49ers' Mitch Wishnowsky would've slept on a bathroom floor to be an NFL punter

ByAnna Katherine Clemmons ESPN logo
Friday, January 17, 2020

In the summer of 2012, Mitch Wishnowsky sat at the end of a wooden dock, fishing rod in hand. He cast his line as the sun set over the water's horizon; as he did so, his cellphone rang. A professional glazier by day, the 20-year-old Western Australia native had recently bought a plot of land in Perth with his best friend. They built a house, worked their trades, and planned to save enough money to provide for their respective futures, which Wishnowsky hoped meant a career, wife and children.

As he sat on the dock, still recovering from the dengue fever he had contracted on a recent trip to Bali, he just wanted to be healthy enough to work his job of framing and setting glass for industrial buildings.

Once a talented soccer player, Wishnowsky had pursued the sport until he realized he wouldn't qualify for the pro leagues. Standing 6-foot-2 with a muscular frame, tanned skin, chiseled cheekbones and blond hair that he sometimes grew long, the Thor lookalike had a powerful kicking leg.

He had always wanted to try Australian rules football; after dropping out of school at 16 to pursue his trade, he also signed up for Aussie rules. But a dislocated shoulder on the field forced him to halt his work as a glazier, and Wishnowsky realized financial stability was more important than his sporting passion. So he gave up Aussie rules, instead playing American flag football in a casual weekend league.

He answered his cellphone and he and the caller spoke for several minutes. Days later, Wishnowsky handed in his resignation letter. He had only one month left before completing his official glazier trade certification, so he finished out the month and moved to Melbourne.

He was going to learn how to be an NFL punter.

Fast-forward to 2020, and Wishnowsky is on the cusp of playing in the biggest NFL event in the world -- Super Bowl LIV, as a member of the San Francisco 49ers. This weekend he will try to help the 49ers advance beyond the NFC Championship Game and make their first Super Bowl appearance since 2012.

Wishnowsky, 27, was selected by the 49ers in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL draft. This season, he helped the NFC West champions go 13-3 in the regular season as he averaged 44.9 yards per punt, with 23 landing inside the 20-yard line.

"I've coached 40 total seasons, and he's the best I've had or seen [at his position]," says Craig Moropoulos, Wishnowsky's head coach at Santa Barbara (California) City College. "Even before our [2014] season began, with all the things put together, you could see that this guy was special: his size, athletic ability, his work ethic. And very humble."

In 2012, unbeknownst to Wishnowsky, one of his flag football teammates had told Prokick founders John Smith and Nathan Chapman about Wishnowsky's punting prowess. Founded in 2007, Prokick Australia -- one of the premier kicking institutions in Australia -- was still in its early stages.

"It was always a dream to be a pro athlete, and I thought to myself, 'This is my last chance,'" Wishnowsky says.

He had followed the careers of a handful of Aussie kickers who played for U.S. colleges and the NFL, but as far as he knew, they had all competed for professional teams first. He hadn't realized there might be a pathway for a non-professional athlete such as himself. And he had never heard of Smith or Chapman.

But Wishnowsky went to Melbourne, where he had no close friends or family. The other Prokick attendees lived locally. Hotels were too expensive (he was still paying the mortgage on his property), so Wishnowsky left messages with a few acquaintances, including his former physiotherapist, hoping for a bed the weekend before training began. Prokick required each athlete to purchase a membership to a local 24-hour gym, so when Wishnowsky hadn't heard back about a room, he drove to the gym.

"I was camped in the bathroom of the 24-hour gym and I was like, I'm not above staying here,'" Wishnowsky says.

At 10 p.m., just as he had created his makeshift bed, the physiotherapist called. He could stay with her for a few nights.

During the first practice, Wishnowsky took 10 or 12 steps on his first kick before Cam Johnston, the Philadelphia Eagles' current punter and a Prokick alum, advised him that NFL punters typically take a maximum of two steps to get rid of the ball quickly.

Their days began with a 6:30 a.m. lifting session and ran through lunchtime. In the afternoons, Wishnowsky took a nap before leaving his apartment for his bartending job, which paid his rent and his mortgage. He returned to his apartment around 2 a.m., waking up four hours later to repeat the cycle.

"When Mitch first got here, he was really strong," says Chapman, an Australia native and former punter. "He's such an athlete, and a big guy for a kicker. He had a nice style and he could kick the ball really well. We focused on teaching him to get the format right, and a lot of that was practice under pressure, things like that."

Chapman also broke down Wishnowsky's technique, teaching him to punt for American-style football. A focused Wishnowsky diligently followed the instruction.

"There will be months on end where you're not able to hit a ball because [Chapman] breaks everything down," Wishnowsky says of his year at Prokick, which has graduated 17 All-Americans and secured 75 U.S. scholarships or contracts for its alums. "But he gets it and he'll make it work."

As Chapman taught players on the field, he also built relationships with colleges and universities. To meet NCAA eligibility requirements, Wishnowsky needed to attend junior college to meet academic standards. He chose Santa Barbara City College, where Aussie Tim Gleason had kicked. Wishnowsky had to pay in full.

"We just thought, 'How serious is this?'" Penny Wishnowsky said of her son's American football chances. Her husband flew to Melbourne to talk with Smith, who told him that Mitch was a true NFL contender.

"My husband came home and said, 'Well, they reckon he could go all the way, so I guess he will,'" Penny says.

Wishnowsky arrived in Santa Barbara on May 23, 2014, as a 22-year-old freshman. In his first game, unaccustomed to the strong winds, he averaged only around 30 yards a punt. But as the season progressed, he quickly improved; he finished as the top punter in the American Pacific League with a 39.8-yard average. He also led the state with 30 punts that remained inside the 20-yard line. The coaching staff, seeing his punting talent, started keeping a new statistic specific to him: punts inside the 10-yard line. Moropoulos estimated that Wishnowsky had close to 20 punts inside the 10.

Moropoulos, recognizing Wishnowsky's versatility and athleticism, often utilized his skills for fake punts-- catch-and-roll situations in which Wishnowsky, who later became the first punter to run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, could utilize his speed.

After practice, Wishnowsky and a fellow Aussie teammate would often remain on the field. Wishnowsky would send his teammate on a post route while he ran to his right and punted.

"The ball would spiral almost as well as a quarterback flicking it off his fingertips, and hit the guy perfectly in stride," Moropoulos says.

Wishnowsky says he enjoys tackling, as NFL fans around the country saw during his Week 2 takedown of Broncos punt returner Devontae Jackson. At Santa Barbara, he initially tried to convince the coaching staff to play him at tight end. Smith heard about Wishnowsky's attempts and called him. "If you get injured, you're wasting your time!" Smith yelled.

"I thought to myself, 'That makes sense,'" Wishnowsky says. "But I wanted to do it. I wanted to be a tight end."

Wishnowsky redshirted the 2015 season to complete his academic requirements before transferring to Utah, which had recruited several Prokick graduates, including close friend Tom Hackett, who punted for the Utes from 2012 to 2015.

"He was different," Hackett says. "I always felt that I punted my best when I was pretty calm, cool and relaxed and I wasn't overthinking, whereas Mitch is the opposite. He punts his best when he's really serious and really focused."

Wishnowsky was just as serious off the field, avoiding parties and instead opting for added training sessions and weight room regimens while completing coursework toward his degree in exercise sport science. That dedication paid off. In 2016, his sophomore season and first for Utah, he won the Ray Guy Award, presented annually to the best punter in the nation. He finished second in the country in punting average (47.7) and first in punts downed inside the opponent's 10-yard line.

He concluded 2017 with a 43.9-yard punting average and 10 punts downed inside the 10-yard line. In his final Utah season in 2018, he completed 59 punts for a 45.2-yard average.

His parents would often set their alarm for 1 or 2 a.m. to watch online broadcasts of his games.

"We didn't know a thing. Not a thing," Penny says of American football. But they watched and learned.

Several months after his college career ended, on the third day of the 2019 NFL draft, Wishnowsky woke up early. His fiancée, Maddie Leiphardt, made breakfast, but he was too nervous to eat. Instead, he turned on the draft. He'd worked out for several teams, and he knew that San Francisco was interested, but he didn't think he'd go as high as the fourth round. The 49ers' next pick wasn't until the sixth round, and other teams he'd talked with had numerous picks in between.

"A lot of those teams were in cold places, and I thought, 'I would love to end up in San Francisco, but if I'm not taken in the fourth round, I'm probably not ending up there,'" Wishnowsky says.

Forty minutes after the draft began, his phone rang. The caller ID read "San Francisco 49ers facility." Maddie started crying as Wishnowsky answered the phone.

"Mitch, this is John Lynch from the 49ers, man," the team's general manager said.

"How's it going?" Mitch responded.

"We're going to make you a Niner, all right?" Lynch said.

After a brief pause, Mitch answered, "Thank you so much."

Lynch then placed the phone on speaker, as he, head coach Kyle Shanahan, CEO Jed York and special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower yelled a rousing rendition of "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy, Oy, Oy!"

"Hell, yeah!" Mitch responded, as the group in the room laughed.

As Shanahan took the phone and welcomed Wishnowsky, letting him know he was a "target from the beginning," Wishnowsky listened. His voice raised with emotion, Mitch offered a "thank you" in response. Coach Hightower's welcome was next; hearing the emotion in Mitch's voice, he told him, "Yeah, you should be emotional, man. We're just fired up to get you."

As soon as he hung up the phone, Mitch texted his mom. It was midnight in Australia.

"Turn on the TV," he wrote.

"Why?" Penny wrote back.

"Just do it," he responded.

A tennis match was being broadcast, and Penny couldn't find the draft, save for the ticker scrolling along the bottom of the screen. Seconds later, she screamed as she read, "110, Mitchell Wishnowsky, San Francisco 49ers." She ran to wake up her husband and Mitch's sister and her husband, all of whom were asleep in the house.

"It was phone calls the whole day, trying to let it sink in," says Maddie,who metWishnowsky in a class at Santa Barbara City College, where she played volleyball. "It took quite a while. That was one of the times I've seen the most emotion from him, for sure. This was something he's been working toward for ages."

Penny says her son took sports more seriously than any of his peers when he was growing up in Western Australia, near Perth. On the nights before soccer games, he'd hydrate, eat a balanced dinner and be in bed by 7 p.m. -- all of his own volition.

"He was very, very focused on what he was doing to make himself the very best," Penny says. "I always believed he would make it."

Intensely focused during the game, he also has adhered to a pregame ritual taught to him by 49ers veteran kicker Robbie Gould: UNO. The kicking team plays several rounds of the popular card game before each matchup; despite being a novice, Wishnowsky is often tough to defeat, Gould says.

"Mitch is not a talker; he's a doer," Moropoulos says.

Indeed, Wishnowsky has been doing what he can to encourage his fans to donate funds to help people and wildlife affected by the fires laying waste to Australia. Though his family in Perth have been relatively unaffected by the bush fires, Maddie and Mitch know what's at stake.

"It's very devastating to see all of that; it's hard to realize how big the fires really are, until you look at it compared to old ones, and seeing videos of all the animals. It's so sad to see people who are lost in it," Maddie says. "That morning, when Mitch was watching all these videos that were pretty upsetting -- and you're seeing others affected and all this wildlife -- I came into the room and he's like, 'You need to see this video.'

"Later that morning, he said, 'I want to donate,' and then he immediately started posting on social media about it, trying to help people be aware. I don't think many people knew much about it, so every little bit helps for sure. You always hear about fires taking place, but sometimes from afar, you don't really realize how much damage they've really done."

Like her son, Penny Wishnowsky was saddened to see the devastation taking place as the Australian wildfires raged.

"We are all safe here in Western Australia, thank goodness. The bushfires are just so devastating for everyone and everything caught up in them," she says. "It's horrifying after seeing the images what firefighters and residents were trying to fight, and the poor helpless wildlife, it's just heart-wrenching. ... I watch a few news clips and just end up with tears running down my face. It is so very, very sad.

"People from everywhere are saddened and heartbroken at the loss of human life, property and millions of wildlife destroyed, and so many are giving donations to help rebuild, feed, care and nurse the survivors back to health. It's going to be a very long road."

Once real life slows down, and Wishnowsky is finally at rest, a little imagination goes a long way. He and Maddie often play volleyball matches in the front yard -- but they play with an invisible net, set by the walkway separating the two halves of the grass. The imaginary net height must reach the roofline. Even there, Maddie says, his competitiveness shows.

"It's more a ton of banter and he tries to get into my head," Maddie says, adding with a laugh, "He doesn't succeed, but he thinks he does."

Maddie usually wins, but she says Mitch will then declare they need to play another round.

Wishnowsky's competitiveness and focus will be tested this weekend as the 49ers face the Green Bay Packers.

"He has every punt in the book, and he gives us a lot of options to kick certain kicks and take returners out of the game," Gould says. "He came in the league a little more mature than most rookies, and he really wants to learn every day. When you have that mentality and work ethic, you see his skill set, he has the ability to continue to grow and be one of the top punters in the NFL."

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