From Down Under to Dallas: Punter Sam Irwin-Hill’s Journey from Australia to America’s Team
Sam Irwin-Hill, a punter from Down Under, hopes to be next in a growing line of Australians to play for America’s Team. He is the fourth Australian punter signed to the Cowboys roster following Colin Ridgway (1965), Mat McBriar (2003-11), and Tom Hornsey (preseason 2014-15).
Irwin-Hill, a free agent signed by the Cowboys in April, took a circuitous route from Melbourne (actually Bendigo, his hometown) to Dallas. Growing up playing Australian Rules Football, he knew his skills could translate well to American football.
“I started in an Academy called PROKICK Australia run by Nathan Chapman and John Smith,” explains Irwin-Hill. “At the time there were only four or five guys in front of me, one being Tom Hornsey. For 12 months, we train and develop film so that coaches in the United States can see us.
“All of a sudden, I’m off to San Francisco to play junior college football. George Rush was my coach at City College of San Francisco and he already had a connection with Nathan and Joe. He spoke directly with them. Coach Rush thought it would be a good opportunity to get unique punting and kicking ability in there. He rolled the dice and the next thing you know I’m on a plane to San Francisco.
“I had never been to the United States. I had one phone number that belonged to a coach. That’s the only thing I had when I arrived. I didn’t know a single person in the U.S. Now it’s 6 ½ years later and I’m here in Dallas.
“When I first left home and came to the U.S. I had no idea what to expect, but I spent two good years at City College, had two solid seasons, and won a national championship and got some honors while I was there. Then all of a sudden I have four or five scholarship offers and chose University of Arkansas.”
Did Sam experience any sort of culture shock going to Melbourne to Fayetteville, Arkansas via San Francisco?
“Definitely, yes,” he says with a laugh. “I was lucky that my first transition to the U.S. was a place like San Francisco which is a diverse metro, urban, city atmosphere. It shared characteristics with Melbourne. But I was also glad for my experience in Arkansas and glad to be a Hog. They definitely accepted me for who I was and for my abilities. It was a great couple of years at Arkansas and I really enjoyed it.”
During his time in Arkansas, Sam took advantage of his first chance to play at AT&T Stadium when the Hogs played the Texas A&M Aggies.
That’s the first time he met Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones, a proud Arkansas alumnus and member of the Razorbacks’ 1964 National Championship Team.
“It was pretty cool when we played Texas A&M in Arlington at AT&T Stadium,” he recalls. “Jerry Jones came in and gave us a speech the night before the game which is pretty exciting. It got the boys amped up, particularly me, and we went out the next day and played hard. Unfortunately we did not get the result we wanted, but I got myself a touchdown, so I was pretty excited.”
Sam’s touchdown came on 51-yard scamper on a fake punt.
“The play was scripted two-to-three weeks in advance,” confides Sam. “We knew we could play it against the Aggies, them not understanding our system and what we did. We could use that to our advantage. They rushed to the right, we swept, and all of a sudden I had 50 yards of clear space in front of me!
“So I have to thank me snapper! I wasn’t stopping at the 10 yard line. I was going the full way.”
After two very successful seasons at Arkansas, including an impressive 44.3 average yards-per-punt his senior season in 2014, he signed with the Indianapolis Colts as a free agent following the 2015 NFL Draft. Although he didn’t make the 53-man roster, he gained valuable NFL experience working behind Colts veteran punter Pat McAfee.
Fast forward to 2017 and Irwin-Hill is a free agent addition to the Cowboys roster, the newest Aussie trying to make a mark for America’s Team. He’s working directly with a trio of the best specialists in the NFL.
“Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and L.P. Ladouceur are all phenomenal athletes and it’s great to learn from them,” says Irwin-Hill. “My being here is important to my career, so I’ll take it one day at a time and see how it goes when we get to preseason. I’m trying to build a foundation here and see what happens.”
Irwin-Hill is not the only current Australian who is part of the Cowboys. Jinelle, a 5-year veteran and group leader for the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, is a native of Melbourne.
“I’ve had four or five people already tell me that I need to meet Jinelle!” notes Irwin-Hill.