‘Leading from behind’: Cal punter Jamieson Sheahan’s journey across 2 sports and 2 continents

Photo of Jamieson Sheahan
Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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t’s January 2019, a week before the Essendon Bombers’ first preseason game in the Victorian Football League, or VFL. A group of football players has arrived at an empty training facility on an off day to run tackling drills and shore up their defense for the upcoming campaign. Among them is the team’s best first-year player, Jamieson Sheahan, who has his sights set on the draft after fighting through years of injuries to achieve his dream: to play football at the highest level.

“It was a beautiful day. It was obviously summer,” Sheahan recalled, “over in Australia.”

The now-Cal punter was in another place, another time and even another sport. It’s football, yes, but not the American variety. Sheahan, who hails from Bendigo, Victoria, is playing Australian rules football — a unique and breathlessly entertaining code of football born in Melbourne.

From age 7 to the pros, Sheahan has played at all levels. He’d won a sports scholarship to attend Geelong Grammar School, a prestigious boarding school, and left home at age 14 to pursue a rigorous academic and athletic career. Immersed in a different place with different people, Sheahan initially struggled but ultimately succeeded as a two-sport athlete — he played cricket and Australian rules football.

He formed lasting friendships and garnered formative leadership roles as a captain of his school’s cricket team and “Vic Country,” the regional youth Aussie rules side. He played for the All-Australian youth team and — despite multiple surgeries in his young career — put himself on track for the Australian Football League, or AFL, the sport’s top competition.

“My one, obviously, true love growing up, my one dream, was to play Australian football,” Sheahan said, looking back now. “I always grew up wanting to play that sport at the highest level. I watched every game every weekend, played every weekend from the age of 7 until I was … 21 or 22. That was always the dream.

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ut lives and dreams change. On that January weekend, Sheahan’s life took a new direction — one that led across the world and landed him in Memorial Stadium.

“I had the ball, and my teammate flipped me over because he was trying to get the ball from under me,” Sheahan said. “He landed with his weight on top of mine, and it popped my shoulder out.”

With no doctors on site — as it was a weekend at the empty practice ground — Sheahan’s teammates improvised a sling and drove to the hospital. The news could not have been worse.

After MRIs, X-rays and a conversation with the team physician, two things became clear: Sheahan would need surgery on the injured shoulder and would miss the entire VFL season.

“I remember being devastated because of the timing. It was a couple of weeks out from the first game of the year,” Sheahan said. “But yeah, it wasn’t to be, and the shoulder came out.”

It was a difficult moment. Sheahan had dealt with injuries earlier in his career — shoulder, hip and wrist reconstructions had hurt his initial professional prospects. He did not want to go through surgery again. His body had gone through enough. Sheahan was coming to a crossroads, and where that crossroads would lead soon became apparent.

A few weeks later, Sheahan was outside a coffee shop in Richmond, a Melbourne suburb, when the next stage of his life came knocking. Nathan Chapman, a coach for Prokick Australia, called that Saturday morning with an invitation to a new sport. The next day, Sheahan was kicking an American football.

“Prokick Australia is the punting organization down under in Australia which trains ex-footie guys, ex-footballers, whether that be soccer, rugby or AFL, trains them to become punters,” Sheahan explained. “When Chappie (Chapman) gave me the call, I thought it was a bit of a joke at the start. I went down there and kicked a few balls and loved the experience.”

The switch from Australian to American football was not instant. The human leg doesn’t change, but the shape of the ball and the technique involved in kicking it are very different — it took more than a month for Sheahan to find his “rhythm” and hit the ball well.

More than that, Sheahan had to come to terms with the change on a personal level. Sheahan had always been an NFL fan — he remembers braving the 18-hour time difference to watch NFL RedZone and play fantasy — but to give up one football for another?

In the end, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. By the time Cal football special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle came calling, Sheahan was ready. One dream had morphed into another.

“The similarities in trying to be the best that you can be and trying to play a sport at the highest level, in that reality, it’s a similar dream. I absolutely love NFL football,” he said. “The more and more I play it, the more and more I fall in love with it.”

Ragle was looking for a replacement for Steven Coutts, another Australian who had been Cal’s punter for years. After scouring the United States, he found himself back in Australia when Chapman recommended Sheahan.

“I had some guys on my list that I was looking at here in the United States, but they had said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a guy that we’d like you to take a look at,’ ” Ragle said, recalling his recruitment of Sheahan, the punter’s practice tape and their phone calls throughout 2019. “I was very, very impressed, and obviously that’s why we extended a scholarship offer to him.”

After 12 months of training, Sheahan was on his way to the States. With the support of his family and his co-workers, he traveled a world away to take on a new opportunity. He hadn’t played a single game of American football in his life, but his dreams were still in his sights.

“It’s a different dream, but it’s still a dream,” Sheahan said. “It’s still playing sport with people at the highest level and competing against the best and trying to prove something to someone.”

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hose experiences — Sheahan’s highs and lows, the chances he has taken and the places those opportunities have brought him — have created a peculiar journey. During and after his time with Essendon, he worked in the AFL’s front office. He’s played sports at a professional level and found success far from home.

Sheahan’s experiences beyond football have given him a unique approach to his time with the Bears and an equally unique perspective within the team.

“Not only is he just a positive figure in the locker room that everybody can kind of look at and reflect off of, but he also plays that older role,” explained Cal wide receiver and punt returner Nikko Remigio. “Jam knows more about the real world than any of us. He had a full-time job and played professional Australian football, so he’s got a lot of experience, and he’s a bit wiser than us.”

It’s rare that rookies take on a leadership role, and Sheahan is not just new to the team but new to the sport. Still, his leadership has been important during the pandemic.

Sheahan faced his own challenges — introduced to an entirely new place as it began to shut down in early 2020. He had only a few weeks of training before COVID-19 scattered the Bears every which way. Sheahan spent much of quarantine sheltered with his girlfriend’s family in Sacramento, “practicing my punting at the local high schools around there, getting onto whatever field I could get onto.”

When Cal returned for its abbreviated 2020 season, Sheahan had to learn the mental and physical stresses of staying prepared to punt over the course of an entire college football game. Everyone in the special teams unit struggled during the Bears’ four games, but it was their resiliency — Sheahan’s included — that allowed them to weather the storm and put the year behind them.

“It takes a certain type of guy, you know. There’s got to be some resiliency there,” Ragle said. “He has been at the center of being a mainstay for the specialists, an older guy that provides that leadership in a time when we really needed it.”

Leadership and support are important to Sheahan, but it’s not any one thing. When asked to define leadership, Sheahan pointed out that it’s “situation-dependent.” Ragle added that “it comes at different times and in different forms and functions.”

Sheahan’s leadership style, though, is often quieter. It’s confronting the situation with support, whether that’s a pat on the back, a word of encouragement or simply listening.

“There’s always this thing, this saying that I’ve loved, and it’s, ‘You don’t have to always lead from the front.’ You don’t have to always lead by being out there in the thick of it,” Sheahan explained. “You can lead from behind, you can lead from the bench and you can actually push people up and elevate them above yourself.”

Sheahan’s leadership itself has been unique — a reflection of the place where he is now and the places he has been. It’s something he’s learned over time and through experience.

“I always thought you had to lead from the front. I always thought you had to be the frontman, the face and always the one talking, the one showing people what to do and telling them what to do,” Sheahan said, reflecting on some of his opportunities throughout his life and career. “Some people don’t respond well to that. They just need a pat on the back or an encouragement or a little push from behind, and if you’re out in front, sometimes you can’t see that.”

Sheahan’s desire to understand others and help them overcome their struggles alongside them is defining his time at Cal and beyond. Part of being a leader is opening up to others, sharing vulnerabilities and letting them open up to you.

“If they open up to you and there’s this vulnerability, this connection, that’s where really important things start to happen,” Sheahan said.

This season, Sheahan has furthered his leadership ideals, establishing a players-only mental health group within the team to help support his fellow players and help them support one another. It is a space where players can open up, speak their minds, discuss their personal lives and be heard.

“It’s a player-run group, right, and I’m not trying to provide any psychological help or advice. I know I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve been through some of these struggles that these guys are going through,” Sheahan said. “I just wanted to create a space, a group network where guys could come and they would feel like they were being listened to and that they had a voice.”

The group has been successful — meetings are “weekly and biweekly” and well attended. Its influence is felt throughout the team and reflects challenges student-athletes face, some of which are less appreciated or understood.

”It’s just a space where everybody’s able to get together and kind of just, you know, good, bad, ugly, all of it, voice any concerns that they had or gain that support from other guys on the team,” Remigio said. “I don’t know necessarily if it’s stressed enough — I think the mental side of all this is probably one of the toughest parts about being a student-athlete.

Athletes across sports and across the world have increasingly discussed their struggles — Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, and Simone Biles put herself first at the Tokyo Olympics. Sheahan is helping to bring this focus and discussion to Cal.

It’s a space and field Sheahan hopes to occupy in the future. His interdisciplinary studies major focuses on the confluence of sports, business and mental health. His studies reflect his experiences in all three fields but also show what he wants to do: bring his knowledge, leadership skills and experience to the table to help people.

“It’s how you make a change in the lives of other people. How do you help someone achieve something and be the best version of themselves, off the field and on the field?” Sheahan explained when asked about leadership. “A lot of people are going through a lot of stuff, and I think it’s just important to be able to listen to people and let them feel like they’re being heard and that they’re not going through the battle alone.”

Jocelyn Huang contributed to this report

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen is the editor in chief. Contact him at [email protected].