BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – James Evans, a former rugby player from New Zealand, committed to play football at Indiana sight unseen. He was recruited and committed to the Hoosiers without ever setting foot in Bloomington because of COVID-19 protocols that restricted official visits.
But when he arrived in January, ready to punt for Indiana even though he's never once played a game of football, traveling around the world was all new to him. From Down Under to B-Town, it was two divergent worlds colliding.
"Initially it was really, really cold, and I rocked up in shorts and jandles (flip-flops),'' Evans said with a thick-ish Kiwi accent. "It was negative 4-degrees Celcius, 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and Coach (Tom) Allen was like, 'who's this kid?'
“So I think the first days I was here, I went to the mall and bought three or four big coats and stuff like that because it was like, I’m going to die out here if I don’t. Back home it gets hot, but it doesn’t really get too hot. It gets cold, but it really doesn’t get too cold. It's different here, but it's warming up nice now.''
Evans is next in line in Indiana's Down Under punting carousel. He's planning on replacing Haydon Whitehead, the Melbourne, Australia native who punted at a high level for the Hoosiers from 2017 to 2020, and was a Ray Guy Award semifinalist last year during Indiana's 6-2 season.
Evans followed the same path to Indiana, going to ProKick Australia to train and look for a college football future in the states. something that many rugby and Aussie Rules Football players do. They've placed more than 70 punters at schools, with a steady stream of players coming to the U.S. every year.
Evans says he owes a lot of his opportunity to Whitehead, for showing that kickers from that part of the world can compete at a high level in a new sport.
Evans said Whitehead has helped ease his transition.
“Since I’ve been here, he’s been really helpful to me,” Evans said. “We’ve kicked balls a few times in those sessions. He’s given me a lot of advice, everything from on the field, off the field, handling coaches, handling teammates, handling pressure.
“If he hadn’t done such a good job these past four years I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Evans had college choices, but zeroed in on Indiana because of its educational opportunities and wanting to play at a high level in the Big Ten.
“I thought it would be a really good opportunity to play football in the states,” Evans said. “And IU, with the Kelley School of Business and how good the football program is and the chance to play Big Ten football really, really appealed to me.
“Until you really get here, you don’t understand the scale of things. The general public, how much they care about college athletics and how nice the facilities are, all that kind of stuff. Kicking in the stadium for the first time in January was really surreal. Now it’s just a field, but those first two weeks you’re here, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is so cool. Everything is so developed, so top-tier.”
There have been a few bumps along the way, but nothing that Evans can't handle. During a spring football workout, he took his helmet off while he was coming off the field, a no-no, and was punished by having to run the hundred or so steps at Memorial Stadium.
“That was a bit of a learning curve. I didn’t realize how heavy the helmet was initially. It was about five pounds. It’s molded to my head. That was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t realize you couldn’t take it off. I think I was only 2 yards from the sideline when I took it off.
“I didn’t realize how big our stadium was until then,” Evans said. “Stairs at 50,000-capacity stadiums are not fun to run up. Lesson learned. That’s not something I’ll do again, for sure.”
Evans has become fast friends with fellow specialists like kicker Charles Campbell and long-snapper Sean Wracher. He's also learning a lot about the college game from Indiana special teams coach Kasey Teegardin. After all, this game is all new to him, outside of what he's watching on television back in New Zealand, watching college games on Sundays because of the time difference.
There's a lot to learn to be ready by the Sept. 4 opener.
“Just getting here in the spring, it seems like there’s more to punting than just kicking a ball schematically,” Evans said. “Coach T did a really, really good job throughout the spring of teaching me everything and just easing that transition. Following my lines directly behind the shield and stuff like that.”
Evans has gotten comfortable quickly, but this still is a new environment for him. His teammates have shown him around town, taking him straight to Buffalouie's on his second day. And when it comes to fast food, he's also become a huge fan of Chick-Fil-A, ''because we don't have those back at home.''
He'll throw a few words out there now and then that will have teammates shaking their heads, Summer workouts are going well, and he's looking forward to the fall and the start of the season.
“There’s a slight language barrier at times,” he said. “I’ll say words, and people will be like, ‘What are you saying.’ But more or less at this point, being here for six months, I’m pretty much acclimated. This is home now.”
It's a long way from Auckland, that's for sure. But it's home now, and he's happy to be in Bloomington.
VIDEO: Full interview with James Evans
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