Time and time again, college football coaches emphasize the importance of field position. One of the more critical elements in that process is a team’s punter, and Utah is fortunate to have a good one in senior Sean Sellwood. While taking a long snap and booming a 40-plus yard punt has become fairly routine for Sellwood, his journey to major college football certainly was anything but routine.
For many football players, reaching the collegiate level is a goal they have chased most of their lives. As young boys, they grow up watching their favorite teams and dream about running out of the tunnel under the bright lights in a cathedral-like stadium. But for Sellwood, who is a native of South Africa, the idea of playing American football was a completely foreign concept.
Sellwood spent the early years of his life in the city of Durban along South Africa’s eastern coast, participating in rugby, cricket, track and soccer. When Sellwood was nine, his father was transferred to a mining company in Johannesburg, and his involvement in sports accelerated when he enrolled at an all-boys school.
Sellwood excelled at every sport, especially soccer. At the age of 13, Sellwood competed on an all-state soccer team that traveled to Brazil and won an international tournament for their age group.
Sellwood’s father was transferred again when he was 15, this time to Utah. His life, in many aspects, was changing.
“It was extremely hard at first. Culturally, things back home were more laid back and there was more going on,” Sellwood said. “It was a lot different and took me awhile to adjust to the new lifestyle. Leaving my friends that I had grown up with was really hard. But leaving my family back home, wondering if I would ever see them again, was extremely tough on me.”
As if that wasn’t hard enough, Sellwood also had to adjust to a new sports culture.
“Back in South Africa, going to a high school rugby game was a big event. You made a day out of it by having a barbeque and hanging with friends,” Sellwood said. “Coming here was culturally different because it was nothing like that. I remember one time the coach said we were going to have a soccer banquet, so my parents got everything ready expecting this all day thing. But then people here showed up, presented the awards, ate and left. It was really different from what we were expecting. So it was those little cultural things that were different for me.”
Getting settled in at Salt Lake City’s Judge Memorial High School proved to be an adjustment process as well. For someone who grew up in a culture where authority was afforded more respect than in it is America, Sellwood was surprised by what he experienced.
“In South Africa, when you walk into a classroom the students don’t sit down until they have greeted the teacher; here it is not that way,” he explained. “The way kids are raised here is completely different than how it was back in South Africa, which took me some time to get accustomed to.”
While settling in and making friends, Sellwood was introduced to the game of American football for the first time.
“I had heard about football, but the very first time I had ever seen a game was when I was in high school,” Sellwood recalled. “It was a crazy experience.”
As a junior, Sellwood was approached by his high school’s football coaches about playing on the team.
“Our football team needed a kicker, so I decided to start doing that since it was something I did in rugby,” Sellwood explained. “After awhile, I learned that I could kick the ball very well. Playing for the first time, I thought football was crazy. During my first couple of high school games I was completely lost. I had no idea what the rules were or what was going on.”
Sellwood also said football games seemed to last a long time at first.
“Football took like three hours a game," he said. "Rugby is a short game, just under an hour and a half. Football has a lot of stops and starts, so that took a lot of getting used to; and then there were all of these pads and a helmet to wear. I was wondering what was going on, but it soon grew on me.”
Over the next two years, Sellwood developed into one of the best kickers in the state. He earned all-state honorable mention recognition as a senior and led the region with an average of 42.8 yards per punt.
Sellwood also participated in a couple of sports he was more familiar with, soccer and track & field, earning all-state accolades in both. His second-place finish in the shot put and his third-place performance in the high jump led Judge Memorial to the 3A state track title.
Sellwood was drawing the attention of several college recruiters, but the sport he had barely learned was quickly becoming his best option at the next level.
“I went to a couple of kicking camps, and all of the sudden I was getting recruited by coach Jay Hill to come play here at Utah,” Sellwood recalled. “I came and watched a few games and thought it would be cool to play here. I always have loved soccer, but I thought life was taking me towards football, so I chose to play college football instead of pursue soccer further.”
The Utah coaches redshirted Sellwood his first year, giving him the opportunity to learn from All-American punter/place kicker Louie Sakoda.
“I didn’t really know how big college football was here, even while I was getting recruited,” Sellwood said. “College football is almost identical to playing professional soccer or rugby back in South Africa. When I got here, Louie showed me the ropes and helped mentor me during the Sugar Bowl year. I was always impressed by his work ethic. He worked really hard and taught me to do the same, to always strive to be the best.”
Sellwood implemented the lessons learned from Sakoda immediately. As a redshirt freshman, Sellwood was named a Freshman All-American by Rivals.com and Phil Steele.
He has continued to progress, and Sellwood was named to multiple watch lists entering the 2012 season, including the Ray Guy award presented to the nation’s top punter.
“It has been exciting for me,” Sellwood said. “As a player, you always focus on making the team better, but also being the best at your position. It is cool to get recognition for that and to achieve the goals I set for myself every year.”
Sellwood has had a great senior year so far. He was selected as the CBSsports.com Midseason All-America Team punter. He is averaging 48.4 yards per punt, which would place him second in the nation if he had enough punts to be ranked. He was also ranked either first or second in the nation in punt average for the first nine weeks of the season. During his career, Sellwood has 50 career punts of 50-plus yards – with 14 already this season – tying him with Sakoda for the school record.
Once his senior season concludes, Sellwood plans to pursue a career in football before attending medical school.
“I’m fortunate to have had the support from family, friends and coaches here at Utah,” Sellwood concluded. “I have made many lifelong friends and my family has shown me tremendous support. They come watch me every week, and my dad has practiced with me for hours without end. This has truly been a great experience.”
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company