At age 26, Mitch McCarthy is not quite your typical college student. Born in Australia, he worked his way up through the Australian rules football system, hoping ultimately to play in the pro-level Australia Football League. He also gave basketball a try (including a semester at a Los Angeles-area high school) with the possibility of earning a Division I scholarship—as well as competing in his homeland in athletics (track and field). After injuries waylaid his Australian football career, becoming a punter at the collegiate level in America emerged as an option—and the placement process in his home country somewhat randomly brought him to UCF. Now in his second season as the Knights’ top punter, he’s still learning the ropes—both in terms of NCAA rules and American culture. Here’s the story of his journey:
I’m from Melbourne in the southeast part of Australia – actually from the town of Frankston, Victoria, kind of a suburb of Melbourne. There’s big Aussie rules football culture there—rugby is more popular in the rest of Australia. The best comparison here is Alabama football where everyone lives and breathes football—that’s the way it is with Aussie rules football in Victoria.
Most boys give footy a shot, starting with a program called Auskick—I started when I was about 5. It’s a grassroots kind of approach. They teach the fundamentals and give you drills. It’s the under-9s when you can start playing football, but it’s ‘bump’ football where if you get ‘bumped’ or hit twice on the shoulder twice it’s a turnover. Once you get to under-11s it’s tackling, full contact. Then you work your way up through representative teams and state sides and all that.
I was always doing three sports—athletics (800 meters, 1,500 meters and high jump), basketball and football. I did all that until ninth grade and then I cut out athletics. When I got to age 17, I picked basketball and cut out football. I wanted a chance to play Division I basketball, so that’s when I came to the States for high school for a time to learn the basketball sporting culture.
Someone said to me, “Have you ever thought about doing college in America?” My response was, “What’s that?” I didn’t know what that was. The guy who asked me the question had contacts in the States. He planted the seed. I started going to some camps, and before I knew it I had three or four offers to play basketball in America. There’s a company called AUSA Hoops run by a couple of guys from Sydney. So, before I came over here, one of the opportunities I had was at Loyola Marymount, and they wanted to put me at a school in California where they had ties. That’s how I ended up at Village Christian School in Los Angeles.
I got halfway through the year at Village Christian, and I missed my family, I missed home. I was excited about it, but I had to make up so many academic units. I had five classes in person and four more online. Plus, all the basketball practice. I was just drained—exhausted all the time. I burnt out really quickly. I just couldn’t do it all. I mentioned this to my old football coach in Australia, and he said, “You know you’re always welcome back here.” He started telling AFL recruiters back there that maybe now was the time to snag me. I had two AFL teams call me and tell me they had a contract on the table if I wanted to come back.
I started playing under-18 with the Dandenong Stingrays and then a couple of games with Vic (Victoria) Country, the state team—but then I broke my foot. I was projected to go top 30 in the national draft, but as soon as I broke my foot I missed the next 12 games. Fifteen of 18 (AFL) clubs came to my house to interview me—which was massive. But almost all of them backed off by the end of the process because of my foot. I fell all the way through the national draft and ended up the seventh pick in the rookie draft. I went to play for Collingwood Reserves, a pro team in the Victoria Football League—kind of like the NBA G League here in pro basketball.
I was training in the professional environment for a year and a half and then I got cut. The doctors basically said my foot wouldn’t hold up. You have to be able to run about eight miles a game and you’ve got to be able to give hits, take hits, kick, catch and pass. Everyone has to be capable of the same skills. The thing I lacked was game IQ because I hadn’t played in three or four years. I was rusty—if you’re not in the right spot you’re not going to get the ball. You have to find the football to make plays. I was an athletic, jumping player and they didn’t think I would last. I got cut on my 19th birthday, which was not very nice.
I went to the next level below, to keep playing football. I played two years at Frankston, my hometown. After the second year, I had two pro clubs call and say they wanted to draft me, to re-draft me again. By then I was healthy again and I was maybe top three or four at my position for that year. I had some interviews, but I did not get drafted. Once you get out, it’s hard to get back in—they prefer to pick someone younger. I moved to a bigger program. But then Covid hit and I had problems with my knee, had surgery, and couldn’t run or jump. It was agonizing pain.
So that’s why I’m here. I still wanted to play sport at a high level. I can’t run, can’t jump, can’t be what I used to be--so I come into a sport where it’s just linear: catch, walk, kick. I get to go to Oklahoma and play in front of 80,000 (fans) which I wouldn’t have done back home.