The 27-year-old rookie of the San Francisco 49ers came a long way to punt in today’s Super Bowl in Miami.
Mitch Wishnowsky had to go half-way around the world just to reach Santa Barbara.
“When he showed up, he told me he was a high school dropout from Australia,” SBCC coach Craig Moropoulos said. “But he also said he had the desire and the drive, and he just wanted the opportunity to play football in America.”
Moropoulos gave him that chance during the fall of 2014. Six years later, Wishnowsky is the 49ers’ fourth-down man for Super Bowl LIV.
The NFL was nowhere in sight in 2012 when he quit the Perth Demons of the Australian Rules Football League. Injuries were interfering with his day job as a glazier, setting glass into window frames.
“I had to have shoulder reconstruction, which wasn’t ideal for me at all,” he said.
His return to the field was a modest one, playing in a recreational flag football league. But that small step also set Wishnowsky on his way to the NFL.
“It was just me and some mates at a park,” he recalled. “Someone had seen me and asked me to come have a kick with him and put me on to it.”
That someone noticed his strong, right leg and referred him to ProKick, a training facility founded by Nathan Chapman and former NFL kicker John Smith.
“I had to quit my job and move to Melbourne,” Wishnowsky said, “but I figured it was worth a shot.”
Another ProKick graduate, Tim Gleeson, had already blazed a trail to SBCC. Two other Aussies would also kick for the Vaqueros.
Wishnowsky checked out the college, noticing that Santa Barbara wasn’t that much different than his hometown of Perth.
“Nice weather, lovely beaches,” he said. “Tim had found success there and spoke real highly of Santa Barbara, so I thought, ‘Why not follow Tim?’”
Moropoulos could tell that Wishnowsky was interested in more than a day at the beach. SBCC’s coach became more intrigued after clocking the 6-foot-2 and 220-pound kicker in 4.57 seconds fort the 40-yard dash.
“I saw right away that he had the size and the speed and the ability,” he said. “His potential was obviously there.
“But it was also how driven he was. His work ethic turned out to be the best thing about him, and he was also one of the most humble people I’d ever come across.”
Wishnowsky earned All-State honors in 2014 with a punting average of 39.8. Even more impressive was his knack of dropping punts inside an opponent’s 10-yard line. By Moropoulos’ count, he turned that trick nearly 20 times that season.
“He was like a golfer with a pitching wedge,” he said.
“There’s a great chance,” Moropoulos told the rest of the Vaqueros, “that you’ll be watching this guy on Sundays.”
“It was a pretty bold statement,” he admitted a few days before this week’s Super Sunday, “but I knew what he was all about and the intangibles he was bringing.
“I didn’t know he’d be playing in a Super Bowl in his first year – I’m no prophet – but I was fully aware of his potential and self-discipline and confidence.”
He saw it even after practice when Wishnowsky would send a Vaquero receiver on a pass pattern and he’d kick the ball to him like a quarterback. In Australian Rules Football, he explained, players pass by kicking the ball.
“For the longer punts, when you want the long hang time and the bigger yardage, you need to get that spiral on the ball,” he said.
He still had some things to learn about American football. One teaching moment came while he was serving as the holder for SBCC placekicker Blake Levin during a close game at Hancock College.
“One of the opposition blocked the kick, picked it up and began running with it,” Wishnowsky recalled. “I wasn’t sure what to do, but the crowd was cheering and so my thought was, ‘You should probably chase him.’”
He ran down the Hancock player and tackled him, as well, at the 30-yard line.
Wishnowsky forced the opposition to chase him on a few occasions when he improvised a fake punt.
“He went in to punt against L.A. Valley after we didn’t get the first down,” Moropoulos recalled. “I turned around to talk to some of the guys and then saw all of their eyes getting real big.
“I turned back around to see Mitch running down the far sideline to get a first down. I thought to myself, ‘Way to make the head coach look good.’”
Chasing a professional football career was always Wishnowsky’s final goal.
“That’s the dream,” he said when he was nearing the end of his freshman season at SBCC. “But serious thoughts about that are definitely down the track. I need to first get somewhere after Santa Barbara.”
That somewhere turned out to be Salt Lake City, kicking in the Pac-12 for the University of Utah. He redshirted in 2015 and then won the Ray Guy Award as college football’s top punter of 2016, averaging 47.7 yards per kick.
Wishnowsky averaged 45.7 yards during his three seasons with the Utes before getting chosen by San Francisco in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The 49ers realized that their kicker from Down Under marched to a different drummer after offering each of their draft picks a gift of their own choice.
“Most of them asked for Rolex watches, and things like that, but Mitch said he’d like a (muscle) massaging gun,” Moropoulos said. “They asked him, ‘You sure? You really sure?’
“He told them, ‘Yeah, I could use it for my quads.’ That really endeared him to the club right out of the gate.”
Wishnowsky made an even bigger impact – figuratively and physically – with his crushing tackle on Denver punt returner Devontae Jackson during the 49ers’ second preseason game.
“He didn’t look like a kicker on that one, he looked like an outside linebacker,” Moropoulos said. “All his teammates went crazy.
“He’s not a big talker, but they love him for the way he carries himself.”
His punting has been top notch this season with a 44.9-yard average. He also kicks off for the 49ers, putting 51% of his boots out of the end zone as touchbacks.
Santa Barbara may wind up as Wishnowsky’s final end zone. He is engaged to Maddie Leiphardt, a former SBCC classmate and volleyball player.
“He keeps telling me that he loves Santa Barbara,” Moropoulos said. “He says it’s his home away from home.”
But for now, Mitch Wishnowsky plans to follow the bouncing ball wherever it takes him next.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.