For the Aussie-born 29-year old real estate developer, being stuck in a mental rut and wedding planning was only the tip of the iceberg towards a brand-new life that eventually landed him in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
His professional soccer career had stopped kicking, his job was no longer fulfilling, he was about to turn 30 – so what’s next?
Why not play college football? A sport he knew absolutely nothing about, but James Stefanou cares not for such petty quarrels, he just wanted to kick the hell out of something.
Two years later, Stefanou is a 31-year-old sophomore at Colorado and the football team’s starting field-goal kicker. Nearly 9,000 miles from his home of Melbourne, Australia, Stefanou is the oldest player in FBS, although, to him, age is merely a number.
“I might be 31,” Stefanou says in a thick Australian accent, “but I’m pretty young at heart. It doesn’t feel different at all for me. I’ve always been a little like that. You can call it immature if you’d like, but I just like being one of the boys.”
Sure, this is a fun college story, I mean the Aussie kicker regularly boots 60-year field goals in practice and is about a decade older than his teammates.
But is this just a fun story for James? Or is there more to this?
For James, this is far more than just a quick trip to the states for a few pints and a few laughs. He hopes to kick in the NFL someday, and it’s not that far-fetched of an idea.
“He can absolutely kick professionally,” says Nathan Chapman of Prokick Australia, the punting and kicking academy that groomed and helped place Stefanou at Colorado. “He’s got the ability to do it, but he’s got to put runs on the board. Sports are not always a fairy tale.”
“He’s got a big enough leg, and he’s accurate,” Chapman adds. “So why wouldn’t he be given a chance?”
American football has only been a part of James’ life for a few years, but he’s no novice to professional sports or kicking spherically shaped objects around a plot of green grass.
Since childhood, he’s had a passion for soccer – he grew up a fan of Manchester United and as a player earned a spot on the Australia U19 team when he was just 17. He eventually played professionally for South Melbourne FC and Heidelberg United FC as a defender.
Groin injuries hampered his play, although Stefanou kept at it through his late 20s. Throughout the stints of rehab and comebacks, however, a familiar voice was always there, hoping to steer him in another direction.
Johnny Smith, who works with Chapman at Prokick Australia, was convinced Stefanou had a future in American football. Over the years, Stefanou would stop by Prokick and dabble with the idea of switching sports.
“We have a phrase in Prokick for the older guys,” Smith says. “Ticktock. Because time is the enemy … I finally asked him: ‘Are you gonna f–king do this or not? You need to take that God-given talent and put it in the arena, in the environment that it needs to be in.'”
In October of 2016, Stefanou began training with Prokick. What stuck out initially, according to his coaches, wasn’t necessarily his natural power but how much elevation he got on his kicks—making his field goals and point-after attempts nearly impossible to block.
Eventually, “Ticktock” was receiving interest from Maryland, Houston, Hawaii and Colorado. While Hawaii was intriguing, Stefanou worried “it would’ve been too much of a holiday all the time.”
After researching Colorado through Google, Stefanou was sold on the school and the city of Boulder. In July of 2017, two weeks after Laura and he were married, the two uprooted their lives and traveled nearly 9,000 miles to their new home.
“When he first got here, you could tell he was a talented athlete,” Colorado holder Josh Goldin says. “He just kicks the crap out of the ball. The noise it makes when it comes off his foot is something different. I’ve seen him hit from 65 yards in practice. He can really boot it.”
In his first season, Stefanou converted on 17 of 22 field goals (77.3 percent), including a 53-yarder, and made all 35 of his extra points. This year, Stefanou has connected on five of his seven field goals; he’s also hit all 20 of his extra points, making him a perfect 55-of-55 for his career.
James seems to have a solid chance at an NFL spot at some point in his future, at the very least he’ll have an incredible story to tell when it’s all said-and-done.
He’s been playing football shorter than Trump has been in office, so I’d say the sky is the limit for this destroyer of footballs.
“People continuously ask: ‘How old are you? How old are you? Should you be playing college football? It doesn’t bother me,” Stefanou says. “Come beat me then. If you’re better than me, come beat me.
“If you’re good enough, you’re good enough.”