IN the National Football League, they call it ''kicking for distance,'' or gross punting average. At the end of the NFL's regular season, punter Darren Bennett of the San Diego Chargers was second in the league, averaging 44.7 yards per kick. That won him a slot in the Pro Bowl in Honolulu Feb. 4 (ABC, 6-9 p.m. EST). He had led the league most of the season.
But gross yardage doesn't begin to describe the distance Bennett has come as a punter. For Bennett is a rookie from Perth, Australia, who had never even attended an NFL game until three years ago. A 12-year veteran of the Australian Football League, where they play a variant of Gaelic football and rugby, Bennett has made a swift transition to the American game.
At first glance, he's not unusual. At 6 ft., 5 in. and 235 pounds, he's a typical NFL behemoth. But on meeting him, there's no mistaking his origins. ''G'day, mate,'' he offers with a huge handshake and a grin.
Bennett is a friendly man with a broad range of interests and a penchant for travel. His parents now live in Hong Kong, where his father works as a computer consultant. He spent a year after high school working as a technician for his father. But his first love was football, and he began playing semi-professionally at age 16. After 10 years with Perth and Melbourne pro teams, he retired in 1993.
''My legs were giving out,'' he says, ''what with all that slogging up and down in the muddy fields. I began looking at other career options. Playing in the NFL was something I felt I owed myself to try.''
Bennett's first exposure to American football came via television in the early 1980s when Australian stations began to broadcast the sport. ''Probably the first time I paid attention to the NFL was when a friend threw a Super Bowl party,'' he recalls.
In 1989, his own athletic career began to unfold globally. At halftime of the Grand Final championship game of the Australian Football League, a World Super Kick contest featured the top punters from rugby, soccer, and the American, Australian, and Gaelic football leagues. Bennett kicked for the Australians, and came in second. (The Gaelic kicker was first.)
Later that year, he played in an Australian-rules exhibition game in Toronto. At halftime, there was a kicking contest between Bennett and the punter for the Canadian Football League's Toronto Argonauts. Bennett won, and the CFL punter encouraged him to give the North American sport a try. In 1993, Bennett won yet another kicking contest in Australia. His prize was a pair of airline tickets to Los Angeles. About to marry, he suggested to his fiancee, Rosemary, that they make the voyage their honeymoon.
The trip turned into a working vacation. Bennett arranged a tryout with Bobby Beathard, general manager of the San Diego Chargers, who sent him back to Australia with an instructional video. Bennett found an American-rules football league where he could practice punting in the face of rushing linemen. Then it was back to the Chargers for training camp and a year on the practice squad, followed by a season with Amsterdam in the World League. This past season, Bennett earned a spot on the Chargers' roster.
Despite his impressive gross punting average, his development as an American football player is far from complete. ''I need to work on my directional punting,'' he acknowledges.
When the Chargers played the Cleveland Browns Dec. 3, Bennett was in typical form. He boomed punts of 44 and 53 yards into the end zone, boosting his stats in kicking for distance, but losing net yardage as the ball came out to the 20-yard-line.
Chuck Priefer, the Chargers' special-teams coach, offered encouragement: ''Sure, he hit a couple of his pooch punts [kicks intended to fall short of the end zone] too strong. But he's progressed much faster than I thought he would, and I think he's going to get better.''
Some of the skills Bennett developed in the Australian game transfer well to American football. ''There's his leg strength,'' notes Priefer, ''plus the fact that he's used to playing before large crowds.''
Bennett adds, ''There's also the experience of being part of a team. Over here, the punter can feel very isolated, but I've grown up kicking as a full-fledged member of a team. My desire to help the team is stronger than my desire to do well personally.''
Bennett demonstrated his value to the team in an unexpected way early in the season when Pittsburgh Steeler punt-returner Andre Hastings broke though the defense and seemed headed for a touchdown. Bennett brought him down with a clothesline tackle.
When not playing football, Bennett pursues his interests in computers and communication. He has set up a home page with a friend on the Internet. Twice a week, he writes a diary of his experiences for fans in the US and Australia.
He answers all of his messages personally, he says, and plans to compile a book from the diary. On the business card he hands a reporter is a kangaroo and a football along with his Internet address: http://www.webcom.com/~pagnews/darren.html. It reads, ''Darren & Rosemary Bennett: DARREN'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE.''