How Tom Sheldon has found home at UNC

How Tom Sheldon has found home at UNC

photos by Turner Walston

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Tom Sheldon wipes his hands on his pants and sways at the 18-yard line, waiting for the snap.

It’s his second punt of the day against Louisville, and he looks nervous — but don’t be fooled. This is where he belongs. Not on this field, where he’s only just been introduced a year ago; not in this game, which he’s all but quit trying to fully comprehend; but in this moment, the calm before the kick, where he’s always felt at home.

At 28 years old, the Australian punter is the oldest player in the ACC, and he might be the best at his position. He’s the only player on UNC’s roster who doesn’t hail from America, and he was the only Tar Heel to earn All-American honors in 2016 as the nation’s top freshman punter.

So far in 2017, the sophomore has upped his average by nearly five yards per punt, showing more of a spiral than he did with the Kyabram Football Club back home. An Australian kicks it far; an American kicks it high. Sheldon splits the difference.

"I just try and visualize a good punt,” Sheldon said. “Sort of visualize what it would feel like when it comes off the boot nice."

It’s hard to miss Sheldon’s thick Australian accent as he discusses the ball off his boot. He’s neutralized it some in the past year — mainly when ordering at restaurants — but he still sounds like an Outback Steakhouse spokesman from the mid-2000s. He regularly says “mate,” and if someone refuses to buy a beer, Sheldon says “he wouldn't shout if a shark bit him.”

“I think it's pretty obvious that I'm not from around here,” Sheldon said.

But if it comes off the boot nice, isn’t that all that matters? Last year, the Aussie averaged 42.7 yards on 50 punts, and only nine of his punts were returned for a combined two yards — best in the nation. In this game, an eventual 47-35 loss to the Cardinals, his four punts will travel a combined 214 yards with only one return allowed, netting him Ray Guy Award Punter of the Week honors.

And for the second straight season, Sheldon is a candidate for the Ray Guy Award at year’s end.

“He could have been the Ray Guy winner last year,” said Nick Weiler, UNC’s starting kicker in 2016. “That’s how much potential he has.”

Sheldon bounces 16 yards behind the line of scrimmage, loosening up his limbs. The Tar Heels trail by six points late in the first half, and he hasn’t seen the field for nearly 40 minutes, which is typical for a punter in college football. But it’s a stark contrast from his days playing Australian rules football.

He was a defender then, and a businessman, too. He joined his dad’s civil construction company, BSECC, straight out of high school, and he rose through the ranks. Early on, he was scraping dirt that the excavator missed from the site; soon, he was driving the excavator; eventually, he was instructing one of his 30 crew members to drive it as he fielded upwards of 100 phone calls per day.

Now, he fields calls from his parents and fiancee from 10,000 miles away. How’d he end up so far from home, so late in the game?

He flicks his left foot behind him, ready to “really crank one out.” Punting was always his strong suit when he played with the Kyabram Bombers, and he prefers the constant activity of that game to the handful of times he punts per contest in college. But the adrenaline rush of American football, when he boots one down the field and pins the opponent to the goal-line — nothing can beat it.

In 2015, Sheldon prodded his younger brother, Jack — now a punter at Central Michigan — to join ProKick Australia, a punting academy focused on sending Australians to American universities on athletic scholarships. Sheldon had developed a love for the NFL years before, when the New England Patriots stormed to an 18-0 record before losing in the 2007 Super Bowl. He inquired about American football to Darren Bennett, an 11-year NFL veteran and family friend who went straight from Aussie rules football to the San Diego Chargers in 1995. The two occasionally trained in San Diego, and Sheldon kept practicing two days a week with Kyabram before suiting up on Saturdays.

Sheldon stuck around at ProKick to watch his brother train. So ProKick instructors Nathan Chapman and John Smith, both former NFL kickers, took a chance on recruiting him, too.

“Put your boots on,” Chapman told Sheldon, “and let’s have a kick.”

And so they did, and what a kick they had. They put together film for American coaches of Sheldon training on the ProKick fields, donning a red pinnie and silver helmet and booting ball after ball into the storm clouds overhead. Sheldon trained at least three times a week with the ProKick coaches, who helped mold him from an Aussie rules kicker to an American one: better get-off speed, better hang time. Simple and compact.

It wasn’t hard to recognize the talent. Now, they had to find the right fit.

In 2015, North Carolina was in the midst of a resurgent 11-3 season, with key starters returning on both sides of the ball. But the Tar Heels’ special teams unit needed improvement, and head coach Larry Fedora didn’t have time to groom a traditional underclassman at punter. Conversely, Chapman and Smith knew Sheldon needed a campus environment that would keep him engaged as a non-traditional freshman. They saw Chapel Hill as the ideal match.

“It’s the perfect place for a slightly more mature man to be,” Smith said. “And Tommy’s a mature man. He’s not a child.”

Sheldon was on a yacht in The Whitsunday Islands, just north of Queensland, when he got the call from Fedora on Boxing Day, a national holiday in Australia. He hadn’t spoken to many Americans before, and the two navigated each other’s accents: one from the plains of Echuca, one from the suburbs of Texas.

The following summer, Weiler hosted the Australian punter on an official visit to UNC. Sheldon expected Chapel Hill to match the agrarian perception he had of the American South, but he found what he called a virtual rainforest.

Weiler expected a typical freshman recruit. He found Sheldon.

But Weiler, who would turn 23 early in the 2016 season, quickly bonded with Sheldon, who moved in just weeks before training camp. The kicker and punter lived together in a neighborhood behind Boshamer Stadium, and they’d spend hours together doing homework in coffee shops and spend weekends on the town.

“The more friends you make,” Sheldon said, “the more it feels like you're not away from home.”

But he wasn’t home just yet. Sheldon wasn’t prepared for the rigors of camp, where the days were longer than those with BSECC and the rules were foreign. He felt the pressure in every practice: Did he kick it high enough? Where are the numbers he’s supposed to target? Is he even in the right place?

After the Tar Heels gave up a safety in each of their first two games, Sheldon was tasked with the first two safety kicks of his life. Heading into the third game against James Madison, he sought out Weiler for an explanation

“When is the punt after safety going to be?” he asked.

Sheldon was immature on the field, and in some ways that hasn’t changed: He still doesn’t know what an illegal formation is, and he’s only mildly confident he could execute a fake punt if called upon. But he was treated that way off the field, too.

At 27, Sheldon was funneled through first-year orientation like every other student and slotted into first-year curriculum, despite having a year at RMIT University in Melbourne under his belt. After nearly a decade working full-time in construction, he was thrown into an introductory physics class that he probably could have taught. This year, he’s taking four 100-level courses — including English 105, the consummate entry-level class for UNC students.

A year ago, Weiler remembers dropping off Sheldon at a meeting that warned underclassmen about the dangers of underage drinking.

“Dude, you’re 27,” Weiler told him. “You’re still getting these?”

Sheldon had enjoyed true independence for years in Australia, but now he was subject to coaching and teaching aimed at another generation. He still avoids group work and prefers hiding in “lecture theaters,” where he won’t be forced into discussion with someone nearly half his age.

Among the football team, he’s closer in years to some coaches than players.

"The funny part is just seeing him around the building,” said Chris Kapilovic, UNC’s offensive coordinator. “And when you do, you almost feel like you're peers."

True peers are few and far between for Sheldon. He’s beloved by his teammates, but he gravitates toward the older players who share similar life experiences. As a punter, only backup Hunter Lent understands the emotions of the position. This season, the specialists spend a portion of each practice at Ehringhaus Field, away from the rest of the team.

The special teamers don’t have their own sideline section during games, so Sheldon wanders between the offensive and defensive benches and waits to be shooed away. On the bench, Sheldon sits low enough for his teammates to block his view of the game. He’s distancing himself — from the action, the emotions, the crowd.

“You’ve kind of got to be in your own world,” Weiler said.

Tom Sheldon says he tries to envision a good punt and "what it would feel like when it comes off the boot nice.

Tom Sheldon says he tries to envision a good punt and "what it would feel like when it comes off the boot nice.

Last year, Weiler joined Sheldon on the bench during games. This year, it’s deep snapper Tommy Bancroft who serves as Sheldon’s sideline nomad.

They hardly watch the game, save for the final few minutes, but they keep it light-hearted. They discuss The Office or The Simpsons or the card game Presidents, which Sheldon says he and his teammates play what seems like 100 times a day. They discuss punting, though never about the one they just executed.

They don’t talk about classes, or how Sheldon’s economics degree might help further his family business back home. They don’t talk much about Sheldon’s life after UNC, and they don’t talk about his life before, either. Sheldon rarely does.

He tells Weiler, though. The two still talk almost every day, and they trained together in the summer. Weiler watched Sheldon’s confidence grow this offseason, and he’s heard Sheldon meet old challenges with new perspective this season. In Weiler’s mind, this is Sheldon’s breakout year.

Weiler’s up in the stands now, watching the Louisville game with former UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer, who graduated just before Sheldon arrived. Just before Sheldon catches the punt at the 18-yard line, Weiler leans over to Schoettmer.

“He’s gonna boom this,” he says.

Finally, Bancroft zips the ball back to Sheldon. First a stutter step, then two more steps forward — simple and compact, just as ProKick taught him. Sheldon releases the ball at the 22-yard line, and he watches it scale the returner and land just inside the 5-yard line. The ball bounces, softly, as gunner Anthony Ratliff-Williams races underneath it and taps his toes at the 1-yard line.

“I heard the crowd reaction and I knew,” Ratliff-Williams said. “He got it. I knew he just got a boomer."

It’s a 66-yarder, the longest of Sheldon’s career. Ratliff-Williams remembers the punter booting a free kick from the 20-yard line through the opposing end zone in practice, but this is where it matters. Sheldon’s vying for the Ray Guy Award, which a ProKick alum has won for three straight years — including all three finalists last year. He’s even got a shot at the NFL, at this rate.

“Don’t get caught up in the stats,” Weiler always tells him. “Keep your blinders on, and everything will take care of itself.”

That’s not Sheldon’s concern, not now. Instead, the 28-year-old Aussie pumps his fist as he tears down the field, the ball 77 yards from where it came off the boot. He reaches the end zone just before Bancroft, who jumps into his arms as the student section roars behind them. The adrenaline rush fades as Sheldon heads back to the sidelines and eventually settles back into the defensive bench, where he loses sight of the field. It’s as if he was never away from home.

@CJacksonCowart