RENTON, Wash. — Shortly after setting foot in the United States of America for the first time, the punter slipped shoulder pads over his head for the first time. He put on a football helmet and strapped on a chinstrap for the first time. He jogged to practice as a Texas Longhorn for the first time. He stood behind a long snapper, called for the ball and faced a rush for the first time.
At 19 years of age, he looked up and saw this big, new world in front of him.
Then he punted the football for the first time in this new world.
Instead of going up, as punts are supposed to do, the ball went straight left. Past the numbers, over the sideline, out of the practice field. Finally, it bounced on the street adjacent to the field.
As a ball boy scurried off the field and onto the street to retrieve the football the punter had shanked, it seemed maybe this punting thing wasn’t such a good idea.
The punter was more than 8,000 miles from his Australian home, but it felt more like 8 billion in that moment.
That was then.
Now, just three-and-a-half years later, no football player has come further than Michael Dickson.
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
He can send a football into the skies like a bottle rocket or make one hang in the air so impossibly long that it makes Isaac Newton’s most famous theory seem questionable. He can juice up his sideline like few players can. He can trend on Twitter and YouTube.
And there is something else the Seahawks rookie may be doing in the process: redefining a position.
The Seahawks thought so much of Dickson that they targeted him in the fifth round of the April draft even though they had an able punter.
But what is a player worth who can turn harrowing field position into ideal field position? What is a player worth who can turn an opposing All-Pro returner into another spectator, like the fan in section 217? What is a player worth who can attack the enemy in a way it’s never been attacked?
Seattle Seahawks @Seahawks
@mdcksn pins the Raiders at their own 3️⃣ yard line. #OAKvsSEA https://t.co/lsaFyCylpx
All of this led to some derisive chuckling. But lately, it’s the Seahawks who have been doing the chuckling.
Seahawks college scouting director Matt Berry had no doubt Dickson was worth the price his team paid for him. He had given Dickson the highest possible grade and says he was the best punter he had seen in 17 years of scouting.
When Berry watched Texas play Oklahoma State last year, he came away thinking Dickson was the best player on the field—and seven other players were drafted from those schools, including two second-rounders and two third-rounders.
The Seahawks’ conviction about Dickson grew in OTAs. Dickson’s performances were so entertaining that punting time in practice became appointment viewing for Seahawks front-office members. The conviction grew some more in training camp, when he clearly beat out respected veteran Jon Ryan. And the conviction reached a peak in the preseason, when he was by far the highest-graded punter in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Pro Football Focus @PFF
The Seahawks rookie was the highest graded punter in the NFL this preseason. https://t.co/zaK3gKdWxR
In his “Football Morning in America” column on NBCsports.com, Peter King made Dickson his preseason pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year, even though he’s not an offensive player.
“I’ve never seen a punter with so few years of punting experience with such raw talent,” Dickson’s long snapper, Tyler Ott, tells Bleacher Report.
If Dickson hits the ball perfectly, he can boom it 70 yards. While warming up, he once had a hang time of 5.56 seconds—he has the screenshot to prove it. And he can place the football like Dustin Johnson places a golf ball.
The rest of the NFL started to figure it out during the Seahawks’ opener at Denver. Dickson averaged 59 yards per punt—the second-best average ever in a game in which a punter had six or more attempts. Four of the punts landed inside the 20, two inside the 6. His net average that day of 57.5 was the highest in Seahawks history for a player who punted at least four times.
“Oh my gosh, what a kicker, man, what a kicker,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll gushed to reporters in the glow of the performance. “… He is really something. I mean, the punts were gorgeous, but not just the distance of the punts, but the placement of the punts too, you know?”
The next week, when Dickson was warming up at Soldier Field, Bears punt returner Tarik Cohen kept his eyes glued on him—and told teammates to watch him too. “He’s a handful,” Cohen says. “He has a strong leg and he can put the ball wherever he wants.”
He can put the ball wherever he wants even when he’s not punting it.
Against the Bears, he had two drop kicks on kickoffs. The first came after a Bears penalty put the Seahawks on the 50. A drop kick was the Seahawks’ best chance of getting the ball near the goal line, and Dickson put it on the 1.
His second drop kick was an onside attempt near the end of the game that the Bears recovered. The advantage of a drop-kick onside kickoff is the kicker doesn’t have to tip off the direction in which he is aiming.
Drop kicks haven’t been frequently used since the 1930s. A team has only scored points on one once since 1941. Dickson might be the one to change that.
As a freshman at Texas, he started killing time at practice by drop-kicking through the uprights. He kept at it, making longer and longer kicks. At his pro day, he hit drop-kick field goals of 40, 50 and 60 yards. He says he connects on about 75 percent of his drop-kick field-goal attempts.
He is not likely to unseat Sebastian Janikowski as the Seahawks place-kicker soon, but if the Seahawks need an emergency replacement for him, you’ll see Dickson out there turning back the clock.
“It’s about getting the drop right,” Dickson says. “Different surfaces have different bounces off the ground. There is a lot [less] room for error with a drop kick than a regular field goal. It would take a lot of reps with people in front of me in pressure situations before I could do it regularly.”
A drop-kick field goal would be another in a string of surreal moments for Dickson.
He was offered a scholarship by Texas even though he never played the sport and then was voted an All-American in 2017. He was named the most valuable player in the Texas Bowl against Missouri last December.
Prior to making the voyage across the Pacific, Dickson made a promise to his mum. “I’m going to win the Ray Guy Award,” he told her. He made good on it last winter, and sitting at the banquet next to Guy—the only punter in the Pro Football Hall of Fame—was perhaps the most surreal moment of all.
John Amis/Associated Press
“Sometimes, you get so caught up in everything that you don’t really realize where you are,” he says. “It’s insane when I think about it. It’s literally not even four years since I started punting. I still can’t believe it. All of it. I just love it.”
Dickson isn’t just spectacular. He’s fresh.
Growing up in Sydney, Dickson learned everything he knew about American football from watching movies like Remember the Titans, The Longest Yard and The Blind Side.
He played a little Madden, but you would have liked to have gone against him because he was such a noob. “I just threw Hail Marys,” he says. “I didn’t know how to run any defense.”
With friends, he played soccer, cricket and tennis. When he was 14, he started to get serious about Australian rules football, joining the Swans Academy, which trains teens to go pro when they are done with high school.
Dickson went undrafted by Aussie rules teams in 2014 and then started thinking about trying to become what they call a “gridiron punter” like Sav Rocca. He knew he had one of the strongest legs in the academy, so he went online and found a program that teaches Australians to punt and kick NFL style—Prokick Australia. He moved to Melbourne to train with Prokick.
His coach, Nathan Chapman, was convinced Dickson could punt at a Division I level, so he made a YouTube video and sent it to college coaches. Within four months of signing with Prokick, Dickson was asked to visit by Texas, and on his visit, coach Charlie Strong offered a scholarship.
Dickson came to Austin and began to learn the differences between gridiron football and Aussie rules football. And the differences between America and Australia.
When a Texas friend suggested he try chicken-fried steak, he replied, “Is that steak or chicken?”
McDonald’s is the same all over the world, but Dickson had to learn to call it what Americans call it.
“The other day I said, ‘Let’s go to Mackies,'” he says.
Blank stares from teammates.
“Then I realized—no one calls McDonald’s Mackies around here.”
He misses Vegemite and chicken-flavored chips. He was pleased to find Tim Tams—an Australian chocolate biscuit—at a store in Austin.
His mum and stepdad spent the first three weeks of the season with him in Seattle and brought him some of his favorite “lollies,” or candies. Among them were red clouds, Australian Sour Patch Kids (different from American) and jelly lolly worms.
He finds reminders everywhere that he is far from home. He even wrote a song about the long, grueling flight across the Pacific.
“I’m a Pie man,” he says. And he’s not talking about Australian meat pie, which he wishes he could get in the States, or apple pie, the symbol of American prosperity. He’s talking about the Collingwood Magpies, the Aussie rules team that Rocca “kicked massive goals for” prior to coming to the NFL.
His Australian way of saying things is not politely glossed over in the Seahawks locker room.
His teammates and coaches tease him about his accent and make him “talk like an American.” They want to hear him slowly say, “I would like a ham-bur-ger,” so they can have a laugh. “Apparently, I sound like a dork saying it,” he says.
He didn’t know that speech lessons were included in his salary. It’s not “wata,” it’s “wa-ter,” they tell him. On an aborted punt, they make him say, “Fi-yer, fi-yer, fi-yer!” Not “Fi-ya, fi-ya, fi-ya!”
Dickson gives it back to Janikowski, who has a Polish accent and is his elder by 18 years. It is all in good, clean locker-room fun. “Guys love him,” Janikowski says. “He’s a great kid.”
Ralph Freso/Getty Images
Of course, there are the requisite kangaroo questions. Dickson will give them what they want.
“Kangaroos are like deer here,” he says. “You go for a long drive, you see 10 or 15 roadkill kangaroos.”
You might even see one on the way to Mackies.
Just as Dickson is not the typical NFL personality, he is not the typical NFL punter.
Most punters, especially the best ones, kick with their leg fully extended. Dickson kicks with a bent leg—that’s how he learned to kick in Aussie rules football.
Dickson’s style was a little off-putting to some scouts and coaches. “I looked at it at first and said, ‘This is hard to evaluate,'” says Seahawks special teams coordinator Brian Schneider. “You don’t see all the mechanics you normally see.”
Even if he wanted to, Dickson couldn’t extend his leg like JK Scott, the punter the Packers chose 23 selections after Dickson. “I’m not flexible at all,” Dickson explains. “Compared to everyone else, I’m just not as flexible. I come in every morning, do all the stretches and cold tub, but it hasn’t changed.”
It hasn’t affected Dickson because what matters most to a punter is leg speed, and Dickson’s leg speed is as good as Schneider ever has seen. Even though the 6’2″ Dickson isn’t as tall as punters like the 6’6″ Scott, he gets as much power in his kicks as anyone.
It is evident not only in the distance his punts travel but also in the way his kicks sound. “What you hear when the ball comes off his foot just sounds different from other punters,” Berry says.
Thump. Deeper, louder, more bass.
Most punters are obsessive about their fundamentals. They do everything a specific way over and over and are highly detailed. Dickson? “I just go off feel,” he says. It might explain why he is so adept at adjusting to different circumstances.
He doesn’t study himself, and he doesn’t study other punters. “I’m not mechanical, so watching film makes me think too much about everything,” he says. “I just catch it and kick it. If I’m watching it and saying, ‘That step was longer than this step and your body weight is to the left instead of the right,’ then when you go out and try to kick, you’re going to feel constrained. I like to go out there and feel like I can do whatever I like and not think about the mechanics of it.”
Dickson just punts. And punts and punts and punts. He punts so much that the Seahawks staff member who tosses him the football before each punt has had to ice his arm.
This. Kid. Has. A. LEG.
EVERY punt by @Seahawks rookie punter Michael Dickson (@mdcksn) #SEAvsMIN https://t.co/m9OyqkmgP7
Schneider has an ongoing discussion with Dickson about not punting so much, in fact. Keeping the punter’s leg lively is the job of the special teams coach.
Most punters kick two days during the practice week. Dickson kicks three days a week. On Wednesdays, he kicks between 60 and 70 balls. On Thursdays, Schneider tries to get him to limit it to 40 punts. On Fridays, he does about 50 sky kicks and rugby-style kicks, which are a little less taxing. Then in pregame, he rolls with up to 100 punts. During games, whenever the Seahawks have the ball, Dickson punts into a net on the sideline.
“The more you do it, the better you get at it,” Dickson says with a shrug.
Practice is Dickson’s favorite part of the day. Punting, to him, is joyful. “I love training and practicing and getting better,” he says. “It’s not a struggle for me to go out and punt.”
Chaos is part of a punter’s existence. Poor field position, muddy fields, slick balls, wind, rain, snow, crowd noise, unpredictable snaps, protection issues and dangerous returners—all are part of the deal.
Dickson seems to block it all out. Schneider has found him unflappable and says he is better in games than in practice.
One of Dickson’s secrets can be found on his left hand between his wrist and the base of his thumb. He writes “50” there with a pen every day in a meeting room, a tradition that goes back to the offseason after his freshman year at Texas.
Dickson was searching for more consistency at the time, so he set a daily goal during his workout—punt 15 balls 50 yards outside the numbers. He did it consistently, so the number 50 became a reminder that what he could do by himself on a quiet practice field, he could do in a roaring stadium with chaos all around.
“It’s become a trigger for my confidence,” he says. “Every time I look at it, I visualize a snippet of the game—whether it’s the stadium we’ll be playing in, the cleats I’ll be wearing or the feeling I’ll get from hitting a good ball.”
Four games into Dickson’s NFL career, he is a cross between sensation and mystery. Members of the Seahawks say he can punt a ball myriad ways that have yet to be revealed. The number of ways, according to deep-off-the-record sources, is between 10 and 12. The Seahawks want to maintain covertness because they believe it gives them a competitive advantage.
“He has a lot of ways to kick balls in his tool belt,” says Tyler Lockett, the return man who fields Dickson’s punts in practice. “You haven’t even seen the majority of what he can do. I’m looking forward to seeing if other returners are able to catch them.”
Stephen Brashear/Associated Press
All he has used up to now is a spiral, a pooch and a boomerang—an appropriate weapon for an Australian.
The boomerang is an effective way of keeping the punt away from a dynamic returner. Against the Bears, Cohen was set up to receive on his left side of the field. Dickson angled himself as if he was kicking in Cohen’s direction, but he kicked across his body and the punt took a turn. It bounced on the other side of the field and out of bounds for a 53-yard net.
Dickson also can make a punt spin backward or shoot forward, which increases the chances of getting a fortuitous bounce. He acknowledges there is some luck on bounces. But he knows he can enhance luck with strategy and placement. So far, he has been lucky and good.
What else is coming? “I can do most things with a ball if you ask me to do it,” Dickson says. “In Aussie rules, you hit so many different types of kicks—it’s just a matter of time before they come over here as well.”
If Dickson is an attraction, Schneider is the imagineer. One of Carroll’s original hires with the Seahawks in 2010, Schneider has coached Shane Lechler, considered the greatest punter of his generation, and Ryan, the most accomplished punter in Seahawks history. He knows a special punter when he sees one. And he is bold enough and creative enough to take punting where it has not been.
“I learned a lot of different stuff here because Coach Schneider is so encouraging,” Dickson says. “He’s open to different things, he has faith in me and he’s telling me to get creative with it. If this is like this, could you get the ball to do this? I’ll mess around with it and try to do it. He’s the one who really tries to get the most out of me, tactical-wise.”
When Dickson showed off his versatility at the Texas pro day, most NFL special teams coaches yawned. Schneider’s eyes lit up. He told Dickson if he became a Seahawk, the two of them would work together on expanding and fine-tuning his repertoire.
He was looking at how far Dickson had come, and how far he can go.
And he was seeing possibilities that had never been seen before.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danpompei.