Studying for exams in Waterfront Library at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, Wade Lees couldn’t help but wonder how he got there.
He’d dropped out of high school in the 11th grade to pursue a career in the Australian Football League, just like his father Ray, and was considered one of the best all-around prospects to come out of his home state of Victoria in years.
Lees in action for Casey against North Ballarat (2010)
After playing six seasons for the Casey Scorpions in the developmental Victoria Football League, Lees was on the verge of jumping to the AFL. Then fate intervened.
In 2012, Lees ordered a fat-burning supplement that unbeknownst to him contained trace amounts of a substance banned by the AFL.
Customs officers intercepted the package upon its arrival to Australia, and reported it to league officials, who subsequently handed the top prospect an 18-month suspension.
Just like that, Lees’ lifelong dream of becoming an Aussie Rules football player was over.
Typically, when an athlete’s career comes to an end, they find a new line of work, get married and move on.
Wade Lees was never typical anything.
He’d been dating his girlfriend, Caitlin, for some time, but at 24, marriage was on neither of their minds.
Since he didn’t finish high school, his prospects of finding a job were bleak at best.
For a while he supported his mother working construction in Melbourne, where brutal summer temperatures can typically top more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wade Lees had officially hit rock bottom.
He decided to use some of his savings to go “walk-about,” on a four-month journey across Europe and North America.
While in the United States, Lees reconnected with an old friend from home, Cameron Johnston, who just so happened to be the punter at Ohio State.
Johnston connected Lees to former NFL punter, Nathan Chapman, who ran ProKick Australia, an academy in Melbourne designed to help Australians transition to American football.
Nathan Chapman at the ProKick Australia Academy
Chapman, who spent time in the Packers and Bears organizations in 2004, was a former AFL star with the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn Hawks.
“Wade was a natural kicker during his 12 months in the program,” Chapman said. “When he first joined, we focused on academics, but football remained a release for him.”
If he was ever going to play college football, Lees had to rectify one glaring problem.
He never finished high school.
Lees attempted to use his experience in the VFL for credit on applications to universities across Australia.
Only Deakin, one of Australia’s most prestigious universities, was willing to accept the former prospect.
Lees was a full-time student again for the time in a decade.
Before leaving for a job with Southern California, Michigan’s special teams coordinator, John Baxter, attempted to recruit Lees to Ann Arbor.
No scholarship offer from head coach Jim Harbaugh ever materialized.
Enter newly installed Maryland head coach, D.J. Durkin, Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator in 2015.
For years, the Terrapins had one of the worst special teams units in the country, something Durkin aimed to fix.
He lost former Lou Groza Award winning kicker, and Lees’ fellow countryman, Brad Craddock, to graduation, and punter Nick Pritchard proved to be a distraction after famously fighting a sideline bench following a shanked punt against Michigan State.
“Wade was a perfect fit for D.J.,” said Chapman. “He’s strong-minded, and brought an added toughness to the program Durkin was looking for.”
By January 2016, Lees was on a flight to Dulles, scholarship in hand, to join Durkin in College Park.
“It was really strange when I got here,” said Lees. “I spent the first couple of months on Craddock’s couch because the semester had already begun and housing was full.”
Lees (left) and former Maryland FWAA All-American kicker, Brad Craddock (right)
Even though Craddock is four years younger than Lees, the latter noted how the former became his “big brother,” showing him around campus and College Park, helping him acclimate to life in the United States.
“I never would have settled in so easy without him,” Lees said.
At 29, Wade found himself competing against guys born more than a decade before him.
“I was used to it. In the VFL, I was 24 and playing with guys ranging from 18 to 34.”
That sentiment has transcended his academic career as well, intent on a communications degree, with most of his fellow classmates having no clue how old he is, “especially after shaving.”
Lees still misses playing Aussie Rules football, especially the constant action, rather than running onto the field only six or seven times a game to punt and hold kicks.
He also longs for the natural comforts Australia has to offer, including pristine beaches, surfing and sun noting, “there’s just no good beaches around [Maryland].”
Lees’ active lifestyle previously included finishing a triathlon in 2013.
But don’t be fooled, he’s still got a sweet tooth, in particular for the Australian chocolate candy, Cherry Ripe.
“When mum was here for four weeks, I had her bring boxes from home since you can’t get them here.”
Lees’ most guilty pleasure of all however, remains Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.
“I went to all three of her [Katy Perry] concerts with Caitlin when she performed in Melbourne a few years ago. I’m a huge fan. I just wish she and Taylor could put the feud behind them because I love them both.”
In the meantime, Lees has continued his quest to win the Ray Guy Award with his left leg every Saturday since being named to the preseason watch list.
Lees rugby-style punt in action
His best performance of the season came against Central Florida in September, when he averaged 47.1-yards per punt, including a career best 64-yard punt. For the season, Lees is averaging 39-yards per punt on 42 attempts.
Against Indiana on Saturday, Lees averaged 42.2-yards on five punts, including a 51-yard punt that pinned the Hoosiers on their own 1-yard line late in the game.
“It’s an honor to be nominated, but I’m focused on winning and keeping the award [which has gone to four Australians in a row] in our hands.”