How the 49ers' Mitch Wishnowsky punted his Sunday night blues

Mitch Wishnowsky used to hate Sunday nights. For some they signal the start of a new week, but for the 49ers punter -- who left behind his life as a glazier in Western Australia to chase his dream of becoming an NFL punter -- they marked the beginning of the end.

"Every Sunday night, I would dread going to work. I was like 'S---, another five days until I can actually enjoy my life!' I didn't enjoy my job and I didn't love Sunday nights," Wishnowsky tells ESPN.

Things have changed quickly for the 27-year-old and so have his Sunday night routines. Last weekend Wishnowsky played an important role in San Francisco's 37-8 demolition of the Green Bay Packers. Yet you wouldn't know it by his body language.

With San Francisco up 23-0 in the third quarter, Wishnowsky took the field to punt the ball from his own end zone. His 51-yard strike was returned for negative yardage, and while his special-teams colleagues celebrated wildly downfield, the Aussie walked off without fanfare. There was no fist pump, and there was certainly no swagger. He simply strolled off as if nothing had happened.

His reason for doing so? "Well the benches are heated," he says with a laugh. "It's basically just get out onto the field and get back onto the bench!"

Wishnowsky is a humble man in a world where self-aggrandizement is the norm. In the wake of the victory over the Packers, Wishnowsky's teammate Richard Sherman was asked if it bothered him that his hair covered the name on his jersey. Within a flash he replied, "I think they know my name by now!"

Despite their differences, Wishnowsky and Sherman are both deep thinkers and have bonded over those tendencies.

"It's really cool to have somebody with just a different way of speaking, a different way of approaching life and seeing things," Sherman says. "He's such a cool, down-to-earth guy, I haven't seen him have a bad game yet."

When asked what slang he had taken from Wishnowsky, Sherman quipped, "Nothing other than 'my mates' -- obviously that's clichéd but that's the only bit. Especially when I'm talking to Mitch, I'll say 'What up, mate?'"

Wishnowsky's journey toward a punting career began in inconspicuous fashion after he was spotted by Curtin Saints gridiron coach Craig Wilson. He was convinced to play wide receiver for the local side while also dabbling in punts. He had punted in only two or three games before he received a phone call that would forever change his life.

During a late-night fishing expedition in 2013, Wishnowsky was relaxing -- until his phone rang. It was John Smith, head kicking coach at Prokick Australia. Smith had received Wishnowsky's details from Wilson.

"It would've been 10 p.m., so 11 p.m. in Melbourne. I answered the phone and he said, 'Mate, Johnny Smith [here] -- are you done f---ing about in Bali?'"

Wishnowsky had recently contracted dengue fever on a trip to Bali, leaving him unable to play contact sport for several weeks.

"It was the first time I'd ever spoken to him! I was like 'Sorry, who's this?' He said, 'John Smith, Prokick Australia, if you let me, I'll change your life.'"

"I said, 'Um all right' -- he was almost yelling at me to move to Melbourne and [said] 'We'll send you to America.'"

Smith and colleague Nathan Chapman made good on their promise, sending Wishnowsky on to Santa Barbara City College and Utah before his arrival at Levi's Stadium.

Despite being taken in the fourth round in the 2019 draft -- 110th overall, the highest-drafted punter in seven years -- Wishnowsky remains relatively anonymous in the Bay Area. He lives with his fiancée, Maddy Leiphardt, in San Jose, just 12 km from Levi's Stadium.

A life without constant recognition suits the Prokick product, who prefers to "put the feet up," play video games and relax with his partner. Sampling the high life like many of his teammates is simply not his style.

The former Utah punter signed a four-year, $3.28 million contract in May but still likes to enjoy a humble existence. He drives a Jeep Cherokee and has even found a solution to the lack of quality coffee, an issue plaguing many Australians across the Pacific.

"The trick is get a triple espresso on ice and add the [free] milk," he says. "A triple iced latte will cost you six bucks, but this costs $2.70."

Within the season it is difficult to have downtime, with Tuesdays the only day off for the 10-1 49ers. Wishnowsky's typical Tuesday involves either playing FIFA on his PS4 or a game of volleyball with Leiphardt.

He has always held a competitive streak -- he represented Western Australia in soccer during his youth and also took out a major state billiards tournament aged 12.

While the pair use an imaginary net for their volleyball duels, Wishnowsky insists upon a scoring system. "What's the point of playing if we don't keep score? It gets quite competitive, there's plenty of trash talk," he says.

Those close to Wishnowsky rave about his hardworking nature but say he's always looking to have fun and play games when the opportunity arises.

Hazing is a rite of passage most NFL rookies endure, but Wishnowsky has luckily escaped the bad haircuts, carrying of veterans' bags and paying for exorbitant dinners. But the initiation song -- where first-year players are required to stand up and sing on the bus to the airport for their first away game -- was one he could not avoid. However, Wishnowsky had a plan -- to pick a song where he wouldn't be singing on his own for long. His choice? None other than "Hero" by Enrique Iglesias. According to Leiphardt, Wishnowsky possesses "brilliant" vocal cords and his teammates seemed to agree, joining in until the song's end.

On the field, Wishnowsky has also made an impact. He has averaged just 3.27 punts this season (ranked 27th in the NFL), but his importance hasn't been lost on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

"Mitch is awesome, he really is. He's so different from all of the punters I've met in the past -- just the mentality he brings to the game," Garoppolo says.

"I mean at kickoffs, you can tell he's itching to get a hit in there! He wants to, but the coaches try and lean him away from that. He's an awesome dude in the locker room too, which makes it even better."

Despite his relaxed nature, Wishnowsky admits he felt the weight of his draft number in the preseason. Since then, he has dealt with it and thrived. Nerves are unavoidable every time he steps onto the field, but the anxiety doesn't originate from a place of doubt, rather a burning desire to help his team.

The mental side of performing is pivotal to Wishnowsky's success and he will often be found in the "brain room" at the 49ers' performance facility, a place where athletes try to train their brain to relax and better handle any anxiety. There, Wishnowsky will watch Netflix while hooked up to sensors that monitor his theta and beta brainwaves. Theta signals are higher in meditative states, whereas beta signals are more prevalent during times of alertness or high anxiety.

"When your beta goes too high and your theta gets too low, Netflix will stop and you have to get them back to a good level," he says. "You're almost subconsciously training yourself because every second it stops, it'll glitch. So your brain is going 'OK, if I want to watch Netflix I need to learn to keep my beta low and theta high.'"

Wishnowsky's beta signals will spike come Sunday as he and the 49ers face off against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens in a potential preview to Super Bowl LIV.

San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan praised Wishnowsky ahead of the team's biggest game of the season, citing his skill set as crucial to victory on the East Coast.

"Oh, Mitch has been huge, I mean that's why we spent a high draft pick on him to get him here," Shanahan says.

"He's been exactly what we've hoped for, if not better, and he's getting better as the year goes. He'll be a big one [factor] here this Sunday 'cause going against a running team like this, field position is a big deal. The better teams you play, the better your special teams better be."

Irrespective of the result, Wishnowsky will indulge in his postmatch ritual of "putting the feet up" and having "a couple of cold ones." However, once the playoffs arrive, he is willing to put the Corona Lights on ice in exchange for a shot at ultimate success in Miami come Feb. 3.

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