Valparaiso University football senior Ben Niesner’s path to competing in the sport at the Division-I level is far from traditional.
The Valpo punter, who earned all-Pioneer Football League Honorable Mention for his performance during his first season on campus in 2019, didn’t compete in a single snap of high school football. His prep athletic participation was confined to the hardwood, where he competed in two years of varsity basketball.
“I always loved football, but I was too small to play,” Niesner said. “I used to play for fun with my friends in the backyard. I enjoyed watching game film and highlights on YouTube of punters and kickers. I was intrigued by the fact that they were my size, and I realized that was something I could do.”
From there, the Black Diamond, Wash. native began teaching himself how to punt. Despite never playing organized football, Niesner was ranked as the best punter in his class in the state of Washington. He began working with former University of Utah punter Tom Hackett, who received the Ray Guy Award as college football’s top punter in 2014 and 2015. Hackett, a two-time All-American, was a practice squad player for the New York Jets in 2016.
“Tom taught me how to do rugby-style punts, which is what many coaches around the country are looking for,” he said. “He mentored me and was very beneficial in my training.”
Niesner started his college career at his dream school, Oregon State, in 2016. He was told he could walk on when the season started, but the opportunity fell through, so with the help of Hackett he reached out to every school in the country and landed at Portland State for the 2017 season.
“I grinded extremely hard, but I was told I wasn’t going to be a starter and they were bringing in a scholarship player,” Niesner said. “I knew my options were to move again or meet the situation head on. I chose to take it head on and trained with Tom even more. I learned different punts and ways I could outperform the starter. It worked, as I earned an opportunity and they told me I was going to be the starter the following season.”
Niesner started working with former Western Carolina punter Ian Berryman, who began his college career as a walk-on and went on to earn All-American status. Berryman attended training camp and competed in four preseason games with the Pittsburgh Steelers and later signed with the New York Jets.
“Ian taught me how to refine my spirals, and I ended up starting that next season at Portland State,” Niesner said. “I wasn’t enjoying school there and needed a change of scenery, so I decided to transfer again after the 2018 season.”
During Niesner’s time at Oregon State, he had developed a close friendship with Jonathan Temple. The two lived in the same building and spent significant time together on weekends. However, they went their separate ways after one year when Temple transferred to Modesto Junior College in California to play baseball and Niesner transferred to Portland State. When Niesner began his search for a home for the 2019 fall season, he learned that his old friend had committed to play baseball at Valparaiso University beginning in 2019-20.
“We kept in touch during the time apart after we both transferred from Oregon State,” Temple said. “When I made the decision to attend Valpo, I expressed to Ben that he should look into it and it may be a good fit for both of us. He has some family in the Chicagoland area. Now that we’re both here, we’ve reunited and remain close friends. We’ve been there for each other during all the uncertainty created by the pandemic.”
The connection to Temple helped Niesner find the perfect fit on head coach Landon Fox’s team.
“I knew I wanted to be the starter wherever I went, and Valpo made it apparent that they wanted my skills with both rugby and spiral punts,” Niesner said. “I had never been to Indiana before. I love our coaches. Coach Fox, (special teams coordinator) Coach (Jon) Robinson and all of the other staff members have been very welcoming. I ended up doing five or six different types of punts in games last season. I know I can be the top punter in our league, so that’s what I’m working toward.”
Niesner averaged 39.4 yards per punt over 65 punts in 2019, the best mark by a Valpo punter with at least 20 punts since Greg Wood’s 40.9 yard average in 2012. He ranked fifth in the league in yards per punt, knocked 12 punts inside the 20 and had six boots of 50 yards or longer. He has also found success with fake punts, running one for 22 yards at Portland State and one for 11 yards during the 2019 season at Valpo.
“Ben is a guy who is going to work hard on a daily basis,” Fox said. “There are no days off for him. This is his passion. Whatever you do in life, you have to find a passion for it, and he loves to punt. He likes the weight room and he likes working out. He utilizes a lot of resources and works on something different in terms of becoming a better punter every day. He watches a lot of film. He is always trying to get better, and that’s the most important thing we ask for out of our student-athletes.”
Niesner became just the third player from his high school to play Division-I football, and he did so without ever playing in a game at the high school level. He plans to sustain his commitment to his craft to continue his positive progression.
“While I was at Portland State, it hit me that I could actually see myself being just as good as punters who have played in the NFL,” Niesner said. “I think I’ve found my talent that I’ve been searching for since I was little. I played junior football for a year and I played baseball and basketball, but I just didn’t fit in with any sport. I’ve realized that I don’t want to be complacent with saying I’m a Division-I punter, I want to make it past college football. I’m the only punter in our league who uses five or six different types of punts. I believe I’ve found my niche and I can use that to be successful going forward.”