coming to the states to play [American] football through a company called Pro Kick America," explained Hackett. "I got in touch with the coach, who said I was more than good enough. So after about a year and a half of training, I ended up getting a bunch of phone calls, and Coach Hill was one of them."
Hackett has no connections or ties to Utah whatsoever. He wasn't drawn to the Utah football program by any one particular thing.
So how did he get here?
Though Coach Hill called Hackett first, it was Pro Kick Australia that first contacted him. The story actually starts with an e-mail out of the blue one day.
"Basically, I got an e-mail one day from this coach who runs a program called Pro Kick Australia. He had a bunch of film on Tom, and I really liked him on film," explained Hill of the random Australian connection with Hackett. "So I went down there in the spring more to just meet with this guy and get his ideas and philosophies on kicking. Basically, so I could determine whether or not I could trust him."
After getting a feel for Hackett's coach, his methodology and what he was teaching his enrollees, in combination with Hackett's film, Hill got a good comfort level with the idea of the scrappy Australian potentially coming to play for Utah.
"Once I went down there and I saw what he was teaching his guys, his work and his word became that much more credible," explained Hill. "Along with all the film I had on Tom, it basically allowed me to feel really good about pursuing Tom."
Pro Kick Australia had a reputation that preceeded Hill's experience, and its reputation was extremely positive.
"I'd heard some things about this group, and this coach. I'd heard some good things about it prior to this," Hill said. "I'd heard that this guy was good, and so I just needed to kind of see it for myself."
Months later, Hackett played in the first American football game of his life, and comes out as the Pac-12 special teams player of the week.
More than the honor itself, while it is certainly a plus, Hackett played a key role in helping his new, American team squeak out a 24-21 victory in a huge game against its bitter rival, BYU.
Hackett, who specializes in what is known as the sky kick, has the ability to punt from around mid-field, and can place his balls consistently inside the ten yard line.
"Basically I've been kicking the ball since I could walk. Since two years of age, I've been doing that exact same punt," revealed Hackett. "They call it the Aussie back or the end over end, but we call it the drop punt. So I've been doing it most longer than most people have been throwing a ball."
An extremely effective weapon in key situations, if indeed the result is consistent, Hackett's first go-around Saturday was impressive.
The Aussie placed three different kicks inside the BYU 10 yard line, pinning them deep in their own territory and giving the Ute defense the opportunity to do what it does best. Twice, BYU started drives at its own five yard line and once at the eight yard line.
Following each punt, Hackett was obviously pumped up, and extremely animated, having just accomplished what he'd worked toward for the better part of two years.
While Hackett has certainly been dedicated, and has more than sacrificed, his international move is less traumatic than one might imagine.
"When I was six years of age, I actually left home. My dad was working in Tokyo, and I went back to Melbourne for boarding school, so leaving home and leaving family isn't as hard for me," explained Hackett. "I've done it before, and I've done it at a much younger age. Everyone here, all the boys have been good to me, and welcomed me. It's actually not so different from home."
The only thing he's actually missing, can't be found in Utah.
"I just miss the beach," he confided. "That's basically it. Other than that, I'm pretty happy with things so far."
His biggest challenge for now is to learn the game that he moved across the world to play, having had almost no experience with it until arriving in Utah in the fall, and perhaps, convincing his family that he's made the right decision. Hackett's family also is extremely unfamiliar with American Rules Football.
As for Hackett himself, there's no question that he's made the right decision in coming to Utah to play football.
"Yes. This is definitely the right decision for me," said Hackett without hesitation following a fall camp session, long before his big performance in the BYU game.
Saturday's rivalry game was a big moment, to be sure, however, Hackett still has to keep up the performance, as Coach Hill pointed out.
"It was a great start. It was really impressive, but it's what we brought him for, so we expected that of him," said Hill. "It's a really great start, but that's all it is. Now we have to see him maintain it."
Knowing that, Hackett still can take great pride and pleasure in that his moment, or his start, may never have come without having taking the initiative, and taking his future into his own hands. For Utah's man from down under, that future seems awfully bright.