LONG before Lachlan Edwards became a permanent fixture for the New York Jets in the NFL, he dreamt of playing in the AFL.
He played alongside future stars Tom Lynch, Adam Treloar, Dylan Shiel and Luke Parker for the Dandenong Stingrays in the TAC Cup and then toiled away at North Ballarat in the VFL.
Now the boy from the Mornington Peninsula is one of the more damaging punters in the biggest sports league on the planet.
The 26-year-old’s life has been flipped on its head in recent years.
He first picked up an American football at Ballarat University when he was languishing in the reserves at the Roosters. He didn’t harbour any great ambitions at first, but six months later he was at Sam Houston State in Texas.
From there, things progressed gradually. He won the starting job by the end of his freshman season and finished his college career as the Bearkats’ all-time punting average leader at 42.8 yards per kick.
In a game where punters are an afterthought, and rarely thought about at all, Edwards would have been happy to pack up his life and return to life in Victoria at the end of his college career.
But the Jets had other plans.Some 234 picks after the Los Angeles Rams chose quarterback Jared Goff at No.1, a young New York fan read out Edwards’ name deep in the seventh round, 18 picks before the draft slammed shut for another year.
For a journey that was initially going to last only two years, but had already lasted four, it wasn’t time to go home yet.
Instead he has made his home in New Jersey where he has played all 48 games across his first three seasons, which ended in a big loss to Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in Boston last weekend.
“You go from playing Aussie rules your whole life to being in college within six months of picking up an NFL ball. It happened really quick,” Edwards told foxsports.com.au inside the New York Jets’ headquarters.
“Then you get to the NFL and as a specialist you aren’t sitting behind a veteran – they only have one kicker and one punter. You have to get in and do well immediately. You don’t have time on your side.
“I’d like to say I was a chance to get drafted (into the AFL) at one point, but I don’t think so. I just tried to play at the highest level I could. I knew it wasn’t going to lead anywhere and that’s why I picked up and American football.
“When I first did it, I didn’t know anything about college or how to do it. I knew some guys had done it, like Brad Wing. But really, when I first did it I was wasting time. Then very quickly it turned into a college career. Thankfully, things have worked out well so far.”
And now he is here.
In a league pessimistically referred to as “NFL: Not for long”, where the average career lasts 3.3 years, Edwards wants to ride the roller-coaster for as long as he possibly can.
While he doesn’t earn anything like the $US19,675,000 Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers collected this season – no punters do – he pocketed $US650,000, nearly twice as much as the average AFL salary.
He is set to earn more than $A1 million next year, a figure only nine players in the AFL took home last season – although it is not as lucrative as the $US1.9 million fellow Australian and Calder Cannons product Jarrod Berry receives from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“This position is something you can do for 10 to 15 years if you’re good enough. Hopefully I can do this for 10 years,” Edwards said.
“Hopefully towards the end of my career they are paying me too much and they need cap space – that’s how a lot of guys end up out of the league. Once they get older their minimum salary is higher.”
Before NRL superstar Jarryd Hayne sparkled briefly for the San Francisco 49ers, before Collingwood and North Melbourne champion Sav Rocca played 112 times for Philadelphia and Washington, and around the same time Geelong great Ben Graham played in a Super Bowl for the Arizona Cardinals, Darren Bennett was the trailblazer.
After injuries ended his AFL career prematurely in 1993, following four games for West Coast and 74 for Melbourne, Bennett reached out to the San Diego Chargers for a tryout. Two years later he established himself in the NFL and wound up in the Chargers’ hall of fame nearly two decades later.
Now the man who was named as the punter on the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1990s has taken Edwards under his wing, tightening his technique every off-season in California before sending him back east ready to launch again.
“Darren had the same background as me – his wife was from Bendigo, he played Aussie rules. Having a guy who played the game for 10 years to be able to guide me has been the best part,” Edwards said.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing technically. I was sort of just kicking it. He has been very influential with my development over a long period of time now.
“After a while he stopped letting me pay him and he is basically my surrogate family over here. He has been instrumental in helping me stay here. Every off-season I go and stay with him for a week or two and get back into some good techniques.”
While Mason Cox hysteria gripped Melbourne last September, especially after the Texan tore Richmond to shreds to become a key talking point in grand final week, it didn’t generate a mention inside the Jets’ shiny $75 million facility, which is a 50-minute drive from Manhattan.
However, the magnitude of Cox’s achievement wasn’t lost on Edwards, who grew up following St Kilda closely and managed to watch a few games from across the other side of the world during a disappointing 2018 for the red, white and black.
“That was a pretty good story. A lot of the time those international guys don’t pick it up as quickly as he seems to have. He is their main target up forward now,” he said.
“It is really good for the AFL to get some exposure over here. If we can play an NFL game in Australia or vice versa, that would be awesome.”
Unlike in the AFL where everyone can have their moment in the sun, punters only ever attract attention if they make mistakes. They aren’t the star of the show and never will be. Not that that bothers the unassuming Edwards, who is content staying out of the limelight.
“There are so many different realities for guys in the NFL,” he said.
“You go from a quarterback to the punter and the quarterback is the main guy. He is all over social media, everyone wants his autograph, he is on TV the most and then guys like me, you have one play to be perfect and then you get out. You’re trying to not be an issue and not be on the radar.
“But Sundays are fun. Every now and then you get a chance to look around at the stadium and see how big they are. But for the most part, I’m just trying to stay locked in and take it one punt at a time as cliched as that sounds.”
The dazzling bright lights and the buzz of the NFL have become normal to Edwards. But he still catches himself staring into the distant dim of New York City when he travels to the team hotel the night before games at MetLife Stadium.
“This life is crazy. Driving to the team hotel the night before a game and you see the city skyline across the water and it is pretty surreal. I definitely didn’t imagine it was possible,” he said.
For someone who wasn’t quite good enough to make it in the AFL, to then make it in the NFL is a phenomenal story. And there might be a lot more left to write.