LONDON – When Denver Broncos players scan the throngs of fans filing into historic Wembley Stadium on Sunday, punter Corliss Waitman will be the one to find the most familiar faces.
“It will be a little weird,” Waitman said. “OK, a lot weird. Of all the things I thought could happen in football, I’m not sure I would have said I’d be back in Europe, with so many friends and family coming to see me play a game I didn’t really know anything about until I was in high school. That isn’t something I could have predicted.”
Waitman, 27, was born in Belgium and lived in the Netherlands until he moved with his father to Florida to attend high school. He holds dual citizenship in the Netherlands and United States.
“I had to ask them which passport they wanted when it was time to get ready for this trip,” he said.
The Broncos, who last played at Wembley in 2010, will face the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at 9:30 a.m. ET, streaming exclusively on ESPN+. Waitman purchased 18 tickets for friends and family, including his mother, Aldolphine, who lives in Amsterdam and hasn’t seen Waitman play in an NFL game in person.
Watch live on Oct. 30: Broncos vs. Jaguars in London, only on ESPN+
It all will be a connect-the-dots moment Sunday for a player who has spent time with four teams over the last two years — the Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders, New England Patriots and now the Broncos — and been waived four times.
The Broncos claimed him off waivers in February and he won a battle for the job when veteran Sam Martin suffered a preseason ankle injury and wouldn’t take a pay cut. With the Broncos only scoring eight touchdowns all season, they have kept Waitman busy. He’s currently tied for the league lead in punts (39) and leads in punts downed inside the 20-yard line (18).
“Corliss is someone that is really talented,” Broncos general manager George Paton said. “ … He has the big leg, lefty, and we just thought he had [a] unique combination of hangtime, directional, very good athlete, very good holder.”
Waitman’s father, Jose, played professional basketball in Europe for 15 seasons and was the MVP of the Dutch leagues in 1986-87. Waitman lived in the Netherlands with his mother until his father returned to the United States and settled in Pensacola, Florida.
Jose Waitman died from complications from a stroke in 2013, at 49, and Waitman lived with his grandfather until he went to play football at South Alabama University.
“I didn’t really do much with football when I was in Europe,” Waitman said with a laugh. “I was all about soccer and basketball and some track. But Michael Vick, for whatever reason, was huge then in Europe, or at least where I was. So everybody it seemed like knew the Falcons back then.
“I was nervous to move, you didn’t know what high school was going to be like in the U.S., it was really only what I had seen in the movies, Like ‘The Breakfast Club’ or something, just what you saw on the movies. So, when you’re a teenager, you don’t know, was it like bullies and the jocks battling all the time like in the movies?’’
It didn’t take long for Waitman to discover the athletic pecking order. Football was king. When Waitman arrived as a sophomore he started off by handling some kickoff duties for the Milton High School football team before being named an all-state punter his senior year.
“Soccer is just the No. 1 sport in Europe, nobody I knew played anything else really,” Waitman said. “Then I move to Florida, soccer wasn’t really a thing when I was in high school, it was a lot more casual, and I wasn’t used to that. … It just looked more serious to me, but I was playing basketball, soccer and some track, so didn’t really go all the way into it until my senior year when they needed a kicker.’’
That led him to South Alabama, where his father had played basketball. Toss in the quirky odyssey of a punter or kicker trying to carve out a spot in the NFL, which is often multiple years of an assortment of workouts and Waitman said “I’ve been kind of out on my own since college.’’
His 10-punt extravaganza in the Broncos’ Week 3 win over the San Francisco 49ers included six landing inside the 49ers’ 20-yard line and four inside the San Francisco 13-yard line. He was named AFC special teams player of the week. His fiery coach, Dwayne Stukes, has said he has to keep Waitman from being too aggressive at times.
“At times he gets greedy, and it might be me trying to push him a little bit, saying we definitely need this ball inside of the 10-yard line,” Stukes said.
When the NFL released the 2022 season schedule in May, Waitman ran his finger down the Broncos’ calendar and saw “London’’ and “Wembley Stadium’’ next to Oct. 30.
“It sort of hit me then, just looking at the schedule, if I can somehow, some way, make the team, I could play in front of my family, a lot of my friends,’’ Waitman said. “And here it is.”