“It was our off day and I had just finished working out when I got the text. I was like, ‘No way?’ Then, like an hour later, everybody started congratulating me because they had posted the roster on the website or whatever.”
Dan Whelan is recalling the moment he learned he would be the starting punter for NFL team the Green Bay Packers this year – and reflecting on his regular-season debut in last Sunday’s impressive 38-20 win at the Chicago Bears.
Originally from Enniskerry in Co Wicklow before moving as a teenager to California, the 24-year-old punter thus became the first Irish-born player in the league since Neil O’Donoghue was kicking for the St Louis Cardinals back in 1985.
To the surprise of some pundits, Whelan has supplanted nine-year veteran Pat O’Donnell for the punter position at Green Bay.
The pair had worked closely together in pre-season – and parted on very good terms.
“He actually left a pretty nice note in my locker,” says Whelan. “So then I texted him. We had a pretty good relationship so I’ll definitely be staying in contact.”
Whelan slept soundly before debut
Whelan’s NFL debut went as well as he could have dared to hope – even the night before the game when, he claims, he slept very soundly.
“Phenomenal,” he laughs. “I had a bath – and that was the first bath I’ve had since… well probably back when I was in Ireland!
“That helped me sleep really well. I didn’t even know there was going to be a bath that would fit me [Whelan is 6ft 5in] but it took me, so I went for it.”
Part of the pre-match spectacle these days are shots of the player arrivals at the stadium, with the more fashion conscious and flamboyant strutting to the locker room in their finest matchday livery. Whelan isn’t sure he is going to fall into that bracket.
“I feel like sometimes that I am,” he reflects with a grin. “And then sometimes I’ll be like naaaaa… just put on a T-shirt and shorts. And this time? It was just the T-shirt and shorts.
“And the atmosphere, I soaked it all in during the pre-game. It was similar to all the other games I’ve ever played in really – but just with maybe 50,000 more people.”
Whelan would go on to play his part in the Packers’ victory.
He had five punts in the game, including a monster 68-yarder, from the Green Bay 32 to the Chicago end zone.
Whelan also has the role of holder for Packers kicker Anders Carlson, who was perfect on the day, including kicking a 52-yard field goal. Carlson, the younger brother of Las Vegas Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson, is also in his rookie NFL season.
“We have both just been going through each day together, you know?” says Whelan. “I have actually started to love holding – I didn’t used to but now I probably hold more than I punt. We get points for the team so that’s the most important part.
“As for the punting, I am just doing my job so if I can do my best, I’ll put the defence in pretty good field position.
“I feel like when I first got here, I was trying too hard. I was just thinking too much, like I was in the big league now. But it’s the same task in hand. You need to just focus on the here and now and nothing else matters.”
Wicklow man ‘grateful’ for support from home
The 38-20 victory at the Bears was something of a statement by Green Bay, now in the post-Aaron Rodgers era. Justin Love, Rodgers’ successor at quarterback, threw for 245 yards and three touchdowns in a comprehensive victory.
“Everybody was thrilled, but not shocked – we’re a pretty good team,” says Whelan about the mood in the Packers locker room after the win.
“We are all able to play football here. It definitely gave our team a lot of confidence and self-belief. It’s now about progress each week.”
The Packers move on to another road game at the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday, before Whelan makes his home debut at the legendary Lambeau Field in Week Three against the New Orleans Saints – the team who waived him just over a year ago.
After the uncertainty of this summer, living out of a suitcase while trying to nail down a permanent place on the team roster, Whelan is now starting to get settled in Wisconsin.
“I just got an apartment,” he says. “I am stoked to be out of the hotel after something like nine months. But I am still sleeping on a mattress on the floor so far, because I don’t have a bed frame or anything yet.”
He has already overcome bigger hurdles this summer – and remains flattered by all the interest from well-wishers across the Atlantic.
“Based on articles and stuff that I’m getting tagged in, I do feel like there’s a lot of support out there and so I am pretty grateful for it,” he says.