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The Irish origin is only one unusual piece to this Packers story

From towels in a spa to snaps in a kitchen, new punter Daniel Whelan took unlikely path to NFL job

P Daniel Whelan
P Daniel Whelan

GREEN BAY – Just the basics of new Packers punter Daniel Whelan's story sound improbable enough.

Born in Ireland, moves to the United States at age 13, is persuaded by the high school football coach as a 17-year-old junior to try his rugby and soccer skills as a kicker, lands at UC-Davis and punts for five seasons, gets nowhere in a brief stint with the Saints as an undrafted rookie, earns All-XLF honors to garner a shot with the Packers, and then beats out a 10-year vet for the gig in Green Bay.

Like, you're kidding, right?

But when more details fill in the rest of the narrative, it becomes an even more remarkable tale.

Such as how after the Saints released him before training camp got rolling (just 2½ months after signing him), he spent two months working at a hotel spa back home in California trying to figure out what to do next, which turned out to be the XFL.

"I folded towels for about eight hours a day," he said, before going on to rate the job. "I'd give it about a four. Four out of 10."

Or how since arriving in Green Bay in mid-May, he spent OTAs working with long snappers Matt Orzech and Broughton Hatcher, as well as special teams assistant coaches Byron Storer and Kyle Wilber, to get 250-300 holds per day, trying to perfect a skill he knew would play a big part in his potential NFL future.

Even when he went back to California during the break between minicamp and training camp, he had his mom flip him underhanded snaps so he could practice his holds.

"They're not good but it helps you work on bad-ball drills," Whelan joked regarding his mom's efforts. "Just on my knee in the kitchen. She's throwing whatever she can. 'Hey mom, can you throw me some snaps? I need to get some holds in.' And she'd do it."

And then there's the culmination, at least for now, when he got a text from Storer on Monday letting him know he'd won the job over incumbent punter Pat O'Donnell.

He didn't quite believe it at first, partly because it was the day before roster cuts were due to the league, so he wasn't expecting any news before Tuesday. But also because he'd looked up to O'Donnell while in college, watching him and trying to mimic his game, only now to actually be taking his job.

"I was like, 'What? For real?'" he said. "Then a couple hours later, people were saying congratulations and things like that, so I was like, OK. Wow."

He couldn't have been more thankful for everything O'Donnell, who spent eight years with the Bears and one with the Packers, did to show him the ropes. There were never any questions about the 6-5, 216-pound Whelan's big leg, and he impressed with high hang times and booming punts all spring and summer.

But he said just watching O'Donnell hold for placekicks – along with his own diligent, repetitive practicing – helped him learn to perform the crucial duty, which he'd done since part way through his college career, more efficiently.

"His poise, just the same every time. Same, same, same every time," Whelan said of O'Donnell's holds, which helped smooth out the Packers' kicking operation in 2022 after a rough season with punter Corey Bojorquez in '21. "Don't think about it. Just do it. He didn't have to say much. Just how he did it and approached it helped me a lot.

"He actually left me a note in my locker with some kind words, so I reached out to him and talked to him. I appreciated working with him. I love him. Great dude. He helped me become what I am right now, so I'm very grateful for him, being here."

What Whelan is about to become is the first Irish-born player to play in the NFL since 1985. Kicker Neil O'Donoghue was a fifth-round draft choice by Buffalo in 1977 who also played for Tampa Bay and then spent the last six of his nine pro seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Whelan hadn't heard of O'Donoghue until just the other day, when someone posted on social media some kind words from O'Donoghue, presumably via an interview he had given about Whelan possibly following in his long-ago Irish footsteps.

"Just get ready to play in the snow," Whelan said of the message. "Do your best and I'll be watching."

The pending cold weather isn't actually foreign to Whelan, who played college games in Montana and South Dakota in some chilly and mildly snowy conditions. He doesn't think he'll have any major issues adjusting.

For now, his mind is more on the opener at Soldier Field in a little over a week, thinking about the first time he'll trot out there to stand 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage and swing away …

"I've already tried to visualize it, where it's going to be, so I can get my best punt," he said. "It's good to be nervous. You can't not be. It's the first regular-season game of the season against Chicago. It's crazy. Can't ask for a better picture."

Or a more unlikely story.

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