This article appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on September 13.
It was just how LSU special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey drew it up. Freshman punter Brad Wing took the ball from long snapper Joey Crappell, began his kicking motion, only to abandon the punt after two steps and begin sprinting down the left sideline. Chase Clement laid a block on Florida’s Chris Rainey and Wing strode into the end zone for a 52-yard score. Tiger Stadium erupted.
Moments later, celebrations were halted when a flag was seen lying at the 10-yard line. Wing had raised his arms moments before crossing the goal line, which was enough to draw a whistle for unsportsmanlike conduct, wiping the touchdown off the board. Despite the outcome of the play, the innocuous gesture had put Brad Wing on the map.
Fake punt aside, it was his play four weeks later in front of a crowd of 101,821 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that legitimized him as one of college football’s preeminent punters in 2011.
Against Alabama, Wing kept the Crimson Tide pinned deep in their own territory with a masterful series of punts that were downed inside the 20-yard line. One flew out of bounds at the Alabama 5-yard line, one was downed at the Alabama 4, and a third resulted in a fair catch at the Alabama 11.
But it was his penultimate punt that was his finest. With the game tied at 6-6 midway through the fourth quarter and LSU backed up to their own 9-yard line, Wing, standing at the back of the end zone, launched a 73-yard monster that sailed over the head of return man Marquis Maze, and rolled to a stop at the Alabama 18.
LSU prevailed 9-6 in overtime and went on to finish the 2011 season undefeated, before losing to Alabama 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game. Despite the loss, Wing still drew high praise from the national media for his stellar punting.
At this rate, Brad Wing will become a household name. #BCSChampionship— ESPN (@espn) January 10, 2012
Wing, who became just the second punter in LSU history to earn first team All-American honors, finished the 2011 season averaging 44.2 yards-per-punt, with 27 of his 59 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20.
His on-field credentials, needless to say, were hard to fault.
But it was his off-field transgressions during his three years at LSU that had professional teams wary of the talented left footer. Wing was arrested for simple battery in 2011 following a violent incident in Baton Rouge, and in 2012 he was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl for a violation of team rules. At the conclusion of the 2012 season, despite having two years of eligibility left at LSU, it was reported that LSU officials told Wing that he wasn’t welcome back.
So, instead of continuing his college career elsewhere, Wing announced that he would be entering the NFL Draft and in the process became the first punter to declare early since Chris Gardocki did in 1991.
On talent alone, Wing should have been the first punter selected in the 2013 NFL draft. But the knock on him was that he didn’t care enough about football. He was, in no uncertain terms, too much about himself. At LSU, Wing was a rock star, possibly the most interviewed punter in the nation, and he carried himself with a self-confidence that is rarely seen from a player at his position.
At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, phrases like “too many red flags,” and “problem child” began to circulate after the interview process. Scouts spoke about how he sought fame, was unremorseful when talking about his past misdemeanors, and, above all else, was a party boy. Nobody seemed to talk about his strong leg, amazing control, and precision accuracy.
Brad’s father, David Wing, punted in NFL Europe and had a short stint with the Detroit Lions in 1990. But Brad grew up playing Australia Rules Football for the Sandringham Dragons in Melbourne, and only considered punting when the Dragons cut him and he moved to live with family friends in Baton Rouge for his final year of high school. Wing turned heads at LSU with his ability to kick with both feet, and his talent for manipulating the ball – namely how it landed – with the “drop punt” kick.
As it turned out, talents like this don’t matter to professional teams, who are more often than not concerned about the character of a player. So as it was, over three days in late April 2013, Wing watched as 254 names were called at the NFL Draft. Two punters were selected, Jeff Locke from UCLA and Sam Martin from Appalachian State, but Wing was not.
Not long after, Wing was granted an NFL lifeline from the Philadelphia Eagles, who invited him and eight other undrafted free agents to rookie minicamp. But after showing up out of shape and failing a basic fitness test, the Eagles had not choice but to place him on the non-football injury list, something that thoroughly displeased head coach, Chip Kelly.
He ultimately re-joined his teammates on the practice field, but failed to beat out veteran Donnie Jones for the spot on the roster and he was cut.
Wing spent the 2013 NFL season on the sidelines. Then, in January, the Pittsburgh Steelers contacted him and offered a futures contract, providing him with the opportunity to prove his wares during the offseason. The Steelers struggled mightily on special teams in 2013, cutting punter Zoltan Mesko mid-season after some poor performances and getting similarly average production from former Dallas Cowboy, Mat McBriar. Both players finished the season outside of the top 30 in yards-per-punt average.
By the time preseason rolled around, the competition for the Steelers punting job was a one-man show. Adam Podlesh, a seven-year veteran who played for the Chicago Bears the past three seasons, was absent from training camp on personal leave because of difficulties with his wife’s pregnancy. This allowed Wing to take every rep in the first two weeks of camp and he was the only punter available for first preseason game against the New York Giants. He never looked back.
Despite showing some inconsistency, Wing seized his opportunity and when the Steelers submitted their 53-man roster on August 30, his name was on it.
Brad Wing’s road to the NFL has been paved with adversity. Maturity issues and a checkered past seemed to have follow him wherever he went and his quest to “revolutionize the position” has been firmly put on hold in favour of more realistic short-term goals.
The challenges that Wing has faced have shaped him, and he is beginning to grow up. Father to an 18-month-old, he is now less about himself and more about supporting his family, an attitude change that is helping rebuild his once tarnished image.In his first two NFL games, the 23-year-old has punted well, landing 3 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line on 10 attempts. There is a long way to go to establish his name in the NFL and repair his indifferent reputation, but so far, in a black and yellow Steelers uniform, Brad Wing’s redemption mission is punting in the right direction.