Being on the move is nothing new for John Bickle.
His family transplanted six times as he grew up, accommodating his parents' (J.D. and Anne) work in sports ministry. That included a move from Rochester to Eau Claire, Wis., the middle of John’s junior year at Rochester Century.
That was difficult, with Bickle having established himself at Century both in sports and with a group of friends. Still, it wasn’t long before he’d done the same things at Eau Claire North, where just like at Century he was a football and baseball player and a quick maker of friends.
“It was tough to go to a new school, especially my senior year,” said Bickle, who’d been a starting quarterback in football and starting baseball infielder at Century. “That’s how it is being the new kid. But I made the most of it. I think the kids at North were excited to have a new athlete coming in. It helps being in sports because then twice as many people are reaching out to you.”
Things didn’t go perfectly in Eau Claire. Just the second game into his senior football season, Bickle — who was the team’s starting quarterback — tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder. That quickly ended his season. Bickle then spent the next six months rehabbing in order to play baseball in the spring. That worked, as he became a starting infielder on an Eau Claire North team that was ranked No. 1 in the state much of the year.
But the labrum tear set him on a new course. Bickle had prior hopes of playing college baseball, but the injury lingered enough that he knew that was no longer a viable option, nor was his dream of being a college quarterback.
Decision to make
So what was this 6-foot-1, 180-pound trained-to-play-sports guy to do?
The answer: Punt.
Bickle had averaged about 37 yards per punt his junior and senior years of high school. And who knew what he might accomplish were he to make punting his actual No. 1 thing?
The wondering has now ceased. Bickle isn’t just a punter, he’s a punting star. After one discontented year spent at the University of St. Thomas, Bickle has found a new college home, a new major and a new football team and position that suits him perfectly.
He’s landed at his parents’ alma mater, Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. He abandoned his previous major of actuarial science for business and economics, swapped one Division III school (St. Thomas was Division III when Bickle was there) for another, and one football powerhouse for another.
Wheaton College begins this season ranked No. 5 in the nation. Helping it get there has been fifth-year college senior Bickle, who’s become so laser focused on his craft that he now ranks among the top Division III punters in the country
In 2019 — the last time Wheaton College had a season due to COVID 19 — Bickle averaged a booming 40.6 yards per punt. He also knows how to take something off his kicks when needed. Bickle had 28 punts downed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line in 2019, including nine inside the 5.
All of that has drawn attention. Most noteworthy is Bickle being named to the 2021 D3 Football Preseason All-America Team.
Bickle credits the labrum injury for much of his success.
“After the injury, I decided to pivot and go all-in on punting,” he said. “I couldn’t throw the same anymore. So I went to a bunch of kicking camps and took private punting lessons. Just taking on punting allowed me to focus on the details and get really good at one thing. I’ve really liked taking a deep dive into it. To master any craft, you have to do 1,000 reps of it.”
Practice makes perfect
Bickle might be on his 2,000th rep. He made punting a daily thing this summer, between his shifts as an intern with the Eau Claire Express Northwoods League baseball team, where he worked in marketing.
Bickle talked the Wheaton College football team’s long snapper, Phil Barbar, into joining him in Eau Claire this summer. The two spent much of it working out together, Barbar long snapping the ball to his punter and the 23-year-old Bickle then booming kicks into the air.
They are quite a pair.
“Barbar has to be the best long snapper in Division III,” Bickle said. “He always gets the laces up and always gets off a good snap.”
Bickle says both guys have upped their games. Bickle has done his part by “upping” his punts.
“My main area of improvement has been my hang time,” Bickle said. “That is the main goal of any punter.”
Bickle’s original goal was to just hang in there, post labrum injury. But now, the sky’s the limit. His life and his punts are booming.