2021 NFL Draft’s unlikeliest prospect: Zach Von Rosenberg, 30 and already a millionaire, draws buzz as punter

Zach Von Rosenberg is unlike any other prospect eligible for this year’s draft. For many reasons.

He’s 30-years-old, a full decade older, as LSU’s punter, than the kicker he was holding for. He’s already a millionaire, courtesy of his signing bonus as a former top prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. He also dabbled with playing quarterback for the Tigers when arm issues cut his pitching career short, then added 40 pounds to audition as a tight end before stumbling into his role as a backup punter and then a starter for one of the country’s top programs in recent years, racking up awards along the way.

The Louisiana native also got a chance to win a national title at the school he grew up rooting for, and is now getting significant attention from NFL scouts and special teams coaches as one of the better and more athletic punters in this draft. At 6-5, 245 pounds, and far more mature than other draft-eligible punters, with a unique perspective and life-story, he is intriguing on many levels, taking quite an unusual career arc to reach the precipice of getting an opportunity to become a professional at a second sport. And while most punters will end up signing as an undrafted free agent, Von Rosenberg is generating buzz as a possible selection in the seventh round.

“It’s bananas,” Von Rosenberg told me Thursday between Zoom calls with NFL teams and working with his strength coach. “I’m living it, but I still have to pinch myself every now and then.”

It truly is a one-of-a-kind path. He is already very financially secure for his age – cruising around campus in a BMW and living at a very nice home nearby. He has become a highly-talented prospect in a second sport – Von Rosenberg was one of the most coveted high school arms in the country (he won games to clinch the state title four straight years) when the Pirates persuaded him to forego his scholarship offer to LSU, among others. That he would eventually go from walk-on to scholarship athlete (he’s halfway through a grad degree) for that same school, in a different sport, almost defies credulity.

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Von Rosenberg has performed at a high level during his college career, but has limited punting experience overall, which made his pro day performance so important. It’s not like he has been kicking at a high level his entire life or going to elite offseason camps for the specialty as a kid – much of it was spent cultivating his arm. With no combine or personal visits or workouts for teams, this was a huge opportunity for Von Rosenberg, and he made the most of it.

“Absolutely, I believe it helped me a lot and I do have a lot more interest from teams since then,” he said. “Initially, I was getting requests for some paperwork and things like that, before my pro day, but it wasn’t so much phone calls and things like that. But since the pro day I’ve had a lot of Zoom calls and teams want to know about my personality and who I am and check my paperwork and check all those boxes that scouts have to check. There have been some teams that have asked me to tape some recent workouts – I don’t think I should share which teams – but that has picked up. So I take that as a very good sign that they are seeing what they wanted to.”

Baseball path

Von Rosenberg seemed destined for a long baseball career initially, taken in the same draft as Mike Trout, 2009, and he fell to the sixth round not because of ability but because teams figured he was destined for LSU. But things didn’t really come together, he spent parts of three season in the South Atlantic League – in West Virginia, the northernmost team in a league notorious for brutal bus trips. In 2013 future MLB stars Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell were teammates of his, and did pitch 14 games in high-A ball, but that was as far as he went. He could not maintain sensation in his pitching hand, leading to uneven results. (Oddly enough, another Pirates minor-league pitcher at the time, Hayden Hurst, got the yips and left baseball after two minor league seasons, went to South Carolina to play tight end, went on to be a first round pick of Baltimore and will finish his rookie contract with the Falcons this season).

“My middle finger, it was like it was split down the middle – the outside half was numb and the inside wasn’t,” Von Rosenberg said. “And then the next day it would linger on, and I can’t feel sensations in my outside fingers. It was kind of bizarre and it led to me having a lot of velocity issues. One outing I would be up to 95 and the next I would top out at 88.”

In his mid-20s with a career ERA of 4.52 through six seasons, with physical problems mounting and no solutions in sight, Von Rosenberg was at a crossroads. Keep up this grind and discomfort and hope something changes, or take a critical rethink of where he was and where he wanted to go. It would require saying goodbye to one lifelong dream, and finding a new passion to pursue.

“At the end of 2015 I had a lot on my mind,” he said. “It was hard to say my first dream was over, and accept that, but I was like, ‘Now is the time to create a new dream.’ And that’s how I have been my whole life; if I don’t have a goal in front of me, it’s difficult to go on with a positive attitude. Not that I get negative, but I need to have a goal to strive for, and I needed a new goal at this point. For some people, it’s a marathon. Well, I can’t run 26 miles, so I knew I’ve got to find something else to strive for.”

Transition to LSU

Returning home and playing football for LSU became that goal. In whatever capacity.

Originally, it meant quarterback. He had an elite arm he had been harnessing his entire life. Perhaps that transition could be made, given his size and athletic build. The Tigers coach at the time – longtime college and NFL QB coach/coordinator Cam Cameron –thought it was worth a shot.

“Since I was a pitcher, that was the thought process – try QB,” Von Rosenberg said. “Cam was willing to give me a shot and thought I had a chance to walk on and have meaningful playing time, but I don’t think he meant at QB. And then the first open spot became tight end.”

Yeah, he wasn’t going to beat Danny Etling (currently a backup in Seattle) out for a spot, and the playbook and nuances of that position were overwhelming. But he had the size for tight end … although not the weight. Not even close. So he set about gaining 40 pounds ASAP.

“Oh my god, I ate like four breakfast sandwiches every day before 10 a.m.,” Von Rosenberg said. “I drank 4000 calories of shakes a day. I was miserable.” Then, chuckling, “I don’t like reflecting back on that.”

Um, then there were the physical requirements for the job – particularly taking on some of the best athletes in the SEC each day on the other side of the ball in practice. “Pretty quick I got sick of getting thrown around by Arden Key and those guys,” he said. “Blocking them was not very fun.”

A new position: punter

Suffice to say the transition was not exactly going swimmingly when one day Cameron caught Von Rosenberg booting a bunch of punts before practice. Van Rosenberg played soccer through middle school and was always known for having a natural ability to strike the ball with force and carry, and when his team’s punter got hurt in high school he was asked to try out and ended up handling those duties his final two years of high school.

Cameron noticed him arching the ball, and the QB and TE experiment was over.

“He came up to me and said I have a big leg and he thinks I can be the backup punter,” Von Rosenberg said. “And I was able to win that job and a year later I had the starting job.”

Roughly eight years had passed since he has punted a ball in any sort of competitive manner (“I guess you could say I had a rested leg,” he quipped), but now a new pursuit was at hand. He had redshirted in 2016, but made the 2017 SEC All-Freshman team and served as punter for four years in all, averaging 44 yards for punt. He became one of the nation’s most accomplished punters, pushing himself along the way.

“I just kind of retaught myself kicking,” he said, “watching YouTube videos and trying to mimic left footed punter in the game, guys like Tress Way. I tried to roll that into my everyday routine and copycatted what they were doing.”

By his third year on the team it was clear gains were being made – recording NFL-caliber hang times – and soon Van Rosenberg, despite his advanced age, began to realize a 10-year pro career might still be ahead of him, with specialists regularly thriving into their late 30s or later.

And, well, it was also time to move on. Being in college at age 30 sounds like fun – and it was – but there’s a time and place for everything.

“At LSU it started getting weirder the longer I was there,” he said. “There are incoming freshmen this year born in like 2004 or something like that, and it’s like I was 14 and you were just being born. It started getting a little strange. When I first got here it was no big deal because of the fifth-year seniors around; but now I’m 30 and there are 17-year-old kids on the team, but it was so much fun.”

He became known for his financial advice on campus relatively quickly – as someone who got $1.2M from the Pirates, something even coach Ed Orgeron, who took over for Cameron, would note from time to time.

“My teammates would ask me a lot about finances,” Von Rosenberg said. “Should they invest in Bitcoin or crypto-currency? Just investing in general. Which mutual funds they should choose when they go pro. Coach O even made a joke like, ‘Zach, how is your 401K doing?’ They heard that and then all of a sudden I’m a financial guru. So that sort of became my niche. I’d get a lot of questions about how to manage finances, and I need to go on the record again and say that I am definitely not a financial advisor.”

Movie-worthy ending?

But, chances are, Von Rosenberg is about to start cashing pro paychecks again, very soon. So his portfolio will indeed be expanding, whether he manages it or a trained pro. (Bet on the trained pro).

No more seven-figure bonuses as an entry-level punter, mind you, but another chapter of his amazing journey is about to commence. For what it’s worth, a few years back he came across a Disney graphic designer who urged Van Rosenberg to keep a detailed journal, chronicling the minutia of his climb … Which just might be the basis of a too-good-to-be-true screenplay if this story keeps unfolding the way it has the last few years.

At this point, with this athlete, anything seems possible. And no ending is too crazy to believe.

“It’s pretty crazy to think about playing in the NFL,” he said. “Especially when I was a walk-on my first two years. My dream was just to punt at LSU and then I got a scholarship, too. I can’t complain at all and my time there really was special and my family was there for the whole rise, too. It’s still surreal to everybody in my family. We still can’t really believe it.”