Wade Lees hatched his dream of becoming a college football punter one day three years ago in Melbourne, Australia, as he sat at a computer and watched videos of Cameron Johnston, a countryman and acquaintance, punting for Ohio State. Lees was on his lunch break as a construction worker. He was a high school dropout. He was 25 years old.
Lees had once been a budding prospect for the professional Australian Football League, but his career derailed in 2012 when he was suspended from the game for 18 months after he ordered a weight-loss supplement that contained a banned steroid. He had relied on jobs as a bricklayer and a road worker to help ends meet, but now he wanted more.
He shot a Facebook message to Johnston, who helped put him in touch with Nathan Chapman. Lees waited a couple weeks to hear from Chapman, an Australian-rules football player turned American football player who is the director of a kicking school in Melbourne. Over the past decade, ProKick Australia has helped more than 60 Australian kickers and punters transition to college football.
But most of those kickers didn’t travel the path of Lees, who trained under Chapman for more than two years and joined the pipeline when he committed to Maryland last December and officially signed in February.
“I’ve lived a thousand lives in a short amount of time,” Lees said.
He’s earned the nickname “Godfather” among his teammates, and for good reason: At 28, he’s the only player on the roster who was born in the 1980s and is a decade older than his classmates. He’s a few years older than the graduate assistants who yell at him every day, and just four years younger than offensive coordinator Walt Bell, who is among the highest-paid assistants on staff. Lees is the second-oldest player in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision, behind Derrick Mitchell, a 29-year-old former minor league baseball player who punts for Western Michigan.
“It still feels like I’m 21, 22,” Lees said. “If I sit there and think about it, I’m obviously getting older. It’s pretty weird to think about.”
After fellow Australian Brad Craddock became a standout and team leader for Maryland as a place kicker before graduating last spring, Lees has the opportunity to do the same, and not just because of his back story. He’s given Maryland, which is 3-0 heading into a bye weekend, a lift in a number of key situations. He has downed nine of his 16 kicks inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, including four in last week’s 30-24 double-overtime win at Central Florida . Lees’s best kick of the night was a soft 41-yard boot that pinned the Knights at their own 2-yard line with the game tied and about four minutes remaining.
“He’s learning our game. I think he has an understanding how important those plays are for us. How much of an understanding? I think it grows every week,” Maryland Coach DJ Durkin said.
The Maryland sideline was visibly amped after that kick, which had been a long time in the making. While Australian-rules football helped Lees develop a kicking touch, learning how to kick the more elongated American football had been a sometimes difficult two-year process.
That paled in comparison to what Lees had to do in order just to get on the radar of college football programs. He dropped out of high school at age 17 to focus on his Australian-rules football career and work construction to help provide for his mother, who had been dealing with illness at the time.
He was suspended in May 2012 when a weight-loss supplement he had ordered online from the United States was intercepted by Australian customs and found to contain trace amounts of a banned steroid. Lees never received the package and said he was unaware it contained a banned substance, but was suspended for attempted use of a prohibited substance.
“It was, like, an innocent thing, that was obviously a mishap. But I try not to focus on that,” Lees said.
He tried to come back to Australian-rules football after his suspension ended in late 2013, but he was already fixated on his goal of the playing college football in the United States. He earned his GED and passed the ACT.
Michigan and Clemson expressed interest in Lees in 2015, although no offers from either materialized. He remained patient even though he knew his past did not fit the normal recruiting profile. Maryland became a serious suitor shortly after Durkin took over as head coach in early December. He had vowed to revamp the team’s special teams, which had finished last in the Big Ten in gross punting average (37.2 yards per kick) in 2015.
Lees had been to the United States once before — on a four-month worldwide backpacking trip in 2012 — but never to the Washington area. He moved in with Craddock and a few other teammates in College Park for a few months last spring while he acclimated to his new life. He was a full-time student again for the first time since he dropped out of high school 11 years earlier.
He was also trying to grasp the rules of a new game. “When the coaches are calling plays, it’s just like speaking Japanese to me,” he said. Craddock, a fellow former Australian-rules football player who knew little about the American game when he signed with Maryland, assisted as much as he could. Lees and Craddock didn’t know each other growing up in their home country, but they grew close as one college career was being born and another was coming to an end.
“It’s different because the kids you’re around are a lot younger. He’s seen the world, he’s traveled the world. He’s done a lot of things,” Craddock said. “Being the person he is, he doesn’t need any help with stuff. He can look after himself.”
While Lees is at a different point in his life than most of his teammates, years of playing in Australian football leagues helped thicken his skin and teach him that teammates can coalesce at any age. He grew up in an athletic family; his father, Ray, played pro Australian football, and his brother, Michael, is a pro boxer. He’s hoping to bring his entire family over to the States to watch him kick this fall, beginning with his mother, Kim, who will visit Maryland this week. She has been a driving force in Lees’s life — he has her initials tattooed on his neck — and helped him through the past few years, when his life was in limbo.
“I let myself think about where I was at that point in time, and what I’m doing now,” Lees said. “I let myself appreciate and enjoy what I’m doing now, because I know how difficult it is out there.”