They grew up best friends in Australia. Now they're two of the Southland Conference's best punters

Photos by David Barfield - SHSU / Zachary Carlton - UIW Athletics

Their journey to the United States has been as unlikely as it is intriguing. Two best friends who grew up on the other side of the world and went to high school and college together before becoming two of the best punters in the Southland Conference separated by only 256 miles.

Matt McRobert is a redshirt junior punter at Sam Houston State and David Balcomb is a senior punter for Incarnate Word. Their journey to North America began when McRobert and Balcomb met in high school in Sydney, Australia and instantly became best friends.

“I’ve known him since early high school – we’ve been best mates ever since,” McRobert said. “We used to have sleepovers together and we were always hanging out with each other. We were kicking the football together so having the journey with my best friend is amazing.”

Added Balcomb: “We’ve been best mates for probably going on seven or eight years now. We met at about year seven of high school on the other side of the world oddly enough. We’ve been extremely close. Through our first two years of high school we played tennis together, we played cricket together and we’ve been kicking balls together since we met actually.”

While American football is becoming more popular in Australia, most children grow up playing other sports. Rugby became a common bond between the two friends.

“I played soccer when I was young. My dad wouldn’t let me play rugby until I could kick with both feet which has come in handy,” Balcomb said.

“I only started kicking about a year and a half ago. I was playing cricket. Cricket was my big sport and I liked playing rugby,” McRobert added.

“When I played rugby in the last two years of school, he used to run the kicking tee out to me when I played in the first XV, so we’ve had a bond that’s been so strong since we met in school,” Balcomb said.

Being able to make this journey to the United States has been extra special for both men.

“These are special memories we’ll have forever,” McRobert said.

“It’s very special and the fact that he’s only three hours away just makes it that much more enjoyable and we can keep up better with each other than with just a phone call or a text message,” Balcomb said.

A SUCCESSFUL ACADEMY

McRobert and Balcomb remained close after high school as they both attended Barker College in Sydney, Australia. After graduating from college, they were both recruited to attend Prokick Australia to learn how to punt.

“They recruited Matt and I out of rugby back in Australia and we had to relocate from Sydney down to Melbourne,” Balcomb said. “Leaving school, we went to Prokick and we kicked together there before we went to different universities here.”

“We were all rugby kickers and after my bachelor’s degree I didn’t really want to go work and we had this opportunity to go punt,” McRobert said. “Fortunately, they allowed us to come into the academy and we had enough leg to do it.”

Prokick Australia is a highly successful kicking academy led by Nathan Chapman and John Smith based in Melbourne, Australia. Since the academy began in 2007, they boast 17 All-Americans and five Ray Guy Award winners for the best punter.

“There’s a few of those guys now in the NFL. Everybody is coming through Prokick and they do a tremendous job of nurturing the kids that come through and play at high levels,” McRobert said. “Prokick is just amazing what they’ve done for us.”

“The majority of the guys who go through there have played some level of sports. The program does a great job of teaching us how to kick the ball,” Balcomb added. “We trained there for three to six months and picked up as much information as we could.”

The academy teaches the students how to kick an American football which is different from kicking a rugby ball.

“It’s a very different thing. The shape is so different, the sweet spot is different, you have to apply a different technique,” Balcomb said. “You actually use a different style of kick for rugby than you do for football, so the Pro Kick academy was crucial for us getting the style down.”

The journey for McRobert and Balcomb took another interesting twist when it was time to attend college in the United States and begin their punting careers.

Punters from Prokick Australia are not recruited by schools, they are placed at universities by the academy based on a multitude of different criteria.

Balcomb and McRobert never thought they would be close to each other once they went to their universities. To their surprise, they were not only placed in the same conference they were only three and a half hours apart.

“It’s extremely special. It’s something that I never thought would happen and when we went to Prokick we never expected to go to the same conference,” Balcomb said. “It’s very special and the fact that he’s only three hours away just makes it that much more enjoyable and we can keep up better with each other than with just a phone call or a text message.”

“Fortunately, I got to come along with my best friend and we’re both in the Southland Conference and getting to see each other is just unreal,” McRobert said.

WELCOME TO TEXAS

While moving from Australia to the United States is an obvious adjustment, arriving in Texas in the middle of August quickly provides an eye-opening experience.

“I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was walking into an oven when I first got here last year in August,” Balcomb said.

Both McRobert and Balcomb grew up on the coast in Sydney and was able to go to the beach at any time. While neither is close to a beach, Balcomb certainly has better scenery in San Antonio.

“Going from the middle of Sydney to the middle of Texas in Huntsville, Texas surrounded by prisons – it’s an interesting place to be,” McRobert said. “There’s nothing else like a Texas summer.”

“We live on the coast in Sydney and being here is very different,” Balcomb said. “The beach has been such a big part of my life so that was probably the biggest transition.

“We have the Riverwalk to go down to and some nice shopping centers and stuff. I’m definitely very blessed. I got an idea of how limited they are in Huntsville when we traveled there recently.”

Weather is not the only adjustment for both men as Australians drive on the left side of the road which changes where you look when crossing the street.

“I found my way pretty early unfortunately after a few instances of walking down the road the wrong way because we drive on the wrong side of the road,” McRobert said. “My first morning, I went straight out and looked the wrong way but I’m finally getting my feet now.”

“I’ve walked into countless people thinking I should be on the left side and I should be on the right,” Balcomb said. “I’ve nearly fell into the Riverwalk a couple of times doing that actually.”

While the adjustment has been interesting at times, both Balcomb and McRobert have been aided by the friendliness of the people of Texas.

“The people have been really accommodating and generous so that part hasn’t been a transition at all,” Balcomb said.

“It’s interesting because you move from one side of the world to the other,” McRobert said. “You have no friends and you have no family going in, but my long snapper Tucker Addington has taught me so much. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. He’s been so helpful with everything he’s done for me.

“It’s a lot of small transitions helped by all the people around you and it’s been amazing.”

AN UNFAMILIAR GAME

Neither McRobert nor Balcomb grew up watching American football. Prokick Australia spends most of its time teaching the mechanics of kicking a football which left Balcomb and McRobert to learn the rules of football after arriving in the United States.

“To be perfectly honest, we had to learn most of it when we got here,” Balcomb said. “We learned the fundamentals of punting over there and learned the actual game over here.”

“The coaches allowed me to ease into the game,” McRobert said. “The first fall camp was pretty interesting learning all the rules and even the Texas summer.”

While both men have had plenty of questions, McRobert turned to a popular video game to help learn the rules.

“I was playing Madden, that’s how I learned how to play football,” McRobert said. “I started playing it in Melbourne and I still play it here. I play it all the time to learn the rules and the routes and how the quarterbacks and wide receivers play.”

“I haven’t played Madden before, so I’ve been picking my teammates brains all day every day,” Balcomb said. “We had an overtime (game) recently and I had no idea how that worked. We had to go for either a field goal or a touchdown, I honestly had no idea.”

While both are in their second season playing college football, learning the game has been a continual process.

“I still have questions. I still don’t know how it all works, to be honest,” Balcomb said.

“I’m still learning the rules and I’m still asking questions,” McRobert added.

LANGUAGE BARRIER

While English is the official language in both countries, the dialects are completely different which has led to another adjustment.

“The English thing is still an ongoing problem. I still pick up words from people that I have no idea what they mean,” Balcomb said.

“The slang is very interesting,” McRobert said. “I remember the first time the word bet came out, I went to my wallet and started getting money out because I thought we were actually going to have a bet with money.

“But now I know that bet is just a casual word. It’s all this little lingo stuff that I’m learning better now so hopefully, I’ll get through it.”

“That was strange the first-time hearing that,” Balcomb added. “I was much the same, I had no idea what that meant to begin with but now it’s part of my normal vocabulary.”

Grocery stores and gas stations are common in both countries, but things that are common can still cause confusion.

“We call it a service station and you guys call it a gas station and that was something I had to get my head around,” Balcomb said. “We call it a lift, not an elevator.”

“Petrol stations and grocery stores. I say everything different so it’s pretty unique,” McRobert said. “I think the boys like my accent, and I think it’s good for the team.”

“It’s funny because my roommate Josh is starting to pick up some of my lingo and I’m starting to sound more like him, so I think we’ve rubbed off on each other,” Balcomb said. “I used to have a lot of trouble interpreting what people said, but not so much anymore.”

DIFFERENT FUTURES

McRobert suffered a freak injury during his first season at Sam Houston State. In only his fourth game for the Kats against Central Arkansas, McRobert set the school record with a 74-yard punt.

McRobert jumped while celebrating the punt and suffered a season-ending ankle injury which led to a redshirt season.

This season, he has been incredible as he averaged 44.3 yards per punt on 85 attempts while placing 29 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line which earned McRobert first-team All-Southland Conference honors.

SHSU head coach K.C. Keeler believes that the redshirt junior has a future similar to former Bearkats punter Lachlan Edwards who also came to the Kats from Prokick Australia and is currently a punter for the New York Jets.

“I think he’s an NFL level punter with another year of experience,” Keeler said. “He’s not ready right now but in another year, I think he will be.”

Balcomb was also solid for UIW this season averaging 39.1 yards per punt on 68 punts while placing 17 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. However, he does not have a desire to continue punting in the NFL.

“It’s been different. It’s been quite hard. I’m a family kid and I’m used to being around a family environment quite a lot so it’s definitely testing moving away from home,” Balcomb said. “I think Matt’s got the potential for that, but my heart is back at home, so I’ll be going back home.”

As Balcomb soon departs for home and McRobert continues on his path towards a possible career in the NFL, they will remain lifelong friends who will always reminisce about this incredible journey.

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