LOS ANGELES -- Wade Lees, a graduate transfer from Maryland who is believed to be the second-oldest player in major college football, arrived at UCLA this summer with what might be considered its most zigzagging journey.
The 31-year-old punter has been around so long that his former Terrapins teammates called him "The Godfather," a reference to his being a decade older than some players and nearly as old as some coaches during his three years in College Park, Md.
His new teammates haven't given him any good-natured grief, though the only Bruin born when Terry Donahue was still coaching the team might want to gird himself for the possibility.
"I feel like I got to get to know someone more," sophomore quarterback Austin Burton said, "before I make an old man joke."
Now he's vying for a shot at the NFL after switching schools for his final audition.
The death of Maryland's Jordan McNair last year and the resulting brouhaha that led to the firing of coach DJ Durkin created an uneasy uncertainty.
Lees was also seeking to relocate to Los Angeles because it's closer to home and could be a lucrative landing spot if he doesn't make it in professional football.
"It's just like this is the mecca for everything here," Lees said, noting the possibilities in the entertainment industry.
His big break as UCLA's likely starting punter came as a result of Stefan Flintoft's departure after last season.
Lees brings impressive credentials, having twice landed on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award that goes to the nation's top college punter. He booted a 67-yard punt against Michigan State last season and completed a pass for a first down on a fake punt during the Terrapins' upset bid against Ohio State that fell short in overtime.
Lees was once a prospect for the Australian Football League before Australian customs in 2012 intercepted a package containing a fat-burner from the United States that Lees said he ordered to reduce skin folds after gaining weight following surgery. The supplement contained a banned steroid and officials suspended Lees for 18 months even though he never took it and said he was unaware that it contained an illicit substance.
His interest in American football was sparked the following year during a trip to the United States after driving to Tampa, Fla., to watch an NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lees had no way of knowing that day that the Eagles' coach, Chip Kelly, would eventually become his coach at UCLA.
When Lees watched a college football game on television the same weekend, he saw former Australian rules player Cameron Johnston punting for Ohio State before 105,000 fans.
"I was like, man, I want to do this," recalled Lees, who was 25 at the time.
It wasn't going to be easy. Lees sent a Facebook message to Johnston, an acquaintance who connected him with Nathan Chapman, the owner of an Australian kicking academy that had helped send a slew of punters to U.S. colleges.
Lees trained with Chapman for more than two years as part of a whirlwind existence. He helped care for his mother and worked full time in his construction job while trying to gain college eligibility after having long abandoned his high school studies.
The pursuit would involve obtaining his general equivalency degree and completing college coursework, if he could find a college that would accept him.
He was rejected by three schools before finally enrolling at Deakin University in Melbourne upon touting his life experience as an Aussie rules player to gain entry into a sports management program. His studies sometimes kept him up until 4 in the morning.
His mother and his wife-to-be, Caitlin, helped him train by feeding a ball-launching machine set up in the backyard and chasing down his punts at a local park.
It was enough for Lees to draw preliminary interest from Michigan and Clemson before Maryland offered a scholarship. Lees arrived in College Park before the 2016 season as a 28-year-old freshman, leading to some barbs that haven't followed him across the country.
"A few times at Maryland, you'd caught a bit of stick here or there about being older," Lees said, "but I haven't had anything from these guys [at UCLA]. These guys are all about ball."
Lees found an apartment about 15 minutes from campus that he shares with Caitlin. The couple got married in Hawaii last month, but the groom cut short the honeymoon by three days so that he could resume workouts with his new teammates.
Said Wade: "Luckily, she was understanding. But I promised a trip to Mexico or something at the end of the year."
Said Caitlin: "He better come good on that."
Sports on 08/18/2019
Print Headline: 'Godfather' Lees, 31, to punt for UCLA