OWEN Hoolihan used to kick a ball around the sporting fields at St Stanislaus’ College.
Now he’s using his boot on a much bigger stage as he plays American football for a Texas college team, Prairie View A&M.
Hoolihan, who grew up on the family farm at Porters Retreat, south of Oberon, came to Stannies as a boarder in year 7 and was always the kicker in his rugby teams.
Former Wallaby Marty Roebuck, who was the attending physio for the Stannies rugby team, must have seen something because he phoned Hoolihan's father, Anthony, to ask if could take Hoolihan to watch some Aussie rules kicking practice because he thought the youngster had a talent with the boot.
When he was in year 12, Hoolihan started to think about using his talents beyond school rugby.
"I contacted an organisation called Prokick Australia, which is run by [former Green Bay Packers punter] Nathan Chapman, who matches Australian boys with scholarships at American colleges as kickers and punters,” he said.
"I had to learn to kick the American ball, which is quite different from rugby. In rugby you kick from a tee; in gridiron, someone holds the ball on the ground as you attempt the kick. You only have a window of 1.3 seconds to kick.”
Not being able to move down to Melbourne permanently for training with the Prokick organisation, he decided to enrol at Santa Barbara City College in California with the goal of getting scouted.
“I was fortunate enough to receive a full athletic scholarship offer from Prairie View A&M, where I have been their kicker and punter for the past two seasons,” he said.
Last season, he was named as the conference punter for the SWAC (South West Athletic Conference), and was also recognised by his coaches when he was named Special Teams Player of the Year for PVAMU.
Hoolihan said he initially had a tough time finding his feet at his new school, which is an historically black college (HBC).
"It was a real eye opener. The culture is very different. I was the only white student on the football team in my first season, and no one could understand me at all because of the different accent."
His season opener against Texas Southern last year was the unveiling of Prairie View A&M’s new $61 million stadium. It was at capacity for that opening game, where he scored the first points in the new stadium with an opening field goal.
He has also played at Kyle Field, the home stadium for Texas A&M.
“Playing in front of 100,000 against some of the best athletes in America was quite surreal,” he said.
“Playing against the likes of Myles Garrett, who was the number one draft pick in the recent draft, was pretty cool. Mum and Dad have hung that picture on the wall and tell everyone who he is.
“My parents Anthony and Deborah and sister Felicity came over last October and watched the State Fair Classic at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in front of a crowd of about 65,000 people.”
Hoolihan plays in division 1 AA, which includes 130 teams. The winners in his conference go on to play in the African American national championship.
"The scholarship covers everything - food, accommodation, schooling and all aspects of football-related activities. It's just like the movies - you must keep up your grades to keep playing footy," he said.
As well as studying, he trains four times a week and "Fridays we get on the bus or plane and set off for the game on Saturday".
Hoolihan will graduate from college next May and will look to start a Masters degree in kinesiology.
"I think the possibility of returning to rugby is not likely because I don’t like the running aspect. I’ll see where I’m at with American football when I finish my college career and evaluate my options,” he said.