From Melbourne, Australia to Montreal, Quebec: The Joe Zema story
When Joseph Zema was growing up in Melbourne, Austalia, football was the furthest thing from his mind, but kicking was something the Alouettes punter started early. His father, Nick, first taught Joe how to kick when he was three years old. Instead of kicking a CFL ball like he does now, he began kicking an Australian Rules football.
“They’re a little rounder,” he explained. “They’re easier to kick and not as pointy as the American balls.”
It wasn’t until 2017 that he began kicking a gridiron football, which is hard to believe when you watch him punt today. In less than three CFL seasons, he has already developed into one of the elite punters in the league.
As you’d imagine, it took a lot of work for him to get to this point of his career. Zema started out by trying to make a career out of playing Australian Rules Football. He was scouted and was able to progress through the ranks, but when he hit 22 years old, he was looking for a different challenge.
Although he had heard of American football, it wasn’t something he was overly familiar with. The only NFL games that aired in Australia were the ones played on Sunday nights, and because of the time zone he found himself in, he would have to watch those live on Monday mornings at home.
“I watched the Super Bowl in 2015 and 2016,” Zema explained. “I remember watching the Falcons vs. Patriots Super Bowl.
“I never bought the Madden video game. I had heard about U.S. football because I had a longer kick in Australian Football, and some guys told me I should go punt footballs.”
Eventually, he was curious enough about the sport that he did some research, which led him to ProKick Australia, which is an organization that aims to help punters earn football scholarships to U.S. universities. ProKick Australia is run by Nathan Chapman, who was a member of the Green Bay Packers, and John Smith, who was an NFL and CFL free agent kicker in the 1980’s.
Zema worked with ProKick Australia beginning in 2015 and he eventually landed a college football opportunity with the University of Incarnate Word Cardinals whose campus is in San Antonio, Texas.
“(Incarnate Word) had a guy, Hunter Holmes, who was working there, and he knew about ProKick Australia,” the 28-year-old said. “He reached out to me at the last minute…They were a school that were able to accept me. I think he pulled a few strings to get me there (laughs). I had my visa by mid-July and landed on August 5th. I missed all of summer training and fall camp. I went in, had a few weeks of practice, and played straight away.”
Not only did Incarnate Word give him his first opportunity to play American football, it’s also where he met Ariana Cortez, who is now his wife. Eight months ago, the couple welcomed their first child, Nicholas James, into the world.
Zema only had one season of NCAA eligibility remaining when he got to Incarnate Word, so he couldn’t continue playing at the college level after the 2017 season. After attending multiple NFL workouts, he signed with the Alliance of American Football’s San Antonio Commanders in 2019.
Eight weeks into their inaugural season, the AAF announced that the league was suspending all football operations. The players found out in the middle of practice. They were asked to clear their lockers and never come back.
And just like that, he became a free agent.
He was invited to the CFL’s Global Combine in 2020, but no opportunity arose from that because the league cancelled the season because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was a tough one because it was in the middle of just getting the NFL (workouts) started,” he said. “I ended up going to a couple of Jacksonville Jaguars rookie mini-camp and veteran mini-camp. It didn’t feel like (my career) was over, but I felt like I was just getting started. It was a bit of a handbrake situation. After that, I just held the faith.”
Once the CFL returned, the Alouettes made Zema the sixth overall pick in the 2021 Global Draft.
It’s fair to say that he was raw when he first arrived in Montreal. He had plenty of potential, but he had played fewer than 20 games in his career.
In his first season, he averaged 45.2 yards per punt. In year two, his average rose to 47.3 yards per punt. Through three games this season, he’s at just over 50 yards per kick. But punting isn’t just about distance. Zema has improved his hang time and he has seemingly been able to place the ball anywhere he wants on the field.
“Joe Zema has been delivering as far as punts are concerned,” Als special teams coordinator Byron Archambault said. “He had a 50-yard average kicking the ball and a 44-yard net average in our first two games. he’s been able to really dominate.
“Even though punters and kickers don’t necessarily need to know everything about the protection, he’s aware, he helps Chandler (Worthy) read opposing punters. He’s putting in a lot of extra work, and we’re reaping the benefits.”