Minium: Aussie Family of Football Punter Ethan Duane Came to ODU to See Him and meet His “Adopted” Family
NORFOLK, Va. – Imagine you’re a married couple in Melbourne, Australia, and when Covid hit the world in 2020, your 19-year-old son, the oldest of your four children, was attending Old Dominion University,10,000 miles away.
That’s what Scott and Kirsten Duane faced as Covid began to shut down activity across the world. Australia quickly banned flights from other countries, a ban that lasted nearly two years, and ODU shut its doors.
They feared their son, ODU football punter Ethan Duane, might be left to his own devices in a foreign country and felt powerless to help him.
Before that all occurred, something magical happened, and it reflects so well on ODU quarterback Hayden Wolff, his family, his girlfriend’s family and the Monarch football program.
Ethan had been on campus only a few months when players began to leave campus for spring break.
Wolff was already at his girlfriend’s home in Florida when it occurred to him that Ethan had no place to go. He didn’t know Ethan well, they’d only spoken a few times, but Hayden is a guy who cares about all his teammates.
So, he called and offered him a place to stay. Elated, Ethan booked a ticket and flew out the next day.
“I thought I’d be in Florida a few days,” Ethan said.
Little did he know that he would be in Florida for eight months, nor that he would be unable to travel home for two years.
In the two years he was separated from his flesh and blood, Ethan was essentially adopted by three Florida families.
Hayden’s mother, Lori Emery and her boyfriend, Marc Schmiedicke; Hayden’s father, Jim, and his wife Anaila Wolff, and Jeff Fraser and Betsy Steiner-Fraser, the parents of Sophie Fraser, Hayden’s long-time girlfriend, all welcomed Ethan into their homes.
Each week Lori Emery would either text or speak by Zoom to Ethan’s parents. She generally doted on him like she does her sons, Hayden and Weston, who plays football at Maryland.
Duane went to Florida for Christmas, spring break and summer break. He always had presents at Christmas and became like brothers to Hayden and Weston.
“Words will never express how much we appreciate how Lori and everyone else went out of their way to take care of our son,” said Kirsten Duane. “They truly are family. We love them just like family.”
This fall, shortly after Australia lifted the travel ban, Duane’s family, including sisters Piper (19), Remy (17) and Maya (13), finally ventured to the United States to see him and meet their American families.
They stayed in Virginia Beach and Norfolk for two weeks, took in a couple of Monarch games, and became even closer with the families they had never met before. They cried when they met Lori Emery and the others. They cried when they finally went home.
They learned that college football is unlike anything they’ve seen and that for all the negative stereotypes of Americans, that we’re really pretty good folk.
And they reconfirmed their belief that Ethan was in good hands.
Piper was the first to come to America in that she made it the last leg on a three-month vacation to Europe. She took over Ethan’s bed in a four-room house in Larchmont while he slept on the couch and spent a week with her brother and getting to know his teammates.
Ethan’s roommates are an amalgam of cultures. You have an Australian and Wolff along with placekicker Dominik Soos, who is from Budapest, Hungary and long snapper B.R. Hatcher from South Carolina who says he speaks “red neck.”
English in America and Australia are very different dialects and Ethan had some difficult moments trying to understand his teammates. At first, Dominik and Ethan didn’t even try. Their accents were far too different.
Piper was introduced to the unique American tradition called tailgating during ODU’s opener against Virginia Tech.
“I kept asking questions because I had no idea what to expect,” she said.
It was unlike anything she’d ever seen.
Tailgating is truly an American invention and the family gushed at how much camaraderie there is among ODU families. They met and partied with the family of safety Colten Hicks and R’Tarriun Johnson.
“It’s the best thing ever,” Remy said.
Piper said “It didn’t take long for me to figure out Ethan has great teammates. It made me feel good to know he’s at ODU.”
The family’s first football game was ODU’s Sept. 7 game at East Carolina. The following week, the Monarchs defeated Arkansas State at home, and Scott Duane said that’s when he began to understand why his son came to America.
There is no such thing as college sports in Australia and even Australian Rules Football teams have a limited following because there are so many. With a population of five million, the greater Melbourne area has six teams.
When Ethan started training to learn how to punt in American football, Scott says he was skeptical.
“We just did not realize at all the scale of American college football,” he said. “So, when Ethan literally worked four and five jobs to pay for this, we weren’t sure what to think.
“When he got here and we started watching games on TV, we started to figure out it was a bit bigger than what we thought.”
They were all blown away by their first live football games.
The pregame ceremonies at ODU, with videos, a flyover and fireworks “was so exciting for us,” Remy said. “It was a bit overwhelming the first time I saw it.”
Lori and the Duane family headed to Florida between games and they learned something else about America. While Australia has bush fires it does not have hurricanes. And when they arrived in Englewood, Florida, Hurricane Ian was bearing down.
Their flights back to Norfolk were cancelled, so they all got in a car and drove back to Norfolk. Ian’s eye passed right over Englewood, and while Lori Emery’s house was undamaged, some of her neighbors lost everything.
An attorney, Lori could not return to work for almost a month. “The hurricane was just devastating,” she said.
Lori doesn’t like to drive long distances, so Scott did most of the driving. It was his first time driving on the right side of the road.
“Weston called and said with the two of us driving, we had a 50/50 chance of surviving,” Lori said.
But they all survived and enjoyed watching Ethan and Hayden both play well in the victory over Arkansas State.
Scott wore an orange hat so that Ethan could see him from the field and Maya wore an ODU hat with 95, Ethan’s jersey number embroidered on the back.
She stood almost the entire game, pounding thunder sticks together and screaming so loud you could hear her in the east stands.
I met the family, Lori, Sophie and Peter on the top floor of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Norfolk, and for 90 minutes, it was non-stop talk. When I listen to the recording, it’s hard to discern who or how many people were talking.
“That’s what I missed most of all when I came to America,” Ethan said. “The noise. I love to hear my family talk.”
It was clear that although they’d only seen each other in person for a week, there is genuine love and family camaraderie.
They told a ton of good stories, but the best was about Ethan’s trip home last December, his first trip home in nearly two years.
Scott began planning for it early in the 2021 football season, and when ODU lost six of its first seven games, he figured it would be easy to get him home on time because the Monarchs appeared unlikely to play in a bowl game.
“But they just kept winning and winning,” Scott said. “It was so exciting. But on the other side of the world, I’m thinking we’ll never get him here.”
Not to worry. The Monarchs played in the Myrtle Beach bowl and coach Ricky Rahne arranged for Ethan to be on the first flight out of South Carolina on Dec. 23.
Ethan’s trip home was supposed to be a secret, but Piper threw a wrench into his plans. She told Ethan that she was going to visit him, and he kept putting her off.
“He told me I don’t want you coming out here,” she said. “I don’t want you to waste your time.
“I’ve got to focus on things. I won’t have time to see you much.
“I thought I’d lost my marbles. I had a little bit of a fit and then cried and cried.”
Scott finally cornered her in her room and told her that Ethan was coming home, but whatever you do, don’t tell anyone.
Kirsten was also asking uncomfortable questions. She kept asking Lori about Christmas presents.
“I asked Ethan, ‘how am I going to keep putting your mom off?'” Lori said. “She’s going to think I’m ignoring her.”
Meanwhile, the family was told that Ethan went to Utah on a vacation trip with Sophie and Hayden. Family members wanted to see photos and were upset when Ethan wasn’t in any of them.
“Meanwhile,” Scott said, “Ethan was on an 18-hour flight.”
Kirsten took her mother to a hospital on Christmas Eve day to have lung surgery. She then went home and was non-plussed when Scott told her he had to go to work.
“You never go to work the day before Christmas,” Maya said.
Somehow, he got out the door and went to the airport to pick up Ethan.
Piper was dressed up and set up a camera to capture the moment when Ethan walked in. Remy and Maya asked her why she was acting so strange, and she just smiled.
Minutes later, Ethan came walking in the door. Kirsten had just taken a giant swallow of tea and spit it out when she saw her son for the first time in two years.
The video is an endearing tribute to a family’s love. There were tears galore and Kirsten hugged her son and would not let him go.
Ten minutes later, her mom walked in the door. Her surgeon had been called to do emergency surgery elsewhere.
When nurses told her she had to go home, she said, “You’ve made my day. My grandson is coming home today, and now I get to see him.”
Ethan has emerged as one of the nation’s best punters, and likely the most effective in the Sun Belt Conference.
He’s averaged 43.1 yards per punt, 40th among the 131 FBS schools, but often sacrifices distance for the good of the team. He’s placed 26 punts inside the 20.
ODU’s special teams, especially the punt team, has been a bright spot in what has largely been a disappointing season. The Monarchs travel to South Alabama for their final game of the season Saturday at 3-8 overall and 2-5 in the Sun Belt.
Ethan’s family left America in October, satisfied that their brother and son is in good hands.
“I love Americans,” Maya said. “Everyone’s been so nice, so friendly and kind and welcoming.
“Someday I want to move to America. Americans are the best.”
When I asked them all to describe Lori and her family, I was met largely with silence.
“They’re just so amazing,” Remy said. “I’m so glad they came into Ethan’s life.”
Across the table, Ethan’s parents were shedding tears.
“I know it’s been hard to be his parents and not see him in person,” Sophie said. “Having Miss Lori there to parent him and the whole family to help was such a relief.
“I think it settled them down and made it feel like he had a home and was loved and looked after.”
Lori said Kirsten missed her son terribly. “She would just ask me, how’s Ethan doing? Could you send me pictures?
“It’s been good for them, but it’s definitely been good for me. It’s been so good to do everything I could do to help him.”
Kirsten cleared her eyes and said, “One thing I think I understand now is how people fall in love online,” she said, “We all love each other but we just met each other physically.”
Scott and Kirsten will soon be reunited with Lori and Marc Schmiedicke in January. Scott will be in Orlando on business, so they will meet and do Disney together.
“We’re family now,” Scott said. “This won’t be the last time we see each other.
“We’re family for life.”
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