Shepparton News

Rocked by crowded house


- By Zac Standish

The jealousy levels of sporting fans across lockdown-struck Victoria hit new highs last week after viral footage broke of hundreds of thousands of college football fans packing out stadiums in the United States to mark the beginning of a new season.

Whether it was the 110,000 Michigan supporters belting out The Killers classic Mr Brightside or Virginia Tech fans deliriousl­y welcoming their team onto the field to the tune of Metallica’s Enter Sandman — it seemed as if coronaviru­s was a thing of the past and life was once again back to normal.

For us Victorians, stuck within the bounds of our own homes, these were scenes that were hard to comprehend and would have had many thinking — what is it like to experience such an incredible sporting atmosphere?

One man who can answer that question is Kyabram’s own Tom Sheldon, who in 2016 made the journey to North Carolina University to become a college football punter for two seasons.

An extremely talented footballer and vital part of his hometown Bombers’ senior side, he explained why he chose to take the plunge and trade leather for pigskin.

“I was always a reasonably good kick of the footy and I saw a few other guys doing it, including my brother Jack, who also plays for Kyabram, so I started going down to this program called Pro-kick with him and just started having a bit of a kick,” Sheldon said.

“Then the guys over there, who are Nathan Chapman and John Smith, said ‘if you want to have a crack too we reckon we can get you to North Carolina’ — so I had a bit of a think about it and thought ‘why not?’ and then six months later I was on the plane heading to America.”

Heading to a college which has produced sporting greats the ilk of Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and Lawrence Taylor, the then 26-year-old from Kyabram described the feeling of walking onto campus at North Carolina for the first time and adjusting to life as a student-athlete.

“There was definitely a mixture between excitement and nerves, I remember the first time I got there and it was definitely excitement because it is all new — going for a walk around the joint you could feel the history of the stadium and all the buildings, it was just a surreal feeling,” he said.

“The student-athlete concept is a bit of a weird combo to be honest, you are there as a full-time athlete, but you have to tick this criteria of having to pass these classes as well which are completely separate to why you are there.

“It is a bit of a strange dynamic, but it is good and is something that takes your mind off the punting side of things and it was fun seeing all of these sporting stars in class with you.”

Winning the position as the team’s starting punter, Sheldon said the culture behind college football was simply incredible as he was quickly immersed in what it meant to represent a school like North Carolina. “Down in the south, football is massive and the atmosphere itself is a bit hard to describe. I had a lot of mates come over and you’d play the game in front of a packed stadium and then after it there would be a bit of a carnival atmosphere with all of the bars and restaurant­s full of life,” Sheldon said.

“I certainly loved every minute of it and it is an experience that is hard to put into words, that is how unique and special it is.”

Used to playing in front of crowds of 500-600 at Kyabram Recreation Reserve, he said it certainly took a bit of adjusting preparing to play in front of 75,000 at the Keenan Memorial Stadium.

“It is really nerve-racking to be honest. I remember the first game we played was a big season opener on national television and it was at the Georgia Dome with 80,000 and it really was just sickening in the lead up,” he said.

“Even little things like catching the ball from the snap, you just had these doubts that crept into your mind — but once the game started and you got that first kick away, as long as it was a good one, you really came to enjoy that atmosphere and embrace it.

“Days like heading to Virginia Tech and seeing the crowd going nuts to the Metallica song, you had people spitting on your back from the crowd and this wall of noise and people jumping, it made the stadium shake — it was intimidati­ng, but also just surreal to be a part of.”

Reflecting back on his time playing with North Carolina, Sheldon said it was a time of his life he will never forget.

“It was a once in a lifetime experience really and something you wouldn’t change, it is all a bit of a blur now and it comes and goes pretty quick — but it was unbelievab­le fun and something I am very happy I did.”

 ?? Picture: Jeffrey A. Camarati ?? An incredible experience: Tom Sheldon reflects on his time playing college football for North Carolina.
Picture: Jeffrey A. Camarati An incredible experience: Tom Sheldon reflects on his time playing college football for North Carolina.

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