Almanac (Footy) History: The Legend of Des Ley -1970s Superboot

 

 

Des Ley is right when he says there are so many Australian punters now in American football that it is not a story anymore – but he is wrong if he thinks his, isn’t still a great story.

It started in 1972. Des had finished National Service and was in West Adelaide’s B-grade on Saturdays but was playing his best football for the Savings Bank of South Australia mid-week. In those days there was a healthy rivalry between financial institutions and the SBSA side included a couple of other tellers: Kevin Rowe, Russell Ebert, Eric Freeman and Malcolm Blight.

‘Geez, did we give the Commonwealth Bank boys a hiding,’ smirks Des on reflection.

Photos show he looked every bit the 1970s league footballer, wearing his black lace-up jumper with the blood-red sash, a head of rebellious hair accompanied by bristling sideburns, eyes and lantern jaw set. By his admission he was an average player except for one thing – he could kick the ball out of sight. When he dropped the ball, there was a fluid calmness … the ball briefly introduced itself to his foot, where it received a kiss and best wishes before embarking on a journey into the stratosphere.

‘I could kick it 50 metres when I was 12,’ he says without flinching. ‘No worries about that. No one ever taught me. I was a better kick than I was a footballer.’

That was more than 50 years ago but there is a sense that he could still roost one if needed. We met at his home on an afternoon where the late autumn sun streams into the sitting room. Des is reclining in a comfortable chair, sipping on a large bottle of mineral water. His long legs are crossed, and he is wearing socks and thongs that point toward the Launceston Greyhounds on television. When I produce a football, he springs out of his chair, water bottle spilling, and begins demonstrating the correct stance and grip.

‘You have to remember that you don’t have to kick it as hard as you can. Just place the ball onto your boot. It is almost like you are double de-clutching a truck, and then the ball doesn’t move.

‘I get so angry watching these guys miss shots because that is what the game is about – scoring. If they miss, they shrug and run off. That is their job! If they had that attitude in the NFL, they wouldn’t last five minutes.’

Now we have arrived at Des Ley’s 1973 American Odyssey.

The New England Patriots had an idea that recruiting an Australian might be handy on the team both as a punter and a promotional gimmick. They teamed up with newspapers across the country to run a superkick contest, where footballers of all codes were invited. Des almost missed the preliminary round after being delayed at the bank because they were $30 out at the end of the day. Organisers were packing up at the ground when he breathlessly asked if he could still kick.

‘Your name is on the list,’ said the official. ‘Have a go.’

Dean Ottens from Sturt was the clubhouse leader with an average of 72 yards when Des started looping the ball into the darkening sky. He averaged 74 yards 2 feet – with one (wind assisted) booming 85 yards 1 foot (78 metres). The next week at the state final at Norwood, he turned an ankle but still did enough to qualify for the final in Melbourne.

At this point in the story, Des lowers his voice in a way that suggests what he is about to say is significant information.

‘One thing you need to know about going in a kicking competition is that your chances increase the later you kick. That way you know what you need to achieve.’

 

 

 

The final at the MCG pitted the ten best legs from around the country. A points system was awarded for the length of kicks, time the ball was in the air, accuracy, picking up the ball and kicking on the run and for a 40-yard dash.

The Eastern Suburbs’ centre Mark Harris was an early leader, but lost form and Ley (importantly kicking seventh) reeled the field in. Between kicks, he sat on the grass next to Neil Sachse from North Adelaide who was running second. ‘Just take it easy,’ he advised. ‘If you don’t make a mistake, you will win it from here.’ The gesture of support was a boost Des never forgot. The final numbers were Ley 250, Sachse 192, Nigel Ricketts (Sandy Bay) 190, Tad Joniec (Footscray) and Wayne Walsh (Richmond) 185.

 

 

 

Des cashed the winner’s cheque for $1,000, took leave from the bank and headed to Boston where he was labeled the ‘Kangaroo Kid’. On ‘The Sports Huddle’ on radio WEEI Boston, he chatted with host Eddie Andelman and fielded calls from curious listeners. Des says Eddie reminded him of Ernie Sigley.

At the training camp at the University of Massachusetts, Des did his best to fit in. The shoulder pads didn’t bother him, but the helmet was so tight it pinched his temples. The trainer advised it needed to be snug so it wouldn’t slip around and that it would eventually wear into the shape of his head. Adjusting to kicking off just three steps took some time but soon the balls were thundering.

 

1973 New England Patriots training camp. Des Ley stretching.

 

 

It was the noise of the collisions that remains vivid in his memory. Enormous men slamming into each other in a mix of violence and timing. The machismo dripped everywhere. In a break from the sweltering heat, defensive lineman Julius Adams – a 122 kg slab of Georgian beefcake – barked over his shoulder.

‘You better get me a cup of that water Kangaroo, or you be singing again tonight.’

During the dinner buffet, it was tradition for rookies to be told to stand up and entertain the veteran players by singing a song. Des says he spent two sessions per day in the sweltering heat practicing punting and in between, rehearsing a new song.

Getting a drink for other players during practice wasn’t allowed but Des did it for Adams because he wanted to show that he was part of the team. He enjoyed listening to the banter of the black players who tended to congregate at meals. At times he lay on the floor, just listening and chuckling at their humour.

The hierarchy was dictated by position and salary with the top of the pyramid being quarterbacks. In Boston, it was Jim Plunkett who had been a number one draft pick and would later win a couple of Super Bowls with the Raiders. Once when Des was walking back from training, an orange Corvette pulled up with Plunkett behind the wheel offering a lift. They became friends and Des thinks part of Plunkett’s humility was his background which is infused with Native American and Mexican flavours. Both his parents were blind and raised three kids through struggle and defiance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Each position had multiple players with the numbers being whittled down over the summer months. There were four punters (three rookies) with the first choice being Bruce Barnes who had been drafted that year. The frustration for Des was that he didn’t get into many match situations to show what he was capable of. Once when he did get put in, Adams shouted from across the line a gruesome description of what he was going to do if they came in contact.

‘Yeah,’ replied Des in a brash response, ‘Just watch this.’ That was when the Patriots saw Des Ley Superboot uncork a kick that arced through the New England sky like a line of poetry.

The Kangaroo Kid didn’t make it for the Patriots but what followed were weeks of visits to other teams – Montreal, Washington, St Louis and Los Angeles. Des enjoyed the ride, shook hands, saw the sights, posed for curious photographers and gained the sinking sense that the idea of hiring an Australian to replace an American was not a serious proposition. In LA, he was entertained at the home of Rams’ owner Carroll Rosenbloom in Beverly Hills. The boss liked him – said he wanted to visit Australia one day and promised to bring him back the following pre-season. Des left America over the moon but the return was a fizzle. In 1974 the NFL players were on strike and the teams were in lockdown. There was not a second chance.

In life, like in kicking, timing is everything.

‘Now it’s history,’ reflects Des. ‘But the wondrous thing is that I went to these places and saw so many things and met these people.’

Over the years Des went into insurance, played footy in the country, coached Jim Jess at St Arnaud and says he still has memories and pride.

‘What was your biggest kick?’

‘Ohhh … I nudged 90 yards a few times.’

Before I leave, he picks up the remote control flicks off the dogs, and brings up a recording of a recent Adelaide versus West Coast match. He has paused it in the first quarter as Tex Walker is having a set shot for goal.

‘Watch this,’ he urges.

Walker leans forward and sizes up the task, jogs in calmly and symmetrically dobs it through. The commentator compares the action to the golfer Ernie Els. Des nods in appreciation and all but whispers, ‘Balance to the point of impact – don’t kick it as hard as you can.’

 

 

To read more by Michael Sexton click here.

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About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a freelance journo in SA. His scribblings include "The Summer of Barry", "Chappell's Last Stand" and the biography of Neil Sachse.

Comments

  1. Dr Rocket says

    Fascinating story so carefully crafted.
    Thanks Michael.

  2. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Wow, the name didn’t ring a bell, so I checked the 1972 Budgets – Des played 7 or 8 times in the Westies twos, in three separate stints that year, variously wearing #12, #13 or #14 – I wonder what he was doing on the other Saturdays, did he have a local club? The name Ley bobbed up a handful of times in 1973, but with a different initial? Brother or misprint? What did he do when he came back home?

    What a way to see the US Des.

    Another Sexton Special – thanks Mike

  3. Barry Nicholls says

    Terrific original piece, well done Mike.

  4. Bernard Whimpress says

    A great sporting sidebar. Thanks Mike.

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