By Russell Bennett
THESE days, when Wade Lees steps out on to the field to kick a football it’s in front of 100,000 fans – each with their eyes fixed solely on him.
It’s a far cry from when he used to kick a Sherrin around in Scorpions colours, but he’ll always consider Casey home despite currently plying his trade as a punter for the University of Maryland in the famed NCAA college football system.
Life is so often about those sliding doors moments – the incidents and decisions that define people.
For Lees, that moment came in 2012 and ultimately led to him serving an 18-month anti-doping suspension.
“It was quite innocent, I ordered a fat burner that was online and it happened to be from America,” he recalled recently to the Gazette.
“I never received the product and a month later I got a letter from customs informing me that my shipment had been seized.
“I didn’t really understand why, but I went on with life.
“I then received a call from ASADA a few weeks later telling me they were coming down to interview me over the matter. To cut a long story short I got an 18-month suspension for the possession of a product that I had not even possessed, let alone seen.
“I am now living in America and when I first moved over here I was in the chemist and ironically saw the same product just sitting on the shelves.”
Lees can’t be concerned with how some may have viewed him in light of the suspension. He just knows it was “a blessing in disguise”.
“Now I’m playing in front of 100,000 people most weekends,” he said.
Lees was a rising star of the Scorpions at the time, and has since been named on the interchange of the VFL club’s 2006-2015 Team of the Decade side.
He endured a tough start to life at the level, having started his junior career at Mount Evelyn at the age of 12 and progressing with football after also playing representative basketball for the Dandenong Rangers.
Clearly prodigiously talented and wanting to push himself, he followed his footy coach brother Craig from Mount Evelyn to East Burwood in the Eastern Football League.
After winning back-to-back premierships in the Under 18s and also playing seniors in his top-age year, he moved on to the TAC Cup with the Sandringham Dragons, spent a brief stint back at East Burwood, and then his VFL chance came.
It was under Peter German in his third year at Casey that Lees finally broke through for his first senior game. He credits him, and many people at the Scorpions during his time there – such as former coach Brett Lovett; and fellow Team of the Decade members Evan Panozza, Kyle Matthews, James Wall, Daniel Nicholls, and Dave Collins – for helping him become the person and player he is today.
“I would watch how everyone went about their games and try and mould myself around everyone’s best attributes,” Lees said.
During his suspension, he travelled through Europe and America – experiencing a whole new side of life.
“It wasn’t until I was in the States that I saw how big college football was,” Lees explained.
“That’s what got my mind ticking. A good friend of mine I played at Casey with – Cam Johnston – was a rookie at Melbourne and I’d seen he was over here playing college football just before I left on my overseas trip.
“I enquired through him about what he was doing and how he’d done it.
“He gave me the number of this guy who is now my punting coach, Nathan Chapman who runs ProKick.”
Lees didn’t pursue the opportunity to play in one of the world’s biggest and most famed sporting competitions until he’d returned to the VFL with Frankston.
“By Round 8 (of that year) I gave Nathan a call and never looked back,” he said.
“It was a lot of hard work, not just learning how to punt but I’d never completed high school so I had to go and redo my Year 12 and go to uni and pass my classes with high grades, which I did successfully.”
Lees says he’s never been a prodigious kick of the football. His biggest strength is just that – his strength.
“You don’t always have to have the biggest leg,” he said.
“It’s all about timing and placement in this game.
“In college football, rolling out and hitting drop punts away from the returner is taking over so that is helping get more Australians over here, and it’s what helped me too.”
From the leg up he received from ProKick – including Chapman, and John Smith – another series of sliding doors moments led to Lees signing up as a Maryland Terrapin.
“It is definitely a surreal experience doing everything for the first time,” he said.
“On Friday nights, heading to our five-star hotels, being escorted by police through traffic, and going through red lights not stopping for anything, to playing my first game at Maryland in front of 70,000.
“Then the next week – when we were playing on the road – we got a police escorted bus that drove straight up to our private chartered jet waiting on the tarmac to go and play in front of 100,000 people.”
Lees had a nervous beginning to his college career – the pressure, the spotlight, and the fanfare took some getting used to – but now he’s starting to soak it all in, to appreciate his experience for what it is.
“My season was okay, but nothing to boast about,” he said.
“They’re tough conditions here in Maryland, with some games playing in -2 degress with 40km/h winds.
“It can get tough and frustrating at times, but I’m better for the experience and know what I got to work on to improve.”
The next goal for Lees is to win a conference title with Maryland. Hopefully, for his sake, good things continue to come for those who wait.