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Eric Vander Voort | | January 8, 2015

Unlikely conversion

CJ LarosLaros has averaged 41.8 yards per punt this season.
FRISCO, Texas -- CJ Laros had not picked up a football before the age of 16.

He was a versatile athlete, playing soccer from a young age, moving on to rugby as he got older, as well as playing some cricket in his native Canberra, the capital of Australia. But football didn’t appeal to him, and he resisted a friends’ request to join him on the gridiron, partially because of some of the stereotypes he and his fellow rugby players had about the sport.

“I didn’t really want to play [football],” Laros said. “I didn’t want to strap on pads and a helmet and look like a sissy.”

But eventually he gave in to his friends incessant urging and gave football a try. It didn’t take long for him to convert.

“I decided to give it a go, and kind of fell in love with it,” Laros said.

He joined the Canberra Centurions Gridiron club as a punter. Two years later, he was punting in U.S. And now, four years into his college career, he will play for a national championship when his Illinois State Redbirds take on three-time defending champion North Dakota State in Saturday’s FCS championship game.

As it turns out, it was the need for helmets and pads that kept Laros around the game, instead of what was keeping him away.

“Just the contact,” Laros said on what made him fall for football. “It’s a whole different game. I kind of got a little bored of rugby, and it’s different for me.”

Watching football on ESPN while in Australia, he started to dream of coming to the U.S. to play. Once he was told he had potential to succeed in the sport, he knew that was the direction he wanted to go. Those dreams started to come much closer to reality when Illinois State’s Missouri Valley rival Western Illinois was recruiting him. When that didn’t work out, he still found a way to come across the Pacific Ocean to play college football. Laros landed at Citrus College, a community college in Glendora, California.

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Laros stayed there for two years, appearing in 21 games. He pinned a punt inside the 20-yard line 10 times in his sophomore season when he averaged 41.1 yards per punt. He set a school record for longest punt with a 75-yarder.

That got him attention from bigger schools again -- including Illinois State.

“Really good job by [special teams coordinator] Jake [Schoonover] going out and finding a guy out on the west coast,” Illinois State head coach Brock Spack said.But with one punting spot and two candidates, the Redbirds had to make a decision. Laros’ athleticism, which can be traced back to his time playing soccer and rugby, gave him the edge.

“It came down to him and another punter, we really liked his athleticism,” Spack said. “He’s a great athlete and he hasn’t disappointed. He’s been tremendous.”

Laros made an immediate impact in his first season in Normal, being the team’s lone punter in all 11 games. Against Missouri State, he averaged 49.1 yards on seven punts, including a 63-yarder. That performance earned him CFPA National Punter of the Week honors. In all, he placed 28 of 70 attempts in his junior season inside the 20-yard line.

This season, he has bumped his average up to 41.8 on 56 attempts, pinning 17 of those inside the 20 with 18 resulting in a fair catch and six in a touchback. His longest punt at Illinois State is a 72-yarder, and he had another career day at Missouri State where he averaged 46.7 yards on six punts. Laros’ senior season earned him a spot on the all-Missouri Valley Conference second team.

After Saturday’s championship game, Laros has his eyes set on the next level -- bringing his game to the National Football League.

“I’ll try for the NFL this year,” Laros said. “If not, I’ll try again. I’ll see how it goes.”

Even when Laros is gone, the Aussie connection at Illinois State isn’t going anywhere. Reece Attard, currently redshirting after transferring from Division III Husson, is from Werribee, Australia.

But before Attard takes over and Laros attempts to make the NFL, he still has one more chance to step onto the field in a Redbirds uniform: Saturday’s matchup against North Dakota State, which has made a habit out of winning in Frisco.

The Redbirds are confident about their chances against the team they shared the MVC title with this season, with both teams going 7-1 in the league without playing each other. The phrase “pack of mutts” comes up often around this Illinois State team because of the mix of personalities and backgrounds, but the cohesion and chemistry they have is clear. While Laros is far from home, he’s found another home here.

“We’re really a group of brothers,” Laros said.

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