The Minnesota Gophers football team has 14 fifth-year players, seven in their sixth seasons and one amid his seventh campaign. Quarterback Tanner Morgan has joined linebacker Jack Gibbens as engaged-and-soon-to-be-married men, and defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney is a father.
While they might not yet have gray hairs, this is a veteran football team, with punter Mark Crawford in a league of his own. The second-year player from Perth, Australia, is 27 years old.
“I get a bit of a hard time,” he said in an Aussie accent, sharing that teammates jokingly calling him “old fossil.”
Dinosaur jokes aside, Crawford is coming off his best day at Minnesota. Crawford was named the Big Ten co-special teams player of the week for his power and precision in the Gophers' 20-13 win at Purdue on Oct. 2.
Crawford averaged 51.3 yards on six punts against the Boilermakers, with two punts traveling a career-long 60 yards. And he placed four punts four inside the 15-yard line. He did it on a wet day in West Lafayette, Ind. — sometimes in a drizzle, other times a monsoon.
Crawford’s great punting day had head coach P.J. Fleck in a joking mood on his KFAN radio show: “We actually have the fire department now with hoses pointed into Huntington Bank Stadium to make it feel like it’s always raining.
“He was tremendous,” Fleck added of Crawford.
Crawford showed what he’s capable of, and now will need to put more distance on his 42.7-yard average this season — which is outside the top 10 in the Big Ten — when Minnesota (3-2, 1-1) face Nebraska (3-4, 1-3) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Minneapolis.
“It was a nice day, wasn’t it? … Maybe not weather-wise,” Crawford said of the Purdue game. “It was the fundamentals. It was nice to see some of them come out in the wet. You think about getting the ball off rather than over-thinking things, which is probably something that worked for me.”
Crawford’s average has gone up from 37.8 yards in his first year, but he wants to see it go up further in the final seven games this year. “I’ve known I was close at times, and it’s been nice to get a day where it was more consistent,” he added. “I’m grateful for it.”
When Crawford was near the age of his freshmen teammates (18), he had stopped playing Australian rules football. When he was around the age of his fourth-year teammates’ age (22), he was giving up a career as a cricket player.
“I fell out of love with it and there was a couple of years hiatus, where I was cruising,” Crawford said. “I had my own little business in repairing sprinklers, irrigation sort of stuff, which is kind of strange.”
Crawford moved to Melbourne, and at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he was encouraged to join Pro Kick Australia, an organization that has produced players who have earned more than 75 scholarships or contracts in the U.S. since 2007. It’s run by Nathan Chapman, who had eight years in Australian Football League and a preseason stint with the Green Bay Packers in 2004.
“‘OK, I will give it a crack,’ ” Crawford recalled thinking. “I was thinking it would be pretty fun, but I honestly didn’t really think much of it. It was one of those things. I said I will give it six months. If I can get a school in six months or get interest or something like that, then yeah, absolutely. Within a couple of months: ‘Do you want to go to Minnesota?’ Didn’t even question it.”
After the 2019 season, Gophers special-teams coach Rob Wenger went Down Under to find a replacement for senior Jacob Herbers. It was a well that has been tapped more and more.
In the mid-1990s, Aussie Darren Bennett had big success as a two-time Pro Bowl player with the San Diego Chargers through 2003. He played for the Vikings in 2004-05.
The trend of Aussie players in the U.S. really took off in the 2000s, and Australians have won six of the past eight Ray Guy Awards, which go annually to the best collegiate punter in the country.
“In Australian rules football you have to kick from the start,” Crawford said. “It’s a fundamental skill of the game, and I was about four or five years old (when I started). I started picking up a footy and passing it around and things like that. Everyone does it, really.”
Crawford considers fellow Aussie and Iowa Hawkeyes punter Tory Taylor “one of my best mates going through the program.”
Crawford said he has been fortunate to meet two very successful Aussie punters: Mitch Wishnowsky and Michael Dickson. Wishnowsky won the Ray Guy Award in 2016 at Utah and now plays for the 49ers; Dickson won the Ray Guy in 2017 at Texas and is now with the Seahawks.
Crawford wants to punt as long as he can, with the dream being the NFL, but work on his psychology degree was the primary driver for him to come to the U.S. He said he has been fascinated by the melting-pot dynamic of locker rooms — players coming from a variety of backgrounds to mix in one place.
“It’s cool that it’s all just thrown into one big basket and you just sort of deal with it from there,” Crawford said. “There is rarely any conflicts, which has been awesome. It’s been really cool in that sense. I was saying to some of the mates back home (that) I’ve never come across a group of so many guys that get along so well with so many different positions and background and age. I didn’t think it could happen, but it happens.”
There’s also a fellow countryman for Crawford in Minnesota offensive tackle Daniel Faalele. He and Crawford make it a point to call each other “mate” around the Larson Football Performance Center.
Crawford said the togetherness of the Gophers has been refreshing coming out of Australia. “Going against other Aussies for (scholarships at) other schools, it gets pretty competitive in that sense. You are trying to push each other, but it’s a bit of selfishness.”
Crawford said there was no bigger culture shock than adjusting to Minnesota winters. When COVID restrictions eased last summer, he thought about going back to Perth to see his parents, but the only child decided to stick around Minnesota.
His parents are likely to come visit around a Gophers game next season, and Crawford thinks they would enjoy a tailgate party and perhaps a sausage on the grill.
Or as Crawford put it: “A snag on the barbie.”