If they need a poster boy on how attending a community college can be a springboard to a brighter future, Mitch Wishnowsky is an ideal candidate.
Wishnowsky was enrolled at Santa Barbara City College back in 2014-15, played one season of football for the Vaqueros, and met his fianceé there.
On Sunday, the native of Australia will be playing in one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, serving as the punter, kicker and place-kick holder for the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium.
“I told the team, when he first got here, that this is a guy who has the talent to play on Sunday,” SBCC football coach Craig Moropoulos said of Wishnowsky when he arrived in Santa Barbara from Australia to begin his quest to make it as a punter in American football. “I had no idea that he would be playing Sunday against the Chiefs in the pinnacle game in our sport.”
The 27-year-old rookie’s journey to football’s biggest stage is like a movie script, which includes meeting his dream girl.
Wishnowsky met Dos Pueblos High alum Maddie Leiphardt, who was a standout indoor and beach volleyball player at SBCC and later went on to play beach volleyball at Cal State Northridge and Loyola Marymount.
The couple is now engaged.
Leiphardt will join Wishnowsky’s mother, father, sister and a mate from Perth at the game, he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“It’s been a dream year,” the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Wishnowsky said in an interview with the Brisbane Times. “I don’t think there’s been a year that has matched it. I can’t complain.”
When he takes the field in Miami, Wishnowsky will make history by becoming the first SBCC student athlete to play in the Super Bowl.
Santa Barbara was represented in Super Bowl LI by San Marcos High alum Alex Mack. He was the starting center for the Atlanta Falcons in their 34-28 loss to the New England Patriots.
Wishnowsky’s 2014 all-conference and all-state season at SBCC was his first playing organized tackle football. He played Aussie Rules Football, rugby and soccer, and participated in flag football with friends while living Down Under and working as a glazier, a glass installation specialist.
“I played as a wide receiver, but in between games we’d mess around and punt a ball back and forth. I’ve always had a strong leg,” Wishnowsky told the AFP news agency.
The skills he gained from the other sports have been key to his success at making it in the NFL.
“I think soccer helps me kick off, that muscle memory from kicking a soccer ball, and then the muscle memory from Aussie Rules helps me punt for sure,” he told Reuters. “There are a lot of different punts you have to be able to do back home playing Aussie Rules, you can make it curve if you are kicking for a goal. There’s ways to manipulate the ball’s flight.”
The 49ers were so impressed by his punting that they took him in the fourth round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of the University of Utah, where he was a three-time All American and won the Ray Guy Award as the best punter in college football in 2016.
“He’s a really good kid,” 49ers’ special teams coach Richard Hightower told the AFP. “The fact that he hasn’t had anything given to him and had to work hard, that he never wants a pat on the back — that’s why I think he’s been successful. He’s a pro’s pro.”
Asked if he considered playing the athletic Wishnowsky at another position while at SBCC, Moropoulos said: “I did not want to jeopardize his special talent, but he probably could have been a heck of a tight end or fullback.”
Wishnowsky left his home in Perth and made his way to Santa Barbara after attending ProKick Australia, an academy for aspiring punters in the city of Melbourne. Several other Aussie punters in the NFL and college football have followed the same path.
Wishnowsky will become the second Aussie to play in the Super Bowl. Ben Graham punted for the Arizona Cardinals that lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2009 Super Bowl.
“There aren’t many Aussies that have played in the Super Bowl,” Wishnowsky told Australia’s Wide World of Sports. “I’m really proud to be one of the few and it’ll be cool to kick it off.”
Wishnowsky became a cool dude to his 49er teammates after leveling Devontae Jackson of the Denver Broncos on a kickoff return during a preseason game in August. Video
After the big hit, the 49ers made a request to EASports that it raise Wishnowsky’s tackle rating of 36 on its MaddenNFL game.
Wishnowsky was recognized for his punting during the regular season by being named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his Week 9 performance in a win over Arizona.
In that game, he booted five punts for 231 yards (46.2 average) and put three of them inside the Arizona 20-yard line. The punts inside the 20 were returned for a mere 5.7 yards per return.
After the 49ers beat the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game two weeks ago at Levis Stadium in Santa Clara to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 25 years, Wishnowsky told reporters he couldn’t get over the enormity of the accomplishment, especially in his rookie season.
“It is crazy to think about,” he said. “After the game on the weekend, we went out for dinner with friends and family, and I thought about it then. But now at this point, the way I’m looking at it is just another game – beat the Kansas City Chiefs.
“That will be something I’ll reflect on hopefully after the Super Bowl, but at the moment I’m trying to think of it as just another game.”
Moropoulos said Wishnowsky’s humility is something he’ll always remember.
“He is, arguably, the most humble big-time athlete that I have had the privilege to work with,” the coach said. “So very happy for him, and extremely proud of what he has accomplished in a very short time.”
— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.