YOU DON'T have to be around John Hinchen very long to see that he has an almost constant smile on his face. And there's a simple explanation for that.
"I've really had a lucky life," Villanova's fourth-year junior punter readily acknowledged. "There's no reason for me not to be smiling."
And that can be infectious.
"He's just one of those guys," said Joe Trainer, the Wildcats' special teams coordinator. "He's very engaging. He has the ability to laugh at himself. And he's a bit of a (buster). You love that.
"Kickers can be off in their own little world. He's right in the mix with everyone else. He's got friends everywhere. He's got kind of like an iconic personality about him that the whole team embraces."
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Hinchen spent the first 10 years of his life in Melbourne, Australia. His family then moved to northern New Jersey because of his father's job. Back home, Stuart Hinchen played Australian rules football for 13 seasons. So that's what John did too, along with his younger brother Robert, who's now a linebacker at Lafayette. They also were into cricket and surfing.
"It's definitely a different world (over there)," he said. "But when dad says we go, we go.
"When we came over, I was looking at soccer or football. I chose football because I like tackling. At least back when I actually played (a position). I was a wide receiver and defensive back."
Eventually he focused on punting at Northern Highlands High in Allendale where he also kicked field goals.
"I got retired for a reason," he said. It took me awhile to learn the rules. I'm not going to lie about that. It's tough out there. It's pretty barbaric. The contact's different. A wide receiver goes over the middle and gets his head knocked off. When you don't have a helmet, you're not leading with your head. It's more hitting at the waist and grabbing the legs than trying to knock someone over. That's what I was used to growing up. Punting is kind of like rugby."
So how about cricket?
"It's like a fine dance, almost, very complex," said Hinchen, who's averaging 40.6 yards on 24 punts for 14th-ranked Villanova (4-1, 2-0 Colonial Athletic Association), which hosts Rhode Island (1-4, 0-2) Saturday afternoon. "Once you get it . . . When I came here I (also) played baseball. I was a lot better at punting. I was really good at hitting a fastball, but I couldn't hit a curveball. That was it."
And then there were the cultural differences. Sometimes it's the little stuff.
"What you first notice is the pace," Hinchen said. "Here it was much more, I don't want to say uptight, but on the go. Not necessarily as friendly. Back home they're pretty laid back. But we fit in pretty seamlessly."
Except maybe for the accent.
"That's always helped, actually," he noted. "It's a conversation starter.
"We go back every year to visit my grandmother. And they tell me, 'Oh, you have an American accent.' But only for the first few days. It's the same thing when I come back here. By now it's kind of fazed away a little."
Of course he misses parts of his former world. Yet at this point he admits to being "entrenched" in this country. When he's back there his grandmother makes him lemon slice, which is "like a cake." And Anzac bisquits, which resemble an oatmeal cookie. Then it's off to find a suitable meat pie (maybe steak and mushroom) and/or sausage roll. And no, the beer of choice is not necessarily Foster's lager. More like Victoria Bitter, or VB, which is made by the same company. His family even found a bakery in Brooklyn, N.Y., that had some of their favorites. But for the most part they had to have Aussie food shipped to them.
He's had a few cheesesteaks, although he noted that being out late on a weekend night might have had something to do with that. And he's been to an Outback steakhouse. But only once. Ask him why and he just shakes his head, as if the Bloomin' Onion isn't something you'd find at a proper pub.
He still watches their version of football, which just held its version of the Super Bowl. "We taped it," Hinchen said, almost apologetically. "I wasn't staying up 'til 4 in the morning."
As far as on the field goes, he's also become the holder on placements. "I've expanded my résumé," he said. "Now I have two thankless jobs." Two weeks ago at Lafayette he threw a pass off a fake field goal. But he threw it low. And even though the receiver caught the ball the Wildcats didn't gain the necessary yardage.
"Plenty of people have reminded me," said Hinchen, the second-oldest of six children. "In high school I did that on a fake punt. So I have a tendency to throw it low. I just point to the stat sheet. It says 1-for-1. For all I know it was a line-drive strike."
In the opener at Pitt he had to make a tackle on a punt return, for the second time in his career.
"It was a little scary," he said. "Just kind of take a run at him and hope he falls. He was bigger than me, and faster. I played the role of the human speed bump, trying to slow him down and hope the calvary comes."
Earlier this year his father was diagnosed with leukemia. Fortunately one of Stuart's three siblings, a sister, turned out to be a match and the bone-marrow transplant was successful. The story especially hits home because Wildcat coach Andy Talley has been heavily involved with the donor program for over two decades. Like his teammates, Hinchen is on the registry and even made it to the second stage of the process once.
"You just have to think things happen for a reason," said Hinchen, an economics and communications major who wants to follow his father's path and become an entrepreneur. "I'm living a life that most people only dream of. I hope I've been a positive influence. You can only be who you are . . . Everyone's got a role to play, and I'm happy doing mine."